A Journey Through Gensokyo, Part One: Listen to my Song!

by eternal on April 5, 2010


Touhou fandom is a vast, vast entity. A while ago I jotted down some tips for beginners who fear the difficulty of the game series, but as important as bullet dodging is, the franchise extends far beyond the gameplay. I’ve learned a lot about Touhou over the last few months, dedicating countless hours to filling up my doujin music library and saving new fanart. I spent some time on the ever-helpful wiki, too, trying to piece together some of the more obscure tidbits of storyline information.

As my travels through Gensokyo continued, I stumbled upon something quite interesting: Touhou sheet music. With a bit of help (thanks, Matthew), I was able to track down the sheet music of some of my favourite songs in the series. I’m no expert on music theory, but with a visual transcription of the songs to help me, I think I can dig up some interesting facts. Maybe you can to.

(I would have embedded the videos but Nico Nico doesn’t allow it. So it goes.)

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神さびた古戦場 ~ Suwa Foughten Field

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First off we have 神さびた古戦場 ~ Suwa Foughten Field, the battle theme of Kanako Yasaka, final boss of Mountain of Faith. The introduction works its magic by using the bass line to accent different notes in the melody, but it’s only a bit of foreshadowing of what’s to come.

For me, the most memorable part of the song starts at 0:13 and ends at 0:25. The rhythm couldn’t be more basic, but the intervals create a mysterious mood. Most, if not all of the intervals here are a full octave, meaning that there should be no harmony or dissonance if the notes were played simultaneously. Somehow, the quick octave jumps create a catchy and altogether alluring melody, as anyone who played the game can attest to.

Also note that the bass line helps keep the melody interesting  during this portion of the song. Rhythmically, I believe two of the six notes in the two-bar pattern fall on the offbeat, which contrasts with the melody in which the notes follow a steady rhythm. There is also probably something about the chords that create the sense of foreboding that accompanies the piece, but that’s beyond the limit of my knowledge.

At any rate, the atmosphere continues to darken into 0:36 through the use of the bass line’s rhythm. From 0:36-0:53 the melody leaves the spotlight, which is fitting since this is supposed to be background music. All I know about 3/4 time is its association with the waltz, but it seems to help move the song forward in this case. The rhythms become simple again (without the offbeat shots from earlier on), and there is little change in the section until it ends at 0:53. The melody moves in fairly simple intervals, either marching upward/downward or jumping a fifth, and the second and third beats are accented by the lower notes. Eventually, the left hand’s notes are replaced entirely with eighth notes to lead into the main melody.

From here, the song pretty much enters repeat mode, but ZUN uses some interesting tricks to keep it from feeling repetitive. For example, this repeat of the main melody (0:53-1:15) eliminates the strong rhythm of the bass and replaces is with moving eighth notes that match the right hand. I don’t think there is any intentional dissonance here: the song simply moves forward as the battle progresses. A little alternation of the melody starts at around 1:30, with mostly the same intervals in a different key signature. Again, the main melody is repeated at 2:15 with six flats in the key signature, making it sound noticeably darker, but it remains more or less the same. Being a piece of background music, it eventually loops around at the end.

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霊知の太陽信仰 ~ Nuclear Fusion

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The next song is 霊知の太陽信仰 ~ Nuclear Fusion, the theme of the last boss of Subterranean Animism. The most notable aspect of the song is the unusual rhythm of the melody. The basic tune is explicit enough that you could listen to it a couple of times and hum the melody accurately.

As with Kanako’s theme, this song creates an ominous introduction by accenting the eighth note pattern on the right hand with well-placed quarter notes and eighth notes in the bass. Unlike the previous song, the melody here accents itself. Instead of following a standard pattern of two or four eighth notes moving in the same direction, the eight notes move downward three at a time. This feels unnatural in 4/4 or 2/2 time, and it’s accented by the bass notes that match it.

