Celeste Soundtrack Review
The Music of Celeste
Anxiety, Arpeggios, Ascension
This post aims to share my experiences and observations on the game Celeste. For those that have not heard of it, Celeste is a challenging platformer, released in 2018 and created by a small indie team; writer, director and designer Maddy Thorson, and programmers Thorson and Noel Berry. The game was critically acclaimed, being nominated for countless awards and winning several for its music, controls, even claiming some Game of the Year awards.
To give a broad summation of the narrative, Celeste sees you playing as Madeline as she attempts to scale Celeste Mountain. Aside from the physical challenge of climbing a mountain, she also must overcome many personal realisations and challenges. As you progress through the game you learn that Madeline suffers from anxiety attacks and is struggling with a sense of self identity. These problems become physically manifested with the introduction of a character colloquially known as ‘Badeline’. This character becomes the main antagonist of the game, and Madeline must escape or otherwise resolve the issues Badeline represents.
My first experience with Celeste was just this year, and while I can hardly call myself a platforming veteran, I found myself compelled to complete the main story (I’ll get to the B-Sides one day…) despite the gruelling challenge. Of course, the gameplay, art style and story drew me in, but what really propelled me was the soundtrack and sound design.
Lena Raine was the composer for Celeste, and her work is an inseparable part of the distinct personality and aesthetic for the game. Her score has very clear motifs, and a holistic approach that ties each level’s track to each other. To give a general idea of the timbre of the soundtrack, it has been described as ‘piano + chiptune’. Chiptune is a little bit of a misnomer, as the synthesis used and overall textures do not conform to the inherent limitations of chiptune, but as a tonal summary I think it is apt. Piano is a primary feature, followed closely by synthesisers. To add to this summary, I will flag a few other musical elements that I think are core to the soundtrack’s identity.
- Upward arpeggios
- Reverb and Delay
- Hip-hop-esque manipulation of drum samples
Firstly, I don’t think there is a musical simile more suited to scaling a mountain than an upward arpeggio. It seems the obvious choice to create momentum, and neatly captures the primary goal of the game.
Secondly, reverb and delay are a key part of Lena’s tracks, and she often accommodated for these effects when writing her melodies. Reverb helps create depth and space, evoking a sense of isolation. The use of delay is a clever metaphor for the introspection and self-reflection that Madeline experiences throughout the story.
Thirdly, the primary use of drums and percussion is to drive the player forward. They are commonly the last element to enter Lena’s track, and often begin sparsely, before slowly building into a full, driving beat. This structuring of the track slowly builds the tension and intensity of the track, fitting the increasing difficulty of each level aptly. Lena has spoken about her use of Ableton loops and samples (link below), and how she time stretches them to get more ‘glitchy’ sounds.
With these broad musical elements noted, I’ll now speak more specifically about the track Resurrections, from the level Old Site.
It is at once simple, sophisticated, and resourceful. With only a handful of motivic ideas Lena constructs tracks that can loop infinitely while the player struggles through the level. To make these loops interesting enough to avoid tedium is a difficult task! This is especially true for Celeste, as due to its difficulty you may not be progressing through the game particularly quickly, therefore listening to the same track for quite some time (for example my playthrough of the main 7 levels took ~9 hours).
The Soundtrack version of Old Site has a run time of around 9 minutes, but of course in game the three main sections of the track loop individually, with development of the piece being tied to your progression within the level.
The entire track Resurrections makes great use of a small handful of motivic ideas, and they are worth noting here.
- The A minor Pentad
- Descending, stepwise bass movement
- Augmentation and Diminution
The first piano melody neatly encompasses the main notes that are used throughout the entire track – the first five notes of A minor. A short pick up from A to E then slowly steps back down to A. This strongly outlines the Minor quality of the key and provides the most common melodic contour of the piece – an arch.
As the ‘A’ section continues, the piano drops the melody to play broken chords, which follow the same harmony as the synth introduction, now accenting the offbeat to propel the player. Here the left hand reiterates Motif 2 by continuing the descending bass pattern first heard in the synthesizer intro.
This comprises the ‘A’ section of the piece, which will repeat infinitely until the player reaches a mirror where Madeline is reflected, only with red eyes and an overall ‘evil’ look about her. This is ‘Badeline’, who quickly runs away, but we meet her again shortly. This advancement in the story cues the next development in the soundtrack.
With the entry of percussion and synth bass, the intensity is instantly scaled up. The piano melody undergoes a variation as well. It maintains the arch shape overall, but it is less scalar, instead featuring some larger leaps. The 9th of A minor is now used as a landing point for the melody, which also helps to increase tension and intensity. This new melody now toggles with the same broken chord pattern from the ‘A’ section, creating the ‘B’ section.
The ‘B’ section will now repeat until the player reaches a campfire where Madeline first actually talks to Badeline in a cutscene. At this point the texture breaks down to piano and synth, playing a forlorn, rubato interlude.
This section has the piano utilising Motif’s 1 and 2. The right hand plays a simple ascending ostinato, while the left introduces a development on Motif 2, now stepping down chromatically. This technique creates great moments of tension and release, as the ostinato gets reframed by each new bass note.
The synthesizer plays Madeline’s Theme – a short melody that appears in various forms throughout the game, but that was first heard in level one, First Leap. Here however, it has been transposed from a Major to a Minor key – a fitting use of changed tonality to portray a change in emotion for Madeline.
This interlude contains the bulk of the musical material for the final stage of the level. After the cutscene between Madeline and Badeline ends, the gameplay undergoes a significant change of pace, as you are racing against several reflections of Badeline that retrace your steps and kill you on contact. There’s no time to stop and think, you must constantly move and outpace your shadow.
The soundtrack matches this increased intensity in two ways.
- Tempo: an obvious musical simile; to match the increase in pace, the tempo increases.
- Texture: This section of the soundtrack is the densest, with the most instruments and most notes.
As mentioned, tis final ‘C’ section is a clear development of the ideas heard in the interlude.
Firstly, the piano varies its ostinato, now utilising all the notes of the A minor pentad. Its movement is also more angular, with larger leaps. This adds drama and interest.
The descending bass line played by the piano’s left hand in the interlude is now taken up by a dirty, wobbly bass synth. It is also truncated, ending its chromatic run at F# instead of E.
Once this new tempo and piano ostinato have been introduced, the bass line plays a semiquaver A Minor 2nd inversion arpeggio, with the descending bass notes underneath.
This creates a strong driving force, really propelling the player through the final stage.
The synth melody at this point continues a variation on Madeline’s Theme. The first phrase is untouched, while the second phrase is rhythmically displaced by a crotchet and lowered by a Major 3rd. These two phrases are then sequenced and heard a Major 2nd down.
This is not the last time we see a variation on Madeline’s theme. After a short piano and drum duet, a second synthesizer begins playing a rhythmically augmented version of the melody we first heard in the rubato cutscene. This is soon joined by a synth playing the piano melody from ‘B’. These two melodies weave their way around each other, just as Madeline is weaving between the reflections of Badeline.
The ’C’ section is now on loop, until the player evades Badeline and completes the level, leaving Badeline staring after her. At this point the intense soundtrack fades out to be replaced by a soothing solo piano, playing soft broken chords. You did it!
From transcribing and closely looking at Lena’s work, you can learn a lot about economy of ideas, and the strength in obvious and clear musical motifs. Her focus and clear intent to match the narrative and the pace of the gameplay is incredible and are sure reasons why she has received so much praise for her work.
If anyone is interested in reading more about her, Maddy Thorson, or PowerUp Audio, see links to resources below.