In 2013, Dr. T. J. Harper directed the Massachusetts Music Educators Association (MMEA) Central District Festival Chorus — a chorus I was fortunate to be part of in my senior year of high school. Our finale was a piece of traditional Visayan folk music arranged by George Hernandez, called “Rosas Pandan.” The piece captures an uproarious joy with vivid, blossoming dynamics spread across four parts, telling the story of a young woman from the mountains who arrives at a festival to share the gift of her song.
Rosas Pandan, arranged by George Hernandez, as performed by the Philippine Madrigal Singers. The rich, exuberant harmonies and staccato notes give the piece a sense of excitement and bouncing momentum. These performers are much more pleasant to hear than a swath of sweaty high schoolers.
Performing “Rosas Pandan” is to be surrounded by warmth — joyful voices draped over me like strings of red ribbon and sunlight. I could imagine myself there, hundreds of years ago, at a spring festival where rosy-cheeked laughter and flower petals fluttered on the breeze. The song became a high-speed vehicle through time itself. For just a little while I was the choir kid version of Marty McFly, and the performance was my rose-colored DeLorean.
Immersion is one of the primary goals in any form of art. Inviting the audience into the worlds we create leaves a lasting impression, a core memory. When I play games, I am always chasing a new “Rosas Pandan.” Tailored to the given environment, playstyle, and mental state of the main characters, game soundtracks have a unique potential for total immersion by virtue of existing in an interactive medium. Music is not a passive experience supplemental to footage or art — it is a living extension of the game world itself, one that you are actively participating in.
FromSoftware has long established its presence in the AAA circuit as a purveyor of dark high fantasy with a somewhat steep (and at times arcane) learning curve. Like a merchant beckoning players into a damp alleyway by the light of a single lantern, titles like Dark Souls, Bloodborne, Sekiro, and now Elden Ring invite us into a world of nightmares, the likes of which we have never seen. While Elden Ring is viscerally effective in creating immersive atmosphere, exploration, and combat, it is severely lacking in one core aspect: its soundtrack. Given the game’s decidedly grim, ethereal, and medieval stylings, there are some sorely missed opportunities for a stunning score.
A collection of madrigals composed by Carlo Gesualdo. Gesualdo was particularly known for his liberal use of chromatic keys, which gave his music a distinct and somewhat unsettling tone for an average listener of his time. Chromatic keys were not often used in popular composition again until the Romantic period, where many composers revisited Gesualdo’s work in attempts to emulate his sound. The first song here, “Se la mia morte brami,” would fit perfectly into the world of Elden Ring.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Elden Ring’s score is that it is very utilitarian; the music serves its purpose for a given situation, but doesn’t leave a particularly memorable impression beyond that. The score sounds appropriately sad or frightening when it needs to, and not much else. Given the rich history of music in the time period Elden Ring draws from, the soundtrack’s lack of personality truly stings.
One popular and distinct compositional form from the middle ages is the madrigal — archaeologists have preserved quite a number of madrigals in the specter of the 15th and 16th centuries. Within this single genre of composition, one can find nearly every emotional facet of the human experience. Whether joy, exaltation, heartache, deep sorrow, or rage, the medieval aesthetic captured in the form of harmonized, heart-wrenching voices would perfectly serve the setting of Elden Ring. The choir kid in me weeps at their absence.
Some cherished few games have successfully emulated (and innovated on) musical conventions of the past to create a breathtaking atmosphere. The Nier series, scored by lead composer Keiichi Okabe and his studio band Monaca, is my go-to in this department. Blending the discordant tones of Gregorian chants and marimba percussion with modern production techniques parallels the larger narrative of both games, where the legacy of humanity creates an endless cycle of other beings attempting to mimic and defy their supposed ancestors. Axiom Verge 2 takes place in a world resembling ancient Mesopotamia with strange instances of advanced technology (you don’t typically find nanomachines in clay jars), resulting in some fascinating musical choices aided by the haunting vocal talents of Lebanese singer Mayssa Karaa. The clash of traditional folk instruments and digital synths evokes a sense of anachronistic awe. In simpler terms, it rules.
No soundtrack is quite as capable of evoking awe through musical anachronism as that of Akira, scored by Geinoh Yamashirogumi. The film is widely known for its exploration of Japanese post-war society in a gritty, futuristic world of child soldiers and human experimentation. Note the very unique and powerful use of Indonesian gamelan.
The few tracks in Elden Ring that left a strong impression on me were those that leaned more heavily into a dark contemporary classical sound. “Song of Lament,” the mournful melody that the harpy enemies sing, is sadly among the shortest tracks in the game. A full version with layered minor harmonies for a hypothetical “mother of all harpies” boss fight would be stunning. The Tibia Mariner theme delves into a Gregorian chant sound, though it lacks a sense of forward momentum that would distinguish it from your average Hollywood cinematic score.
Akiko Shikata is a contemporary classical composer best known for her work with constructed languages and intricate harmonies for the Ar Tonelico series. In the universe of Ar Tonelico, a dead language known as Hymmnos can be utilized by humans in the form of music to control ancient, godlike machinery. Note here the lyrical melodies and use of the organ to evoke a liturgical feeling.
Let’s go in on Godrick the Grafted, a song composed for the eponymous corresponding boss fight. It has some layered choral elements and the occasional hint of evocative violin, but both feel secondary to the blown-out brass and droning percussion. The mood is generically frightening, but not in any narratively nuanced way. Now imagine instead a piece with, say, 32 harmonies. Within those 32 harmonies could be the collective agony of the countless people Godrick has subsumed into himself — their cries manifested in music could powerfully represent a demigod who thirsts for power, grafting innocents into his flesh. Letting the vocals lead the composition while layering in some tense, anguished brass and violin would elevate this fight to something truly harrowing and unforgettable.
Other boss fights in Elden Ring have similar potential. Rennala, whose battle is centered around themes of motherhood, reincarnation, and witchcraft, would benefit from the stylings of famed animation composer Yuki Kajiura’s dark, new-age orchestral sound. Kajiura’s liberal use of chimes could evoke a music box or crib mobile, often associated with memory and childhood. Kajiura’s gut-wrenching strings and decadently-layered vocal harmonies also invoke a sense of longing and agony that resonates with Elden Ring’s worldbuilding goals.
Yuki Kajiura’s work on Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a great introduction to her compositional style. She is also well-known as the former composer for the band Kalafina, who performed the ending song “Magia” for PMMM.
Elden Ring has a powerful presence in its rotting visuals, challenging mechanical style, and lush worldbuilding . Its lack of a similarly strong musical identity is all the more disappointing in a game with so much going for it. From the scarlet wastes of Caelid to the golden heights of Miquella’s Haligtree, the world is brimming with life that could be expressed through sound — the atmosphere is begging for the chromatic hauntings of Gesualdo, the ancient ferocity of Keiichi Okabe’s scores.
Until the next FromSoft title drops with a mindblowing soundtrack that lives up to its rich personality, I’ll be chasing “Rosas Pandan” somewhere else.