Music & sound design
Back already ! As promised, after the lore and the NPCs, it’s time for the pièce de résistance. For this third article dedicated to Hollow Knight, I’m going to tackle the sublime soundtrack, composed by Australian composer Christopher Larkin, who was also in charge of the sound design.
Before diving into Hollow Knight’s soundtrack, I’d like to mention two other works by Christopher Larkin that I particularly like : the soundtrack to Expand, really haunting with its fascinating build-ups and releases, especially in the last tracks ; and the two short pieces called Monochrome Modulation #1 & #2, which you can find here. It would seem I can’t get enough of them. Ok, a third one : the soundtrack to puzzle game TOHŮ. The very detailed work on orchestration is absolutely exquisite (Junkle, Loss, Time pt. 3 future – the piccolo in the medium register 🥰 and the slightly arpeggiated chords at 2’45 – and also Ice), and translate more efficiently than the narration all the emotions the game could have (it’s just a shame that the sound design, although adorable, sometimes completely overwhelms the music – Loss for instance, we almost can’t hear it in the game – so it’s one more reason to have a good listen to the soundtrack)
That being said, be prepared. I love music, I love Hollow Knight, so… it’s going to take a while.
(All the images and game files (audio & video) are property of Team Cherry & Christopher Larkin. Screenshots and videos (except for cutscenes which come from the game files) are from my own gameplay unless there’s a mentioned source)
Where is my orchestra ?
Hollow Knight‘s music was composed with Cubase : therefore, it’s not directly played by live musicians but it essentially features (except for the viola and the voice) “virtual instruments”, that is to say musical libraries containing a large quantity of samples, with in general all the attacks, bow strokes, vibratos, effects that you wish (depending on the instruments, and there is a plethora of them) : for example, you can buy yourself the virtual sound of Joshua Bell, since Embertone has the Joshua Bell Violin library, with several GB of samples by the American violinist. Without the lively choreography (I do apologize, Mr Bell).
This can – depending on which libraries you use – result in sounds and phrasings that aren’t always the most faithful (my little fl(a)utist’s heart tightens when I hear my instrument in Greenpath, sorry, I’m being a bit picky here), but this is an interesting choice because of how rich the counterpoint is in Hollow Knight‘s music : the sounds blend together, blurring the individual tones thus allowing for a crystal-clear counterpoint, creating a beautiful setting for the instrumentalists ; this is especially striking for me in Greenpath (probably my favorite piece from the O.S.T.).
This reminds me of a technique I had studied a bit in chamber music at the conservatory. Some of the teachers were members of a famous string quartet, the Danel Quartet, and one of their ideas regarding sound was that, in an ensemble, if we all play with a beautiful sound at the same time, the result will lack clarity, and sometimes a pyramidal sound distribution was preferred. They had illustrated this (I wasn’t there, but the information was given to me by a friend, and during a class I experienced it with a flute-cello-harp ensemble) with a string quartet, which they had asked to play first with a very beautiful sound for everyone : we didn’t understand anything about the excerpt’s polyphony. Then, they played the same excerpt, this time with a beautiful sound for the first violin, less for the second violin, even less for the viola, up to the cello which had to play with a very… concentrated sound, shall we say. Alone, it was hideous, but the result when they played together was very beautiful, and you couldn’t hear that the cello had an unpleasant tone. That’s exactly what happens here : sounds taken separately aren’t always beautiful, it has to be said (again, I’m being quite picky), but when put together, they blend wonderfully and the counterpoint is almost unbelievably clear. And I must confess that I am a musician who is very sensitive to counterpoint. Also, the various motifs and tones are so appropriate that nothing ever sounds out of place, and especially the phrases really breathe.
However, we can lose part of the phrasing and tone quality, but for melodies that require extra attention to phrasing, they are played by live instruments (Amelia Jones‘s wonderful voice and Tim Cheel‘s dark but sweet viola). Silksong‘s soundtrack will apparently feature more live instruments. Joy ! The four excerpts already available (the three themes from the trailer (the Dies Irae !), Bonebottom and the boss Lace, as well as a short harp loop – the menu loop) seriously make my mouth water (whoops).
One layer after another
An other thing is that, in most areas of the game, the music is divided into three layers, and each one of them already includes several instruments :
- the main part (with the melody) :
- the accompaniment (called the “bass” layer) :
- the “action” layer, a more dynamic, sometimes even spectacular element only triggered during a more difficult platforming passage or in an inescapable room with either several waves of enemies or a single, more valiant enemy :
Which can make (first the main & bass layers, then all three at the same time) :
This means we can have a room with just the main layer, then another one with two layers, then two other… This almost gives the impression that there are never two rooms with the same music while illustrating the non-linear navigation in the game, since the evolution of the music (from one room to an other) is precisely non-linear too.
This three-layer method, in addition to improving the usual loop technique (when the area’s music is finished, it starts again) also allows for great fluidity in the transitions between different rooms and areas : for example, when we arrive in the Mantis Village, a sub-area at the bottom of the Fungal Wastes, the “bass” layer changes to illustrate the different character of the enemies we face there ; we’ll come back to this effect later ; also, when coming from Greenpath to the Fungal Wastes, we explore Fog-Canyon for a while, whose music consists in elements from Greenpath’s score with a “muffled” effect.
To add complexity while maintaining clarity, a last layer is sometimes added, an atmospheric layer, very discreet, with some sounds and noises from both the enemies and the environment.
Because of this, the music in the soundtrack is a little different from what you hear in the game, the music of some areas is “reconstructed” from the different layers available.
Great attention is also paid to the acoustics : depending on the rooms’ nature, there will be quite a lot of reverberation, or on the contrary, the acoustics will be rather dry ; this applies to both the game’s music and sounds, since it’s something that can be controlled in Unity, the game engine used to make Hollow Knight (according to this interview).
