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A Look at the Music of Halo 4

While I was playing through the Halo 4 campaign, I didn’t really notice the music. I heard music, but it never really jumped out at me. I can’t recall a firefight where I was pinned down by the Prometheans and had to fight my way out. I can’t recall a time where I was just walking along a majestic cliff vista. There are some cool moments in game, but the music just isn’t there.

In our review for Halo 4 I quipped, “the score is little more than background noise.” What makes the soundtrack lackluster?

Legacy

In Halo: Combat Evolved, I can name every instance of where you hear “Brothers in Arms.” You hear it at the end of Pillar of Autumn when you’re almost to the last lifeboat. You hear it during the first blue beam tower encounter, and given the potential fail state, it can carry two meanings. The last time you hear it is when you’re inside the hangar for the Truth and Reconciliation. In Halo 3, a central part of the music for Crow’s Nest is the drum beat from “Brothers in Arms,” all while other sections of the track come in at various times throughout the level.

On The Silent Cartographer, you hear “A Walk in the Woods” as you approach the security hub after being locked out of the main facility. You’ll later hear an arrangement of “A Walk in the Woods” when you’re on Delta Halo, and it’s called “Heretic, Hero” on the Halo 2 soundtrack; you’ll hear “Heretic, Hero” again when you’re playing as the Arbiter on Uprising. You’ll hear yet another, albeit more subtle, arrangement of “A Walk in the Woods” when you’re playing Sierra-117 in Halo 3, which is yet another lush, wooded area.

I mention these two pieces of music—”Brothers in Arms” and “A Walk in the Woods”—because they perfectly suit the areas where they are used. They jump out at you and pull you into the moment. They prepare you for battle or get you to stop and appreciate the scenery. It is as if the encounters, environments, and music were all built together while being built around each other, thus perfectly complimenting each other.

Faithless

The music in Halo 4 isn’t like the score produced by Marty O’Donnell. There is nothing to pull you in. There is nothing that jumps out at you and says “hey, listen to me!” It does little to enhance what I’m seeing on screen or what I’m doing. The music doesn’t contextualize your environment or influence your actions. It doesn’t tie gameplay, narrative, and environment together to create a compelling work that is greater than the sum of its parts.

I listened to the Halo 4 soundtrack as I wrote the review, and I had trouble piecing music to mission. I could recognize “Belly of the Beast” as being the backing track to me standing outside of the ship in the first mission, but not any of the combat before that point. I could recognize “Requiem” as being the music behind the big vista reveal in the second mission, and I remembered being awestruck. Everything else just blends together. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard “Haven,” but I all I remember of it is walking forward through a giant hallway.

Until the final mission there was no point during the campaign where I stopped and said, “I have to find this song on the soundtrack.”  I love the track that plays when you’re piloting the Broadsword at the start of the final mission—it’s called “117” on the soundtrack, but it was composed by Kazuma Jinnouchi. That’s not to say that Neil Davidge’s composition is bad. It’s actually very good! I rather enjoy listening to the score. It’s just unfortunate that, the only tracks I recognize are from when there was very little action on screen.

Awakening

Listening to the soundtrack independently, you can hear several recurring themes. There were recurring phrases and arrangements in Marty O’Donnell’s compositions, but they were never associated with any specific character or place; we’ve never really heard leitmotifs used in Halo before. In Halo 4’s score, there’s a melody that you first hear played on “Awakening,” which is played at the start of the campaign. You can hear this melody again but slower and sung by a choir for “Nemesis,” a track which plays when we first encounter the Didact.

As I mentioned in our Halo 4 review, a good score should enhance the scene. Given that the music is there and that it works on a thematic level, I’m further convinced that the reason why the score fails to engage in Halo 4 is due in part to the audio mix. You can’t hear the nuances in the music over the din of gunfire and explosions. You also can’t make those kinds of musical connections while you’re staring down the barrel of your weapon and slaying Covenant. You’ll hear the Didact’s theme play at the start of the campaign, but you won’t be hearing it again for another two or three hours—assuming you’re playing the first three missions in one sitting. The very act of playing the game gets in the way of listening to the music; this is another reason the score fails to engage, and it has nothing to do with the composition, but rather how the game was designed.

Bungie’s Halo seemed to have the environments and score intertwine organically, creating and shaping each other. Neil Davidge’s score for Halo 4 isn’t like that. Listen to “Green and Blue” and try not to get sad when the cello comes in at around 2:06. “Green and Blue” is a beautiful and moving piece of music. That’s his score in a nutshell: it works on a conceptual level, where you’re influenced by concepts and feelings. And it has to work conceptually, because Neil Davidge was geographically separated from 343i and worked from their notes and concept art, instead of being able to sit down and see the game in action.

Revival

There’s one last thing I want to talk about. The Halo theme—the one from Halo: Combat Evolved featuring the Gregorian cantorum and those deep, driving drums and synths—has been a staple of the Halo franchise. It was even made part of Halo Wars, a game which had nothing to do with a Halo ring or the Master Chief. In Halo 2, an electric guitar was overlaid on top of the Halo theme. It changed the tone of this iconic piece of music and made it a more human struggle, resonating with the idea of bringing the fight to Earth. For Halo 3, the electric guitar was taken out and the theme was switched to be more piano centric. In this new arrangement, there was a new addition prefacing the iconic Halo theme: a  five-note theme.

How insignificant that must sound! We actually first heard it just as the Master Chief is revealed in the Halo 3 announcement trailer from E3 2006. Fast forward to Halo 4, and you can hear it at the end of the main menu music, should you choose to listen to it before jumping into the Infinity menu. You can hear it in the bridge between sections for “117.” It’s part of Halo 4, and now it’s associated with the Master Chief, thus it ties Halo 3 and Halo 4 together.

The Halo 4 soundtrack is simply quite wonderful when you sit down and listen to it. It sticks with you, and I think that makes it a success. Although it works on both thematic and conceptual levels, it’s just missing a bit of the flavor that made Bungie’s Halo stand out, like having high-energy pieces driving the action scenes, or having slower melodic pieces backing a fantastic environment. I sincerely hope that 343 Industries brings Neil Davidge back for Halo 5 and gives him a chance to not only expand upon the themes he has introduced, but also a chance to unite gameplay and narrative in his own way.

I think they owe it to him after the awful audio mix in Halo 4.

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