Of course, the song doesn’t really begin until 0:26, when the distinctive melody strikes. Unlike many of ZUN’s songs, there are some noticeable rests in this piece, scattered throughout the first few bars of the section. The melody has some natural punches in it that fall on the offbeats, and the little sixteenth note flourishes are more a part of the tune and less a stylistic run. As opposed to drowning the player’s ears with steady eight note runs and eloquent intervals, this melody strikes the listener almost violently. It paints an image of a duel within the depths of hell, as opposed to, say, Yuyuko Saigyouji’s butterfly and cherry blossom motif.

There’s an attractive little interlude at 0:48 that stands out in this piano rendition. Incidentally, there’s a key change later in the song to add more variety (Eb major to Bb major), but it’s not as obvious as in the previous song since it’s only a difference of one flat.

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– – –

The last song I chose was the iconic U.N.オーエンは彼女なのか?, theme of Flandre Scarlet. Despite (or perhaps because of) the song’s catchiness, it’s actually quite straightforward. The entire introduction (up to 0:17) is about the sixteenth note downward runs followed by the three dotted eighth notes. For some reason, all of the notes in the runs are the same distance apart: 1-3-6. The tonic note (Db, same as the key signature) is followed by a third (mediant) and sixth (submediant). There is probably some secret meaning behind this that I don’t understand, but anyway, the result is a quick and exciting piano intro with a hint of evil reflected in the key signature. It suits Flandre’s character perfectly.

Interestingly, the main melody (0:30) is made up entirely of quarter and eighth notes, with no obvious intentional rhythmic or tonic changes. There are still almost no accidentals, and the tune happily repeats itself for about 20 seconds. There are a lot of powerful perfect fourths and fifths, but there’s almost nothing to comment on in terms of technical detail. The fact that the melody is as recognizable as it is makes me wonder how something so technically simple could be so appealing.

The next portion (0:55) makes good use of the triplet, one of my favourite rhythmic tools. The intervals here aren’t a cut-and-paste from the introduction, but they’re similar enough to invoke the same feeling. The key changes for this section before returning to the five flats as the song repeats itself.

– – –

Surprisingly, this fairly surface-deep analysis of only a few songs has given me quite a bit of insight into ZUN’s skills as a composer. The main point I found was that his songs rely entirely on the melody. All of the well-known final boss and extra boss themes have very distinctive tunes, and they’re catchy without being technically complex. As you can see, the songs still sound great when transcribed onto a single piano track, so he doesn’t rely on any sort of complex instrumental layering. Likewise, the rhythms aren’t overly detailed, and there aren’t any Broadway-style seemingly random key changes. This complements the fact that there are so many amateur remixes of his songs: much like his artwork, the basic concept is what makes ZUN’s music shine, allowing for countless re-interpretations using the same distinctive melody.

With this insight, I have to wonder where he gets his ideas for new music. Despite what I said about the lack of technical detail, every Touhou fan knows that ZUN’s music is incredible, and it works both as BGM and as stand-alone music. Above all, it just goes to show that the most aurally appealing piano runs and screaming synths might look incredibly simple when written out on paper, even if they’re heart-poundingly intense when you’re trying to capture Virtue of Wind God on Lunatic.


P.S. My knowledge of music is limited to what my teacher decides to teach us at school, so feel free to point out any mistakes.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Eric April 6, 2010 at 12:56 am


Ahem. I’ve really nothing more to add here, save to mention that I’ve made a round to your blog and read this post in its entirety. See you next year!


Leviathean April 8, 2010 at 12:39 pm

I liked hearing your thoughts on music analysis, since it’s not something that gets discussed often. I hope you continue soon!

(also, yay for more Touhou promotion)


2DT April 13, 2010 at 4:29 am

I think your e-mail account’s been hacked, friend. I just got a message (riddled with grammar and capitalization errors) saying that you’re trapped in England and need 1,300 pounds wired to you immediately. I deleted it, but I thought you should know. Stay safe.


ETERNAL April 17, 2010 at 3:15 pm

@ Eric: Hopefully next year’s round will keep you busy for a weekend or two :P

@ Leviathean: I’ve been planning a handful of Touhou posts in my head so I’ll probably continue at some point, although the format might be different. I’m glad you liked it :)

@ 2DT: Thanks for the heads up. It was brought to my attention when it first happened, and the problem is resolved now, thankfully.


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