But even without this, the music manages by itself to translate the imposing dimensions of the kingdom, the depth of the rooms : in Greenpath’s music (which I used as an example above for the different layers), we can quickly hear a harp ostinato (in the “bass” part), in fact doubled, since we hear this same pattern shifted by half a beat, softer, illustrating the dimensions of this beautiful area, like a natural echo, in addition to (almost) creating a resulting pattern effect for the attentive ears.
In Fungal Wastes, an equally vast area, and with a rather vertical navigation (since it’s here that we get the Mantis Claw for a much awaited wall jump) whereas Greenpath expands rather horizontally, the music uses repeated notes and rhythms that seem to be directly reflected in the cave (like Greenpath’s rooms or Crystal Peak’s mine), in addition to the outright fascinating treatment of the different sound planes (not sure about the translation, I apologize), and the reverberation (at 0.09, it sounds like a hyper-reverberated flute tremolo as if it were played three rooms away), to suggest the dimensions of this area. To me, it’s the audio equivalent of blur in a parallax (and there is a lot in Hollow Knight), and it’s just wonderful. And those pizzicatos that change at 0’32 🥰 !
Some bugs talk, other listen
As for the dialogues, they are not fully dubbed. For each sentence of any NPC there are a few syllables in an imaginary language, which we could briefly hear in the previous article. The sound effects, onomatopoeia, and screams of the bosses are also provided by human voices, and often mixed with other sounds for a sometimes striking effect : I especially have in mind Soul Master’s stagger, when the boss deflates and lets out a scream.
Here it sounds like two drunk guys, but in the game it sounds like this, which is ever so slightly more fit for a Soul Master (the music helps a lot, though) :
However, the playable character, like all the other vessels and especially the eponymous character, cannot speak ; Hallownest itself seems silenced since the Infection has almost taken possession of it and some areas are littered with bug corpses ; therefore, Hollow Knight‘s music must offer a particular dimension, all the more narrative as the kingdom has lost its “voice”; and for that it uses various tools : a wide range of tones, the restricted choice of the musical themes and their strong link to the story thanks to the leitmotif principle, but also a very careful choice of arpeggios : they are tied to the harmony and therefore linked to the structure of the pieces, to the narration and I am always attracted by the fact that very often, when an arpeggio appears, its pattern finds an origin in the story. [There is also a meticulous work on arpeggios in Celeste‘s soundtrack, which I will talk about later on the blog].
And this character, who listens without speaking, never seems to lose their composure : they have only eyes for a face, or rather, openings on the emptiness that fills them, which never change appearance (except when they die), nor does their face, even in the most spectacular movements (like the Super Dash). And I find that the sound design of the little hero’s movements also wonderfully translates this contained character, their apparent impassivity : the sounds related to external elements (the crystal heart or the charge of a nail art) may be a bit stronger, as well as everything related to soul, but apart from that, the sound effects associated with the character’s movements are soft and brief, like when they land, dash or double jump :
The emphasis on combat is also discreetly and elegantly underlined by some of the sounds, when the knight parries :
or unsheathe their nail when challenging bosses.
Hollow Knight is a game with a heavy and dark atmosphere yet not devoid of elegance and poetry. We’re in a kingdom after all. For such a rich adventure, the music covers a wide range of moods, where each sound is carefully chosen. And although the character we control seems tiny, almost frail, they regularly faces imposing, even monstrous enemies. The soundtrack mainly uses the orchestra, with a few instruments regularly highlighted : the viola, the harp and the piano. The orchestra is rarely massive, as Christopher Larkin often treats it with transparency.
This transparency is already noticeable in most of the game’s sounds ; one of the first notable elements we hear in King’s Pass (the tutorial area), besides the hero’s steps – which we will hear troughout the game and will adapt to what’s under their little feet (stone, metal, water, bones) – is a melody triggered when we obtain a new ability, a charged attack (called a nailart) or a spell.
Also, shortly afterwards, we can find a hidden room, and we are greeted by a small delicate sound.
A small detail that will probably amuse only me : the note we hear is a B ; however the beginning of the game is essentially in E minor, the B is therefore, when we hear it for the first time, the dominant, less stable than the tonic : it is a wise choice, because it reflects the uncertainty of the hero as they discover those hidden areas.
Very quickly, Elderbug points out to us a bench, and upon resting on it we hear a discreet sound effect :
(and here it’s an E, the tonic – again, given the tonal framework of the beginning of the game – more stable… everything makes sense ! Benches are stable places since they restore our health and save our progression)
Hidden objects can always be found thanks to a sound signal : a heartbeat for the Bluggsacs, containing rancid eggs (bon appétit), a little sigh for the grubs (they’re adorable, I promise), and a crystalline sound effect for the mask shards or vessel fragments.
We then find this transparency in the areas explored by the hero. Thus the music in the places dear to the royal couple (the City of Tears, the Queen’s Gardens and the White Palace) is dominated by the harp ; the more secluded places conducive to introspection, such as the Resting Grounds and the Stag Stations, have a very intimate instrumentation.
The way the piano is treated in this last zone is truly magnificent, alternating between a very pure tone in the high register, and the middle register, like a more mature voice, maybe the voice of the Seer, the last moth, who reveals Hallownest’s tragedy, how the Radiance was forgotten by her own creatures. The translucent strings might evoke the spirits that rest here as they’re similar to the sound effect triggered when they appear…
The use of the piano arpeggios is, as I mentioned above, very interesting to translate the function of the place, here they don’t sound much active, not because of their rhythm, but their ambitus, relatively limited, and the fact that there are only ascending, shorter arpeggios, almost always repeated, as a way to emphasize the more static aspect of this place of rest and meditation, and the Seer’s dialogue, more repetitive than Elderbug’s.
The Hive, at Kingdom’s Edge, is a little apart in the game, so it has no theme strictly speaking (by that I mean a theme that could be sung), but an almost hypnotic atmosphere with its constant buzzing.
One of the most beautiful music of the game can be heard in the mine, Crystal Peak. To evoke the transparency, the shimmering of this pink crystal, Christopher Larkin used wine glasses and kalimba.
