I didn't play Majora's Mask when it first came out, and thank heavens I didn't — I probably would have just quit playing video games then and there. I mean, I used to have nightmares about the wind sound effects in Ocarina of Time (in my defence, they're creepy); I don't know how I would have handled the existential dread and constant threat of death that permeates Majora's Mask.
But now that I am an adult, and I am very brave, I have completed Majora's Mask — thank you, thank you, I am a hero — and the music, I have to say, is one of my favourite Zelda soundtracks ever. Despite that, I will almost never listen to it, because I am guaranteed to be on edge for the rest of the day.
It all begins with the Clock Town Theme, which is also the theme on the title screen; in keeping with the general narrative device of "time", it gets faster and more frantic each day. You might not even notice (at least, I didn't; I said I was brave, not observant), but instead feel a general sense of anxiety and tension on the Final Day, when there is so much to do, and literally so little time.
The soundtrack as a whole is stuffed with ominous horns, cymbal clashes, weird dynamics, and dissonant noises of all kinds, representing the unease at the heart of the game's story: two kids, Link and the Skull Kid, struggling with identity and not knowing where they belong. Majora's Theme, which plays as soon as you meet the Skull Kid, sets the general ~tone~ of the game's music: a slow dirge, unsettling and tense, but with a core of melancholy. Much like discordant music in general, it feels like it needs fixing — which is precisely what you need to do.
This unnerving music is, of course, balanced by the Song of Healing, a gentle melody that acts as a balm for your ears, just as it's supposed to. It's the knot that keeps Majora's Mask together: Link plays it to fix a lot of things, but largely he uses it to make people know that it's okay that everything is a little broken, too.
The Song of Healing is incredibly melancholy, because the game is, too: even in its brighter moments, the message is still one of finding the strength to move on. The Song of Healing tells us this with its sorrowful, bittersweet sound: it's a song of accepting that change is heartbreaking, but necessary. Healing is not making the hurt go away, but learning to live on, with hurt in your heart.
The Majora's Mask soundtrack reminds me of the Japanese art of kintsugi, which is all about fixing broken pottery with gold, thereby making the "broken" piece even more beautiful than before by highlighting its flaws and its history. Termina needs saving, but many of its issues existed long before the moon began to crash down, and it's Link's job to fix those cracks before he can even think about saving them from the much larger threat.
Likewise, the songs feel like they've been broken and reassembled; like a warped bench, they're supposed to make you feel uncomfortable. The game is the same: with a one-year time limit, they were forced to repurpose a lot of Ocarina's assets to save effort, and the result is something that's a little messy, extremely weird, and all the more beautiful for it.
But if Termina at the start is unbroken, and Termina at the end is broken, but stitched together again, then my favourite pieces are the ones in the middle, where everything is in tatters. And none of them are more emblematic of that fragmented state than the Elegy of Emptiness, which comes at the apex of tension in the game: right after Link has unlocked the Deku Mask, the Zora Mask, and the Goron Mask, all of which allow him to change his form.
The Elegy of Emptiness is a funereal song, which is fitting for a tune that allows Link to create lifeless statues of those who have died to help him. It is taught to you by a boss who turns out to not be evil at all — just cursed. He tells Link to believe in his friends, and forgive failure, and provides him with the Elegy in order to summon "a soldier who has no heart". The text refers to the statues left behind as "shells" — as if Link himself is shedding his skin.
When you learn the Elegy of Emptiness, everything is real sad. A bunch of people you've met are dead. You've witnessed loneliness, heartbreak, loss, and grief. You know what you need to do — summon the four giants — but you've seen so much misery that it's hard to press on. Everything is broken, but you have all the pieces, and the only thing to do now is put them back together again.
But that nihilism and exhaustion is perfectly rendered in the Elegy of Emptiness. It's the absolute nadir of the game's story, and it's easily the creepiest of all the songs as a result... and yet, despite the misery of it, the harsh horns, and the uneasy strings, there's that delicate piano in the background, and the resolution of it almost sounds reassuring. If this song could tell you a story, it would be one of pushing on, taking that first step, and picking up the pieces, even if you don't want to.
Looking back at Ocarina of Time, which took over twice as long to make than Majora's Mask, the music is mostly grand, sweeping, heroic stuff; very fitting for an epic adventure that's straight out of a fairytale, with good guys versus bad guys. (I still think Temple of Time is creepy, but that might just be me.)
Ocarina follows a very typical hero's journey, but Majora's Mask is a story about a nobody who failed, time and time again. He has been abandoned by his fairy guide. For most of the game, he's not battling a "bad guy"; the main antagonist is just a lonely child that goes a little bit crazy with power, but he's not evil. And on top of it all, this Link has not saved the world — in fact, he only just manages to save one small town in the end, and according to the Zelda Encyclopedia, Termina actually disappears after Link leaves:
"While the hero's pure heart allows the world of Termina to momentarily revel in its salvation, as soon as he departs, that world ceases to exist."
You can't really make the point that "everything is futile" any stronger than that, eh?
The greatest strength of the Zelda series has always been its music — there's a reason everyone knows the iconic Fairy Fountain, after all — but great music doesn't always mean it's fun to listen to. Majora's Mask achieves its aims of completely creeping you out by making you wish you were listening to just about anything else.
If you want to read more about Majora's Mask's music from an actual musician, you should definitely check out Jake Butineau's breakdown of why the soundtrack is so great. And if you want to read more of our VGM Fest features, you can find them all here — including interviews with the composers of Minecraft, Hades, Celeste, and Journey!