How The Music of Final Fantasy VII Changed Gaming Soundtracks Forever

Twenty-four years ago, one man’s musical genius became a touchstone for video game soundtracks and his influence is still felt to this day.

WARNING: This article contains Final Fantasy VII spoilers.

In 1997 a revolution happened within the world of video game music composition. With the birth of Final Fantasy VII, composer Nobuo Uematsu produced his magnum opus, with an OST that would push the boundaries of the PS One. It would go on to influence countless video game compositions whilst inspiring and introducing a generation to the beauty of orchestral music.

Uematsu had composed the music for every previous Final Fantasy game and would go on to cast his melodic magic over every future installment. The score for FFVII, however, is held especially dear in the hearts of fans of the series.

Moving from Final Fantasy VI on the SNES to Final Fantasy VII on the PlayStation, the decision was made to generate music in real-time via the console itself, rather than on the game disc. This imbued the game with its sense of charm and its strong bond between music and story. The PS One’s capabilities also allowed the use of studio-recorded sounds and music instead of synthesised ones (something that was utilised effectively by Uematsu for FFVII).

Technological breakthroughs aside, the real beauty of the music in FFVII hinges on its cinematic style. Instead of attempting to create a defining, repetitive theme recycled throughout a game—as was the norm in previous titles—the score is more film-like, flowing and adapting to the scenes and narrative beats unfolding in front of the player. The tempo of the music contextually quickens or slows to match mood and intensity, adding even more atmosphere to a game already steeped in it.

These contextual adaptations are apparent from the outset, with the game’s opening ‘tutorial’ phase. This normally pleasant and easy-going intro is punctuated by ominous, end-game climactic riffs and doomful legato notes that impart a tense atmosphere as you plot to destroy one of Shinra’s Mako Reactors. In a text-heavy game with no voice acting, these riffs, dips, and swells in the score punctuate the emotional scenes expertly, speaking for the characters and giving them a voice that they would not otherwise have had.

Alongside the music for the story, the player is given regular adrenaline spikes by the sudden introduction of the famous combat music. These bombastic tracks impart a feeling of heroism and excitement. When allied with the always recognisable victory trill trumpeting at the culmination of battle, the musical element helps break the player out of the hypnotic tones of the story while segueing back into it.

The heart of the story in FFVII revolves around its antagonist, Sephiroth. As the narrative progresses, Sephiroth’s influence is felt more and more, increasing to the point of the climactic battle with his final form. It’s in this last battle that the score also reaches its epic crescendo, in the form of the hauntingly melodic boss-track, ‘One-Winged Angel’.

Uematsu was influenced by multiple sources for One-Winged Angel, ranging from Stravinsky, to Jimi Hendrix, and even Latin choral performances. These beautiful and apocalyptic choral pieces led Uematsu to include the first digitised vocals in a Final Fantasy game. To accomplish this he worked for two weeks, splicing lyrics from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana with his own samples to create what is arguably one of the greatest boss battle themes to date. Through the tolling bells, orchestral pomp, portentous vocals and rock music riffs, the destructive impact of the tragic finale is captured masterfully, making sure the epic culmination of music and story lingers long in the memory. 

In contrast to the bombast and energy of One-Winged Angel, FFVII’s second jewel in the musical crown is ‘Aerith’s Theme’. Created by Uematsu to be “sad but beautiful” as opposed to overtly emotional, the track underpins the poignant death of Aerith at the hands of Sephiroth in the Forbidden City. With its beginning, middle and end defined by gentle piano notes, coupled with the languid, harmonious flow at its core, the piece has become synonymous with the game itself. It has subsequently gained notoriety as one of the most famous video game compositions ever written; even being voted into Classic FM’s 2012 Hall of Fame.

While playing through Final Fantasy VII, players are routinely confronted by the mysterious ‘Turks‘ – the special investigative branch of Shinra Inc. Whilst the Turks act as a serious threat, their leitmotif and the energy it brings often feels like light relief. This is further reflected in the plodding, ponderous percussion and gentle, steady beat that is introduced whenever the Turks are around.

Tracks like the Turk’s Theme (and even the zany eccentricity of the Chocobo Theme) help to balance the OST as a whole against the more serious pieces. This heightens the emotional impact of pieces like One-Winged Angel when they finally hit, combining their energies to take players and listeners on a journey through the highs, lows and crazy in-betweens of the game.

While the original FFVII is now 24 years young, thanks to Nobuo Uematsu, it is kept fresh in the minds of fans, gamers and newcomers to the universe alike through its unique soundtrack and storytelling. Delving further into popular culture, Uematsu ultimately founded a hard rock band called ‘The Black Mages‘ along with two other Square Enix employees, to play rock versions of his Final Fantasy compositions. As further testament to the brilliance and longevity of his work, Final Fantasy orchestral concerts (of which he is a part) are still often held to celebrate and share the joy and excitement that are synonymous with his music.

As stand-alone pieces of music, each of Nobuo Uematsu’s compositions is a jewel in its own right. Combined into the OST for FFVII, they become the jewels in a lovingly crafted crown and when added to the beautiful world and narrative of the game as a whole, they become a priceless part of video game music history.


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