I especially like the way the echo effects at the beginning give the impression that the notes are reflected on the crystals, as if they were directly coming from the crystals vibrating, passing from one to the other (and from left to right in the headphones), getting lost in the immensity of the mine ; we already had this work in Fungal Wastes, which however relied much more on percussion.
Moreover, at the very beginning it seems to me that we rather hear harmonics (on plucked stringed instruments, harp or guitar for example). Contrary to harmonics on wind instruments where only the tone (and the pitch of course, but this isn’t what’s interesting here) is affected by the technique, or even to harmonics on bowed string instruments, there are three sound elements here : a very distinctive percussive element when you attack (it can be very noticeable on harp harmonics), a tone element (the tone of a harmonic is always different from the tone of the “real” note) and, beyond the tone, there is a kind of aura, like on the violin where harmonics add a lot of “air” to the sound (you can hear it especially when several instruments play harmonics at the same time, it can become, let’s say… fairly windy !), or, more modestly, on higher guitar harmonics.
Beyond the unreal aspect of this kind of sound, which still reminds us, with all the transparency that the music has been deploying from the beginning, of the finesse of all the artistic elements in Hollow Knight, the percussive element of the attack is very suited to the mine, as if the little bugs working tirelessly in it sometimes had fun lightly hitting the crystals just to make them vibrate. On the contrary, the wine glasses don’t have this percussive effect here, and rather remind me of the crystals constantly floating in the mine. Everything is meticulously thought out, like the percussion that fade in from 2’01, and that you can really hear at 2’10, like crushers that you would hear in the distance, then louder and louder before entering each of the challenge rooms filled with heavy machines that would once crush the crystals, and – now – the little hero.
Action & Tragedy
On the other hand, some moments are particularly aggressive, such as the trials in the Coloseum of Fools, where percussion is omnipresent, or the fight against the Mantis Lords, in which the harpsichord takes over the role of soloist ; but it is undoubtedly in the Soul Sanctum that is revealed the most spectacular music. When the organ takes up the theme (in the relative key : C minor vs E flat Major) of the City of Tears, which contains the Sanctum, it unveils in its own way a part of Hallownest’s tragedy : it is in the Soul Sanctum that the first experiments on Soul took place, and the enemies that haunt it, some of them monstrous, even shapeless, have met an almost fatal fate (as their names reveal, Mistake and Folly).
Here the arpeggios are treated to the point of obsession, since there is almost only one, repeated over and over again, as the enemies are locked in this part of the City, whereas the arpeggios in the music of the City of Tears, precisely, have a very detailed pattern, like the architecture of this capital, with an emphasis on the ascending part thanks to the octave jump.
The boss of this area, Soul Master, logically has one of the most epic themes of the soundtrack, from 2’16.
Note the very beautiful work on the descending string arpeggios (3’08, then 3’32), when we know that the Soul Master gives us (unwillingly) the downwards spell, before the theme develops even further (at 3’40, stunning), always supported by relentless string arpeggios.
In addition to illustrating this spectacular fight (yet not the most difficult, but that’s to be expected since Soul Master is still an early boss), I find that the music reminds me wonderfully of the conflict between the Soul Master and the Pale King, the latter having refused to subscribe to Soul Master’s experiments on Soul. The latter seems to be locked in his idea, and certain moments can evoke it, such as the repetition of the B natural at 3’36, like an obsession that delays the resolution on the tonic.
Other areas have almost no music, especially Deepnest, which has very light ambient music, and the Ancient Basin, where the Infection has almost devastated everything.
But above all, there is a key element in Hollow Knight : dreams. After a few hours, we discover a new game mechanics, the Dreamnail. It’s not a weapon strictly speaking because it does no damage, rather than that it’s a nail allowing us to reach the deepest thoughts of the inhabitants of this kingdom, even bosses. It’s a very important realm, since it is deeply connected to the Infection. The music and sound effects associated with dreams, beyond the aforementioned transparency, suit this dream realm wonderfully.
Warrior Dreams share the same music (except for No Eyes, which also has a different behavior) ; it perfectly mixes the epic and oneiric aspects of their fight, it’s so well-balanced that it actually enhances each boss’ sound design. And if we couldn’t hear Elder Hu or Marmu during their fight, it wouldn’t be the same, right ?
Voices longing to be heard…
Finally, there is an element that combines the three previous themes. It is not uncommon to hear whispers, for example near the lore tablets (similar to arcane eggs, but larger) :
When you find or use a spell :
Or in the Soul Sanctum, during the second phase of the Soul Master fight :
Each time they sound like voices trying to tell the kingdom’s story, or, in the Soul Sanctum, tormented memories of the souls that were sacrificed there.
Hollow Knight‘s music naturally starts from the menu screen : a soft melody in C minor on the piano. A melody in two parts starting identically, a first impulse that quickly fades out (0’02), and a second attempt that stretches a little more (0’15), almost turning into a lament ; the choice of the piano’s high register allows for a very pure sound (as pure as the vessel) to be heard, as well as the counterpoint, limpid : the theme on the right hand, and an eighth-note accompaniment on the left hand, no chords at the beginning, only arpeggios, incomplete, that don’t feel resolved, like this vessel that can not speak. The melody’s rhythm is rather slow, with the two initial quarter notes, like already heavy steps. But if the game starts with the piano, the Knight has an instrumental voice, the viola, which takes up the theme (0’31) ; the C minor key announces the tragic nature of the story and brings out the choice of the viola, whose lowest note is a C ; this tragic aspect is reinforced by the use of a register actually rather high for the viola (well, ok, it’s not that high), in the second part of the theme ; at that moment you can really hear the complaint (0’50). The melody then falls silent, the piano resumes while the viola part is limited to tremolos (0’58), like a story that one wouldn’t really dare to tell anymore. The tension is great when the piano lingers on the leading-tone, the B natural (1’10), finally resolving on the C, like a cry that would almost never end, before resuming the second part of the theme, with a different rhythm.
