THE BORROWERS: Leitmotif in Undertale

By James Hoffman

Welcome to the first installment of The Borrowers!  I am James Hoffman, a composer in Los Angeles.  I grew up playing both music and video games – about thirty years ago now — and I never grew out of it.  In a lot of ways we are in an amazing time for both.  It doesn’t matter what your favorite style or genre or aesthetic is – people are out there making it every day.  I also love that music from video games is more popular and accessible than it’s ever been.  Composers are rock stars and the remix scene is booming, which gives us a great opportunity to STUDY.  

No, wait, come back!  Hear me out…  

Behind every great composer is a great teacher – many teachers, in fact – and that includes not only personal mentors but the vast library of works that preceded them.  And now that the great game music floodgates have been flung open, we’re going to examine them and borrow some of the ideas we find to improve our own music.  Come along with me, and please ask questions along the way – my contact info will be at the bottom.

For our first topic we are looking at the use of leitmotif in the game Undertale, composed by Toby Fox.  Leitmotif is a musical theme associated with a person, place, idea, or situation, and is repeated and often developed over time.  Leitmotif works great in story-driven entertainment, such as operas, movies, and video games, as it can give us emotional insight into characters and their relationship to others, foreshadow events, or inform us of the presence of characters that aren’t on screen.

The soundtrack for Undertale is filled to the brim with leitmotifs.  In fact, it’s the very reason I fell in love with this soundtrack.  Characters and environments have musical themes constantly changing and morphing into different styles to fit the situation, interweaving with each other to show relationships forming and breaking, telling stories with music – it’s exciting!  If you know what you are looking for, the soundtrack even goes to the point of spoiling major plot points, which I will try my best to avoid here.

Since a full analysis of the Undertale soundtrack could fill a book (if you’re reading this, Toby, let me know if you’d like me to write that book), we will only be looking at a single theme and some of the ways it develops.  The theme we are discussing is first heard in the opening music of the game, “Once Upon a Time”; I consider it to be the Hero’s Theme. I think of it as the Hero’s Theme because, with rare exception, we hear this melody a) when the protagonist has full agency to explore a non-combat area, such as Toriel’s home or the resort, or b) repeatedly toward the end of the game in situations that spotlight the protagonist having made pacifist choices (the heroic path for this game).  The full Hero’s Theme, as heard throughout “Once Upon a Time”, is, unusually, made up of three separate sections, though many times they are all found together.  We will be focusing on the “A” section of the Hero’s Theme:


Our theme is a simple four-bar melody, presented clearly the first time it is heard, using only basic rhythms and accompanied by only a bassline. This melody is the first sound we hear in the game, certainly a deliberate choice. These factors together create the best opportunity for the player to remember this theme, and the flexibility for the composer to modify it in future iterations. To further solidify the Hero’s Theme in the player’s mind, a variation of it is presented again at the start menu every time we return to the game.

The first time we hear the Hero’s Theme during gameplay is when we reach Toriel’s Home, with the appropriately named track, “Home”.

Here we find several changes to our Hero’s Theme, the most obvious of which is our instrumentation. The lo-fi, in-your-face synthesizer has been changed to the soothing tones of a finger picked acoustic guitar. Also, the harmonies that could only be implied with a melody/bassline combination have now been filled out with arpeggiated chords. Finally, the straight quarter/half note rhythm is now syncopated. All of these changes add up to the same basic theme with a totally new sound and feel. What once was stoic, serious, and bold is now comforting, familiar, and safe, exactly as it should feel in Toriel’s Home.

The next transformation to discuss is tempo. Changing the speed has a great effect on the music. The fastest example is found in “Can You Really Call This A Hotel, I Didn’t Receive A Mint On My Pillow Or Anything” (which is also the winner for the longest title).

This version is pure fun; it’s upbeat and exciting, almost to the point of being frantic. Conversely, the slowest occurrence and my favorite example of the transformative properties of a melody is “The Choice”.

If not paying attention, you may not even realize that “The Choice” is a variation on our Hero’s Theme. Each note in the theme is slowed dramatically, to the point that a quarter note lasts about 8-10 seconds each. This allows the music to be atmospheric, present but not demanding on the listener. However, upon realizing the melodic connection, it creates a profound “A ha!” moment for the listener and gives the situation a weight that would not be present if any other notes had been chosen.

The final example that we will look at here (though not the last occurrence in the soundtrack– have fun finding them all!) is “SAVE the World”.

In “SAVE the World” we once again see our Hero’s Theme in a new style, this time as a pop-punk rendition. However, the melody itself is modified. The first five notes of the theme are played, but we get a different musical response to our setup. We can view this as either a partial melody or a modified melody, the end result being the same either way. For the listener, these five notes are enough to allow them to recognize the theme, but then be surprised when it defies their expectations. This helps keep interest up, especially after hearing the theme repeated as often as it is this late in the game.

So how can we use this information in our own music? As a composer writing longform works, leitmotifs can attach emotional identities to characters and create melodic hooks for the listener to identify. For a remixer or an arranger writing short pieces, studying how other composers modify themes can inspire us on how to use similar techniques to put a unique spin on preexisting melodies. Looking back at our examples, we’ve seen modifications on rhythm, harmony, tempo, genre, instrumentation, and even the melody itself. That gives us a lot to work with!

As I said at the beginning, I’d love to hear your thoughts or questions, and I’d especially love to hear examples of your music incorporating these ideas!