Insaneintherainmusic Interview: Making a Medley

Before Carlos (aka insaneintherainmusic) shared his thoughts on the Jazz Video Game Medley, I asked him if there was anything in particular that he wanted to highlight for the interview. Not surprisingly, he wanted to share his philosophy on medleys and what makes a good medley. I always thought that a medley was a collection of songs, but now I realize that a medley can transform tracks into something greater than the sum of their parts. In the hands of an expert (say Carlos), a medley is a narrative that guides a listener through a satisfying emotional journey.

What is the purpose of a medley in your mind?

I view medleys as a way to present songs in the context of one another. Since a medley is a musical work that contains several smaller musical works as its constituent parts, the listener is going to experience these songs as not just complete works in themselves, but also how they relate to the other songs in the same movement.

What was the decision behind splitting the medleys into three movements?

In arranging, there’s a concept known as the Sonata-Allegro form, which goes back to the Classical era of composition. Sonata-Allegro form describes a piece that usually has three movements, with the first being medium fast, the second being slow, and the third usually being the fastest and most animated. I decided to apply this concept to the three medleys I arranged as a basic framework to maintain variety between the three movements!

How did you decide which songs to include in each movement?

I structured each movement around a central emotional theme in gaming. Movement 1 was joy and fun, Movement 2 was nostalgia and sorrow, and Movement 3 was evil and aggression. I took a long time to consider songs that have stood the test of time in video game music canon--songs that people would immediately come up with when asked “What’s the most iconic and happy video game song you can think of”? This was an extremely tough part of the song selection process, and I knew it’d cause disappointment in some viewers that their particular song wasn’t chosen. However, I prioritized musical flow over the presence of every single video game song that related to the desired theme.

During the song selection process, I realized that a lot of the songs I had chosen were songs from Nintendo franchises. I struggled with this for a while, trying to decide if I should impose some sort of limit based on franchise origin or something like that. In the end, I decided not to--Nintendo composers have been bringing us beautiful, memorable melodic compositions since the beginning of the company’s history as a video game company, and I didn’t want to shy away from recognizing that. I did try to make some conscious efforts to include songs from other franchises.

How did you decide song order in each movement?

Really, just flow! I wanted each song to flow pretty naturally into the next, so things like tempo, key, and time were all taken into consideration. I had the start and end of each Movement decided pretty early on, so arranging all the tunes in the middle of each medley was like a fun puzzle, trying to stray away from the first theme presented to make my way to the last closing theme!

How important are transitions in a medley?

Extremely important. As I said earlier, medleys allow arrangers to present several songs in the context of one another inside a single cohesive work. If transitions are choppy, the listener risks losing that sense of connection between pieces. Plus, I think that transitions are the places where arrangers can flex their arranging chops a bit, and show off just how smooth they can get from one song to another. I really enjoy doing this.

How do you arrange differently for medleys vs. single covers?

There’s a big difference in arranging for these two types of productions! With single covers, I take the “going deep” approach. Since I’m often stretching out a single song into a longer complete work, I’ll usually go fairly deep into the source material, and use different elements of the source material to add additional sections to the arrangement to fill it out as a whole piece. With medleys, however, there’s an abundance of source material. Because of this, I typically take a shallower approach, sometimes cutting part of a theme mid-loop if it serves the transition better or the overall flow of the medley. In general, the less source material, the more creativity is required of the arranger to keep the song interesting for a longer period of time.

What's the biggest benefit of a medley in your opinion?

Allowing the listener to experience songs as part of a cohesive whole. I’ll use the Pokémon Snap Medley I recently released as an example: none of the songs in the Pokémon Snap soundtrack are particularly that good by themselves, in my opinion. However, when all the songs are presented together in a medley format, the listener can experience the medley as a nostalgic tribute to the entire game, as opposed to just a single track from the game.

What's the biggest drawback of a medley in your opinion?

You can’t go deep with each song! If I had gone as deep as I wanted to with each particular song in these movements in terms of adding intros and outros and extra sections, the whole medley would be 20 minutes, and the pace of the songs would probably feel very slow and lethargic. I really love the challenge of taking a short song, and expanding it to keep it interesting over time. Medleys typically don’t inherently have this problem.

What are your favorite moments from each movement?

Movement 1:

  • The trombone melody in the Super Mario Bros theme

  • Yoshi’s Island Dixieland swing

  • Half-time Bob-Omb Battlefield with “The Stripper” feel

  • The Megaman II title screen full band chorale

Movement 2: (My personal favorite movement):

  • Gamers rise up

  • The tempo shift from To Zanarkand to Dire Dire Docks

  • Starting Pallet Town on its B section

  • The Pallet town sudden modulation from G major to E major (tenor sax solo to trombone solo)

  • Zelda’s Lullaby modulation from E major to C major (flute melody to violin melody)

  • Dearly Beloved shred guitar solo

  • Bari sax low A’s on Aquatic Ambience

  • Cello solo on National Park

  • Trumpet fanfare on To Far Away Times

  • The guitar and piano improvisatory bit on the last chord

 Movement 3:

  • Shred guitar solo at the beginning over Dancing Mad chords

  • The dissonant transition into the Pokémon Battle Theme

  • Brass ripping up Lavos’ Theme

  • Trumpet growling with plunger mute for Bowser’s Theme

  • The absurdity of the MEGALOVANIA + Gangplank Galleon mashup

How did you come up with the mash-up of Megalovania and Gangplank Galleon?

Ha! So this happened during one of Sab Irene’s piano streams! We were reading video game sheet music on piano together--I would often handle the left hand, and she’d take the right hand. One of her viewers requested that she play Gangplank Galleon. As I was playing the bassline, I realized that it was in the same key and at about the same tempo as MEGALOVANIA. Because of this, I knew I had to use this similarity in a fun way. I don’t really think of that section at the end as a mashup, per se, more just incorporation of the MEGALOVANIA meme where I thought it was musically and comedically appropriate!

What are some of the biggest mistakes you see people in the VGM community make in regards to medleys?

Writing them with a greater purpose! In my opinion, if you make a medley of songs from a game, it should do its best to tell the entire story arc of the game, or at least convey a very specific set of emotions. While it’s fun to just throw your favorite songs in as part of a medley, I think that some of the greatest medleys ever written are those that tell a grand story of the source material.

Also, transitions! Starting and stopping between every song is a no-go. I love to see very creative and innovative ways to go from one song to another!

What are some of your favorite VGM medleys?

I really like most of FamilyJules’ video game medleys, especially his Super Mario Galaxy one! I think that one is a great example of a medley that tells a whole story. Some others include the SMB3 medley by PPF, RichaadEB’s Shovel Knight medley, and Mohmega’s Pokémon Diamond and Pearl medley! There aren’t too many absolutely fantastic medleys out there that I’ve discovered yet, so I’d love to have some great recommendations!