It is often emphasized how in Hollow Knight, the progression leads us towards the depths of the kingdom, towards the Abyss, or even lower still, in the vessels’ Birthplace. It is more complex, since we are constantly divided between this rediscovery of the depths and the return towards the surface, towards the Temple of the Black Egg, and even beyond, by invoking the Radiance in the Hollow Knight’s dream. This duality can be seen in a very metaphorical way, the story being obvious and symbolic enough to allow it (I wrote about it in the article on the lore), and the leitmotiv also emphasizes this duality, in a very simple way, since to each ascending impulse (0’02 then 0’15), will respond a descending resolution (0’08 then 0’21), which seems to systematically condemn our hopes, all the more so as the ascending part always ends with a long note (dotted half-note, I guess it’s in 3/4) which makes the descending part begin on the first beat of the bar, thus on a stressed beat.
This opposition will be a key element at the end of the game, which will reach a very poignant dimension given the narrative nature of the music.
And then there’s the rhythm, which at first does not seem to be able to break out of the binary division of the beat (mostly quarter notes and eighth notes) and which gradually, when the viola takes up the theme, and then the piano again, slowly tries to free itself from it, just at the end.
To further underline, with infinite discretion, the tragedy that lies ahead, we hear a low C (relatively audible at the beginning, listen carefully), held throughout the entire piece, which we can’t “unhear” from from the moment we become aware of it, as well as some ethereal sounds (very noticeable at 1’02 for example) that evoke the oneiric dimension of the game : all the elements are present even before the game begins.
This theme, which I will call for now the vessel’s theme, will follow us up to the end of the adventure as Hollow Knight‘s soundtrack uses the leitmotif principle. The different zones, the different bosses, mostly share this theme, although of course the tones and effects used throughout the game do vary.
I often say (and by often I mean all the time) that Hollow Knight’s music is more narrative than simply descriptive ; indeed, it cannot only underline, accompany what’s on the screen, describe an area. It already does this of course (for instance in the choice of instruments in Greenpath, the delightful atmosphere of the Fungal Wastes, the grandeur of the City of Tears) but it goes beyond this because, for me, this theme (just like the royal theme that will appear in the next paragraph) is associated not with a character, but with a function. As I mentioned in the two previous articles, some characters are already seen through a particular prism in the game, so that they are not necessarily seen as beings with all their nuances but as functions. This process is taken to the extreme for the eponymous character and the Family, to which the playable character belongs. They are vessels, they were created for that purpose only. To me (that’s just the way I hear Hollow Knight’s score), when you hear this theme, which is often called the Hollow Knight theme, it refers to all vessels, their function, their sacrifice, and this leitmotif is treated to emphasize the way the vessels experience their own sacrifice (whether it’s death, as for the Broken Vessel, resurrected in a poignant battle, or imprisonment for the eponymous character).
Unlike the game, the soundtrack opens with a more dynamic piece, Enter Hallownest, which can be heard in one of the trailers, and ends with the music from the menu. In both cases we discover the adventure with the leitmotif, since this one is present in Enter Hallownest, however, being more dynamic, it partly seems to give a little hope (which is logical given its function), while the menu version really foreshadows the sacrifice of the little hero, whichever end you obtain.
The vessel’s theme can be heard very quickly in the beautiful introduction, but not immediately. We’re now in E minor, and as the first lines of Monomon the Teacher’s Elegy for Hallownest appear on screen, the piano introduces a new theme, very similar : it could be called the royal theme because it too will be heard in the game, up to the end as well, in the places associated with the Pale Beings, the king and queen of Hallownest, whose relation with the Knight we already know about.
It’s only when the introduction finally shows us the little Knight that their theme comes back (at 0’26, in E minor), just the first notes, after a small motif on the piano as well : the theme is not complete because the adventure is only at its beginning.
The game begins very elegantly with a small timpani effect (always in E!) which effectively marks the beginning of a long adventure (it gives a solemn and combative character, it’s very nicely done), as well as a few piano notes, notes that are a source of great joy given that this motif will later punctuate the end of a fight (they are also the very first notes of the leitmotiv…)
But for the first zone, King’s Pass, there’s no music, only diegetic noises. It is the discovery of Hallownest for the Knight, the discovery of all the game mechanics for the player, we are not confident enough : it’s only in Dirtmouth that the theme comes back.
Dirtmouth is indeed a safe place, it’s the village where the player regularly returns to, in order to access the Forgotten Crossroads, visit the merchants or greet Elderbug, the theme can thus assert itself with enough confidence, moreover it is slightly changed to sound less plaintive (yet never joyful) : it no longer begins on the tonic (we’re still in E minor and the modified theme starts on an F sharp), the rhythm is no longer that of a march ; therefore it sounds more open, but the uncertainty is still there, precisely because there is no rest on the tonic – not at the beginning. The city is abandoned, Elderbug mentions a tragedy, we’re safe but far from reassured (the music, never radiant, begins on a very low E – the tonic).
We find – again – the use of arpeggios in the very beautiful piano part : here they are more active than in the Resting Grounds, on a wider ambitus, in ascending then descending motions, which could be a way to show Elderbug’s chatty nature : he has an extended dialogue and gives us clues to progress ; however the harmony itself doesn’t evolve much, because Dirtmouth is a place which certainly changes during the course of the game but which one always finds enclosed in its melancholy, just like Elderbug, without being completely static.
As we venture deeper into the Forgotten Crossroads we begin to see the extent of this tragedy : the enemies attack us, bodies are piling up in rooms that would like to share a glorious past but only show desolation. It is a place of discovery, a place of questions, seeing as very quickly we meet Quirrel at the Temple of the Black Egg, a key place in the game and the kingdom ; we’re still weak there, our nail being in quite a sorry state, the music is thus limited to ambient, pads suited to the different zones (that’s why there are more than three layers if we add the harmonics foreshadowing the boss’ entrance, the Ancestral Mound’s percussion and the Infected Crossroads’ absolutely not disturbing ambiance afterwards. Really, it’s cool. No threat) ; only the mini-boss and the boss have their own theme : the False Knight’s theme uses the leitmotif, by the way, in a remarkably constructed piece.
Building confidence : Greenpath
It is only from Greenpath that the theme settles in the music, in the most beautiful way.
The Knight has now defeated the first boss, and, bearer of the City Crest, they can venture into Greenpath. The discovery goes on, although questions remain, but we’re more and more confident and that’s something the NPCs will notice. That’s why the theme now appears in one of the most beautiful musics of the game. To make the transition with the beginning of the game, and again avoid sounding too plaintive, the theme is played like in Dirtmouth ; but the composer, in order for the theme to grow and emphasize this assurance (assurance that the Knight themselves are not supposed to feel – they have no emotions – but that the NPCs find in them), introduces a counterpoint on the English horn (it sounds too dark to be a oboe), the two tones blending together perfectly ; the high register and the syncopated rhythm of the quarter notes duplets on the English horn elegantly illustrate this confidence the Knight – and the player – both have gained.
Moreover, for the first time the music sounds more structured, it is supported by a harp ostinato (we’re not far from the Queen’s Gardens, whose instrument, as for the king, is the harp), which, although delicate, takes more place as the music becomes richer : this piece develops in a particularly organic way (let’s have a thought for the very pretty flute – clarinet transition on the E at 1’18, which leads to… the leitmotif, in its original form, slightly changed – a C sharp instead of a C natural – to blend in the harmony) : in the first area we explore that actually looks alive, the music underlines the cyclical aspect of the plants, starting with mostly fifths and culminating at 2’26 when the very nice action layer is triggered, dynamic without ever being excessive, which adds further to the counterpoint, already rich but still limpid. The way the viola phrases seems almost different at this point (2’43), even more assertive (although it’s actually the same phrasing as the very beginning of the piece) ; the counterpoint changes our perception.
I have already mentioned how the music emphasizes the dimensions of the various areas ; here, as in Crystal Peak, we can also hear the sound moving, especially the marimba interventions, going from right to left, as if flying away, like these adorable Masked Flies do as soon as we get too close to them.
After Greenpath, we venture into Fungal Wastes, whose theme uses the leitmotif again, but then the game opens up and so does the music : the progression becomes much more open, you have multiple choices regarding where to go next, and the Knight, as they meet other NPCs, becomes familiar with Hallownest’s lore ; it is therefore quite natural for the music to feature other themes : the adventure opens up for the little hero.
Through these first elements, it becomes clear that the music in Hollow Knight is not just an accompaniment : it is a very strong narrative element.
Music as narrative
Whether it’s the instrumentation, the use of the leitmotiv, the choice among a complete theme, a rather ambient music or no music at all, everything contributes musically to tell the story of Hallownest, its once welcoming places and its inhabitants condemned to wandering or blindness.
This may seem more striking with bosses because there’s often a theme associated with them, and a NPC will seem more eager to unveil the game’s lore, but all of Hallownest’s places also participate in it.
Let’s take the example of the Royal Waterways. They’re the sewers of Hallownest’s capital city, but the water that keeps falling on the city has completely cleaned them out. The enemies populating these waterways have the appearance one would expect from sewer creatures : they are grotesque, some of them exploding like balloons under the blows of our nail, deformed, disgusting. The boss of this area, the Dung Defender, one of the only two survivors among the Five Great Knights, seems to have almost gone mad : he has made statues of his missing companions, as well as of the Pale King, a king idol at its feet ; his laughter can be heard through the underground tunnels (and throughout the fight). We’ve already talked about the Nailsmith, a recluse living near the Waterways, unaware of the kingdom’s decline.
Rather than insisting on the grotesque character of these places, the music, played on a solo double bass, seems to convey the tragedy and loneliness that these characters are experiencing, locked up under the city, forgotten by everyone, having lost their former companions. Only the action layer, far too epic as we’re bursting those balloons, makes fun of this grotesque ambiance, while Cornifer sings with all the vigor he’s capable of. The contrast is striking with the music of the City of Tears, another beautiful moment, which highlights a fuller orchestra, with solo oboe (for the in-game music, but in the soundtrack the theme is sung by Amelia Jones) in a theme that develops at length in the high register, a way of illustrating the greatness of this fallen kingdom’s capital, where sentries and bourgeois now wander endlessly. It should be noted that the theme of the City of Tears is the one sung by Marissa in the Pleasure House : I have already talked about this extremely touching NPC, whose audience, enchanted by her voice, has now disappeared ; she has become a ghost but keeps on singing, and choosing her theme is like speaking of the City of Tears as this city still standing but no longer really alive, inhabited by spirits and whose ancient clamor can sometimes still be heard in the Queen’s Station.
Another area stands out thanks to its enemies having a rather charming appearance and sound effect, the Fungal Wastes, and there the music plays on this comic with elegance through the instrumentation, the leitmotif being played pizzicato.
When we reach the Mantis Village, the pizzicatos disappear, replaced by the strings arco (playing with the bow) and a discreet harpsichord ; any comical aspect disappears to show that the Mantises are noble and formidable enemies, and the harpsichord will be furiously present in the fight against the Mantis Lords.
Note that we also find the pizzicato strings (once again treated rather literally) in a very strange room where NPCs invite us to sit, and rest, as they seem to care for our well-being… Except that we enter the Beast’s Den, where we discover one of the dreamers, Herrah, Hornet’s mother.
In some areas the themes develop at length or with assurance, while in others the approach is more cautious.
In the Queen’s Gardens, a place that once belonged to Unn and which the Queen has completely claimed herself, there is no leitmotif ; the harp has the main theme and, very elegant touch, the harpsichord : it has already been heard associated with the Mantises in their village at the bottom of the Fungal Wastes, and the Queen’s Gardens are also home to Praying Mantises, those who succumbed to the Infection, led by the Traitor Lord, brother of the Mantis Lords. Also, the oboe can be reminiscent of the City of Tears.
What’s also striking for me in this area is how much the music translates this life that goes on (through the invasive vegetation) despite the stasis in which Hallownest finds itself : the accompaniment layer remains rather static with the choir barely punctuated by a cymbal (which maintains a pulse even in the rooms where there’s only this layer), or later by an intervention of the oboe, the harpsichord or the strings.
But add the main layer, those (rather) fast harp arpeggios, then the melody, and you have the perfect illustration of the Queen’s Gardens, the expansion in spite of the kingdom’s sleep.
The White Lady lives secluded in a small cave just like her and has her own music, a harp solo. It can be noted that it is quite developed, even harmonically, much as her rather extended dialogue.
This theme is logically shared by the two Pale Beings : in the most difficult area of the game, the White Palace, we face a very demanding platforming challenge, requiring quite some stamina, lulled by a rather haunting music, taking up the White Lady’s theme, the royal theme, so to speak, that had already been heard at the very beginning, in E minor, accompanying the verses of Monomon’s Elegy for Hallownest. In the White Palace, as well as when you meet the queen, the theme is in C minor, as it was the very first time the vessel’s theme was heard (in the menu loop). Here is not the original version, the one from the White Palace, but an arrangement for piano quartet, made by Steven Tanoto, arrangement which is never heard in the game. It sounds like Fauré to me, and I absolutely love Fauré’s piano chamber music…
At the end of the White Palace, when you’re about to obtain one of the two precious White Fragments, you can take the place of the Pale King on his throne ; a very soft music is then played on the harp.
We recognize the vessel’s theme on top of the the king’s. The rhythms are not changed, it is therefore a very beautiful detail to have made the two leitmotifs overlay perfectly, when we know that the Knight, like any vessel, is engendered by the union of the Pale King’s and the White Lady’s souls ; the harp often represents the pale beings (especially the White Lady), it is a way to grant the hero the rank of sovereign, which they have somehow already obtained after having recovered the King’s Brand before.
In the previous post I talked at length about the NPCs ; some of them obviously have their own music : bosses. They’re usually NPCs with whom you don’t spend a lot of time (except for Hornet, for example, whom you chase in Greenpath, fight twice, and meet again several times, in scenes that are always moving when you understand her ties with Hallownest and the hero), so you have to show their personality very quickly and efficiently, through movements and attacks, but also through the music : just like the little hero, few of them talk, at least before the fight.
One aspect of Hollow Knight I will come back to in the conclusion of this series, is the variety of the emotions here : the story is tragic but not without poetry, or grotesque. The bosses also cover a wide range of attitudes and emotions, beautifully illustrated in the music.
Some of the bosses are elegant, proud fighters who defend their territory and acknowledge the hero’s abilities, like Hornet (boss of Greenpath and, later, of Kingdom’s Edge) or the Mantis Lords (optional boss of the Mantis Village, at the very bottom of the Fungal Wastes) ; both have themes with an elegant instrumentation : strings for Hornet and frenetic harpsichord for the Mantis. Their nobility can be heard in the music, which is completely treated litteraly, with, however, in the Mantis Lords, a jerky rhythm that skillfully translates their disconcerting attacks (without being difficult) and their almost unpredictable entrances.
Hornet, the Pale King’s daughter, takes up the very beginning of the royal theme but in her own key, A minor (against C minor and E minor for this theme usually), and with a very different development, as if to assert her independence and highlight her way of fighting, elegant and virtuosic, and her feminine voice (it’s important because she’s the king’s only gendered child, as the White Lady calls her) by the choice of the violin ; but Hornet’s fight’s music also translates the other fight between the two characters (the fight for Hallownest), certain fight for Hornet, hypothetical fight for the hero whose thoughts are always a mystery to us (and to NPCs), thanks to the replies between instruments (at 0’16 then 0’26, and from 2’22).
Other bosses share a similar past but are yet treated with humor : of course I have in mind both the Dung Defender and the Hive Knight. For these two bosses, the themes take some distance with the nobility of their condition and emphasize their pleasant, even frankly comical aspect.
The chivalrous aspect is immediately clear thanks to the instrumentation, which is similar in both cases. All the distinctive elements are present : the brass instruments have the main theme each time and are accompanied, as they should be, by percussion – especially the snare drum, which is quite military – and the piccolo. The strings don’t have the main role but are also present, essentially through very fast, furtive stepwise motions, associated with the boss’ movements. But the xylophone, through its childish side, shows the distance taken with the knightly character of these NPCs.
In the case of the Hive Knight, the solemn aspect of the instrumentation is clashed by the chromatisms in the theme itself and in the contrapuntal elements played by the strings and woodwinds, which evokes this fellow’s humming in an elegant reference to Rimsky-Korsakov (Take that, Nikolai ! Ahem, well, sorry about that).
For the Dung Defender, it is the very sound of the brass instruments, less bright and slightly saturated, which already clashes with the boss’ title, but even more so these very fast violin scales ; the Dung Defender has indeed a peculiar way to move : he swims from one end of his arena to the other, arena which is made of… well yes, made of excrement, emerging regularly. He also turns into a ball and bounces around the arena. He’s very fast and coming at us with balls of feces. This velocity translates into the frenetic stepwise motions on the violins.
For those two bosses, the rhythm also contributes to the humor : there are many syncopations and off-beat accents, the Hive Knight is given nice quarter notes triplets (play three notes evenly distributed over two beats) at the end of the introduction, quintuplets (a bit unstable since they don’t follow the usual division of the beat) in the theme, and listen at 1’04 : this brave boss seems to be losing his balance, thanks to the quadruplets (four notes evenly played over three beats) played at the same time than the quarter notes.
For an even richer narration, in the case of the Dung Defender, we can face him again in his dream version, the White Defender. The music of this boss logically takes up the initial theme of the Dung Defender, but, since we are in Ogrim’s dream (Ogrim is the Dung Defender’s real name), only the nobility of his former function of Great Knight is emphasized (remember, Ogrim was one of the Pale King’s Five Great Knights, alongside Ze’mer, Dryya, Isma and Hegemol).
The instrumentation is different, the xylophone is set aside, the woodwinds and strings are more emphatic, they no longer underline Ogrim’s movements but participate in the very epic atmosphere with this initial ostinato, creating a nice background (in French, we would say “a carpet of strings”, I have no idea as for its English counterpart, I apologize), translating the White Defender’s effervescent character, more than the Dung Defender’s madness.
The brass instruments become more imposing, which is also made possible by the rhythm, which is modified and “amplified” : their long sustained notes highlight the counterpoint on the strings (the broken arpeggios that form a beautiful build-up from 0’19), and the syncopations are used differently, to make it more complex and elegant, rather than to make fun of the Defender. Percussion are also treated with more finesse, with the timpani in the transitions. A choir discreetly accentuates the orchestra. The harmony, finally, is more complex (beautiful modulation at 0’22). The piece is more elaborate, with a lyrical central part, with the oboe (the solo instrument of the City of Tears, under which he lives) and the harp (the instrument often associated with the king and queen, as Ogrim used to protect the king). There was also a central part in the Dung Defender’s theme, highlighting the woodwinds, but in a way that was comical more than elegant (while being very funny, let’s be honest, I love the Dung Defender), by using the high register of the clarinet for instance.
The White Defender’s theme is thus a very beautiful example of narrative virtuosity through music.
… But what about Zote ? There is no fighter more ridiculous than Zote, whether in the Trial of the Warrior in the Colosseum of Fools, or in Bretta’s home, in his “dream” form. Nothing in Zote’s dream combat theme (Truth, Beauty and Hatred) suggests his ridicule, yet undeniable. But we aren’t in just any dream, we are in Bretta’s dream. She has succumbed to Zote’s charm and doesn’t see him making a fool of himself, so she offers him a magnificent theme, it must be said. A theme that brings out elements… from the leitmotif. Juuuust a little bit.
The vessel’s theme… the vesselS’ theme
One of my favorite bosses is the Broken Vessel. It’s a vessel, so they had a fate similar to ours : rejected by the king, abandoned at the bottom of the Abyss, they escaped from there but succumbed in the Ancient Basin. As we approach them, they are “awakened” by Lightseeds that infect them and now manipulate them as they please. It is a tragic fight because we’re facing one of our siblings : the theme of the Broken Vessel is therefore the same as the Knight’s.
It is the original theme, the one that starts on the tonic. The key is tragic par excellence, C minor again, as the first time we discover it (in the menu). Better still, it is also on the viola that the theme is played, as for the hero, but in a lower register : we go down to low C (the viola’s fourth – open – string) ; this may be a way to emphasize the age difference between the two vessels ; indeed, it seems that the vessels are actually aging : we see the Hollow Knight with the king several times in cutscenes, and they appear much smaller than on the memorial and when we face them. Our character is very small (which the NPCs don’t fail to notice) while the Broken Vessel seems bigger, older : their “voice” is similar to that of the hero, but lower ; whereas the theme introduced in the menu announced the tragedy to come, the changed rhythm and the different phrasing (the theme is really exposed legato while at the beginning it is more tranquillo and with a different bowing) sounds like a cry for help from the Broken Vessel. At the same time, the strings are very rhythmic (but not as chaotic as in the False Knight where the offbeat accents reflect the instability of the boss, who regularly falls) and very heavy (often using the beginning of the leitmotif), reminding us that the Broken Vessel here is possessed by the infection and that they have no control. The movements also show this, as they seem unrealistic, too fast : the Broken Vessel attacks the hero at lightning speed, project themselves above the ground ; they swing back and forth, as if possessed, emitting balloons of infection and when stunned, their head is completely thrown back under the weight of the infection. There is a real duality in this boss that alternates fast phases with slow, heavy phases, as the music combines the relentless, almost suffocating rhythm of the accompaniment with the scream of the Broken Vessel that translates physically after the defeat by a paw they stretch out towards the hero. Their eyes, hollow (we can see the background through them), become again black like the Void, the substance from the Abyss. And since they were born there, in the soundtrack we hear at the beginning of their theme a short excerpt from the Abyss’ ambient music. And the music of the Abyss, the place where almost all the vessels are, is the leitmotiv, slowed down in the extreme…
You are the Vessel… You are the Hollow Knight…
The boss whose destiny’s the most tragic is undoubtedly the game’s eponymous character : the Hollow Knight themselves ; chosen by the king as the perfect vessel, they share moments together and soon afterwards they’re locked up in the Temple of the Black Egg, supposedly… for eternity ?
It uses the key from the very beginning of the game, E minor, and of course it uses the leitmotif. It is treated here with an isochronic rhythm (only quarter notes), each note being accentuated, as if to underline the horror of the Hollow Knight’s fate ; but what’s even more striking is that only the very first notes of the leitmotif are used and to me it’s a way to show that they are limited to their sacrifice : in the first cutscene or when we get the Void Heart, on the memorial, the eponymous character is only seen through their function, being the Vessel. It’s different for the playable character since they’re always on screen and, although they’re silent, they interact with a lot of NPCs, whereas the Hollow Knight is limited to their sacrifice, as their music is limited to the beginning of the leitmotif.
Shortly after (0’16), the leitmotif is heard with a dilated rhythm (half-notes instead of quarter notes), while the strings – on the verge of apocalypse, let’s be honest – play descending then ascending stepwise motions in sixteenth notes, with repeated notes as a way to state even more powerfully this suffering, in which you could see the duality of the Hollow Knight, probably terrified by their fate but nevertheless attacking the little hero who frees them from their chains ; it’s all the more intense that the strings are divided : while the high strings have descending motions, the low strings have ascending motions, and vice versa, often acting as mirror, almost perfect : this is very strong from a narrative, even metaphorical point of view, as the Hollow Knight finds themselves confronted with their sibling, their family.
This whole first part is supported by a short ascending motif on the strings (is it be doubled on the piano?) that starts again and again, obsessively.
At that very moment, the music changes.
One instrument after another, one voice after the other, it is a long build-up towards the end of the fight where it seems that the music is screaming this suffering vessels aren’t supposed to feel, even less express, during this phase where the Hollow Knight mutilates themselves, guided by the Infection or their own will to end this pain they’ve suffered for who knows how many years…
We also find this music in the most technical part of the game, the Path of Pain, a hidden area in the White Palace that contains a platforming section even more arduous than the White Palace itself, the challenge within the challenge. There, after long minutes (even hours) of suffering, we witness a few seconds of the moments the king spent with his supposedly perfect creation, the Hollow Knight as a child. Also, deep in the Abyss, as we’re about to obtain the Void Heart, the same music accompanies our long ascent towards the entry, and again we can see the Hollow Knight, chosen by the Pale King, following him, after a last look at the Abyss.
The main material is always the beginning of the leitmotif, but something changes when the solo violin comes in, starting at 0’36 : again the rhythm is modified, and now all the iterations of the motif are connected – whereas at the beginning of the fight they were almost only juxtaposed – creating a real melody, as if to transcend, to sublimate this thematic element and illustrate the will of the Vessel, of the two Vessels even, one chosen by the king, the other one who succeeded in ascending the Abyss and escaped from it even though it was sealed, this will to be more than a function, while the choir takes up this short motif in its original rhythm, it could be an evocation of the other vessels, which could not escape their sad fate but musically accompany this attempt ; it is all the more eloquent since here it is the violin that is used, not the viola : from the beginning the vessel’s instrument is the viola, and here the music frees itself from it, frees itself from the range of the viola and its tone, so beautiful but so dark that it would take us back to the depths of the Abyss, when here the violin tries to develop on an already rather wide ambitus (a perfect eleventh, from E5 to A6, i.e. the high register of the instrument) that it takes all the more time to cover as to each ascending element corresponds, again, a descending element, to emphasize the difficulty of this ascent.
This part is played again (1’12) and of course the orchestration is more and more intense for an obvious build-up, but when the orchestra begins to join the solo part (1’22 and especially from 1’25) it already announces the tragic outcome of both vessels : individuality becomes blurred.
The tension of the augmented second (0’53 and then again at 1’29) announces the end of this ascent and, one hopes, a victory, but the chorus takes over (1’51), the leitmotif in its original form wins out, these voices without words sound like a lament while the Infection remains, while the strings and then the brass instruments carry us away, by their descending motions, imbued with a certain fatality here – was there no other way out, one thinks – since each note is accentuated, towards the end of Hollow Knight.
When the fight’s over (1’51), the hero is now tied with those very chains from which they had freed the Hollow Knight : they now have to contain the Infection. After a last spectacular musical gesture, a glissando played tremolo on the strings, the final sound effect (from 2’15) almost creates a loop since it’s the same we had heard at the beginning
when we got the first spell, focus (without the piano notes, but it’s the same shimmering effect), spell which opens and closes the game since it is when we focus that we in turn become the Hollow Knight.
Dream no more…
After obtaining the Void Heart, we unlock two other endings (well, a third one includes a cryptic mushroom…), one of them, Sealed Siblings, being similar to the normal ending, except for the fact that Hornet finds herself locked up and acts as a new Dreamer, sealing the Temple of the Black Egg. You can hear this difference in the music, as the flute plays the beginning of the royal theme (with a uniform rhythm, as a soft echo of Hornet being now a Dreamer and put into an eternal sleep, to punctuate the end of the adventure) when Hornet’s mask appears where the former Dreamers’ masks once were : Hornet’s theme indeed used the royal theme.
The other end, Dream no more, allows us to confront the true final boss, the source of the Infection, the Radiance herself, in the Hollow Knight’s dream.
While the music associated with the vessels is essentially in C minor and E minor, the theme of the Radiance is in D minor ; the two battles being related, since the Radiance is fought while we are entering the Hollow Knight’s mind thanks to the Dream Nail, the instrumentation is similar, very orchestral (more epic than tragic), except for the choir, present from the beginning.
Thematically, the music immediately lets us hear the same ascending motif as in the fight against the Hollow Knight, but this time the motif does not evolve (it remains on a fourth), as if to translate the static character of the Radiance, which never attacks directly but uses spears, orbs and light beams. It also uses the very beginning of the leitmotif, just the ascending part, but quickly escapes from it.
We also find this exchange between ascending and descending motions : it starts at 0’20, but even more so, from 0’54 to 1’02 ; this perfectly illustrates the opposition between the Radiance’s movement, the fight being for a large part vertical and ascending, and even more generally the fact that Radiance is associated with Hallownest’s heights (if we think of her statue on Hallownest’s Crown) whereas the Void is associated with the depths, and will want to carry the Radiance down ; but before it can do so, the Void must contradict its nature : it gradually invades the screen, as Shadows join the Radiance, and after one last blow only followed by silence, both the Knight and the Hollow Knight sacrifice themselves, offering the fallen kingdom its long-awaited catharsis, as the Void absorbs the last traces of the Radiance’s blinding light.
In this ending, considered to be the “good” ending, the game also ends with a musical loop. Indeed, as Hornet regains consciousness, we hear the soft piano notes that gently underlined the valiant hero’s arrival in Hallownest’s heights, at the very beginning of the game.
The scene is longer and more conclusive : we see the little hero’s broken shell, while the flute joins the piano in a complaint we already heard – the royal theme, like in the Sealed Siblings ending, but longer, the musical phrase is complete since Hornet is free – then the viola again “sings” the vessels’ theme, as a tribute, while on the screen the Family appears, the Shadows of the vessels from the Abyss, made of Void ; but as the Void has triumphed over the Radiance’s blinding light, the Siblings curl and disappear, leaving the Abyss only filled with the vessels’ shells, as a last testimony of the Pale King’s madness, a king who in spite of his words was ready for a sacrifice, a cost far too great, the sacrifice of this vessel, anonymous then chosen, raised only to be locked up, unable to cry this suffering, a suffering alien at first, which then became their own, which impregnated them to the point of mutilating them : the sacrifice of the Hollow Knight.