Of all the music that I teach to young kids, I usually rely on a surprisingly small handful of pieces to pass on to them. Standards like The Pink Panther, Linus and Lucy, and Let it Be are in my go-to folder. Lately, though, the tides have shifted to a far nerdier realm of music that I am more than happy to explore with my students; the music of classic video games. Last year, I transcribed a simplified version of the Super Mario Theme to add to my folder and I’ve found it’s now the one I’m most frequently copying.
I toyed with the idea of transcribing the full score of the first Mario game but abandoned that goal after I read this article. Someone has already beaten me to it, and quite frankly, I’m relieved. Transcription is a lot of tedious work. Joseph Karam, a pianist who is apparently either unemployed or independently wealthy, spent several months completing this task. Note by note, he etched out eighteen different musical themes complete with optimized fingering. You can even listen to each piece as a MIDI file on his website, and it’s undoubtedly legit.
It was a little while after reading this that I began to think about something: How could 25 years pass (and with it the creation of the internet) without anyone taking on and finishing this project? Transcription isn’t that much work. A little research showed that hundreds, maybe even thousands of people have already done it. Karam doesn’t deny this; he states on his site that he found some “fair approximations,” but he insinuates more than a few times that his score is undoubtedly the most authentic.
What I find truly audacious, though, is that Karam goes so far as to declare his own score as “superior” and “definitive.” First of all, let someone else (like the original composer Koji Kondo) decide what’s “superior” and what’s not. Doing it yourself is just tacky. Second, it’s insulting to the dozens of other musicians who completed similar projects years ago, especially considering that Karam cross-checked his own work with the “best transcription attempts out there.” Finally, what makes one transcription more authentic than another? The answer depends on who you ask. I’m probably several times more nostalgic about this music than the average geek (300+ words in this article already) and since Koji won’t return my phone calls, I’ll have to put in my two cents.
Karam’s work, while technically accurate, still falls short of the perfection it claims. The entire score lacks key expressive markings. I know it’s a stretch to associate the act of expression with an Italian plumber who uses mushrooms and stars to fight giant lizards, but just run with me here. Think back to when you first played Super Mario Bros. Remember dying eight times in a row attempting to beat the first castle? And then, when you had finally spent your last life falling into the same lava pit you fell in the last three times, something unexpected happened: a digital dirge sounded for the fallen Marios. It starts like the main theme, but it substitutes a heart-breaking minor chord and the tempo appropriately slows down as if to say, “Bummer, dude.”
This change in tempo is simple enough to notate. All you need are the letters rit (short for ritardando) in the score and it’s done. Karam, though, manually notates this with a slower rhythm and the results are noticeably different. When I listen to his Game Over Sound, the whole thing seems to go by far too quickly. It slows down a little, but not with the defeated deliberation I associate with the original. I’m nitpicking for the most part, and I’ll give Karam the benefit of the doubt; perhaps he intentionally omitted these little details to make it sound more faithful to its 8-bit origins. Still, I think he missed an opportunity. The musician in me demands more than a carbon copy of the original, even an intensely faithful one. I analyzed some of the more popular “approximations” and found what I searched for.
Self-taught pianist Phillip Kim finished his transcription three years before Karam, and his score is fundamentally different from Karam’s in a few subtle ways. In addition to utilizing the full palate of dynamic markings and other expressive direction (including the aforementioned ritardando), Kim peppered his score with what my old piano teacher would call “flighty moments,” or interpretive phrases that seem to come out of nowhere. For example, look at Karam’s “1-Up Mushroom Sound.” Now look at measure 38 of Kim’s Overworld Theme. It’s the exact same phrase! Kim’s Underworld Theme has even more of these little nuggets; the Coin Sound (measure 8), the Starman Theme (measures 10-17), the Power-up Sound (measure 20), and the Time Warning Sound (measure 24) just to name a few.
There are some purists who would say that Kim’s interpretations diminish the authenticity of his transcription, but I say the opposite is true; they enhance it. I have never listened solely to the music track on the Nintendo. I was always too busy playing the game. Listening to only the music would require making Mario stand still which would, of course, make the Death Sound all but a certainty. To keep the music going, Mario must run, jump, squish things, grab coins, and perform other actions that will inevitably change the music. A truly authentic transcription is unique to the transcriber, and Kim created exactly that; he rewrote the music as he experienced it.
Other geeks will disagree, and everyone else will think I’m ultimately comparing Mario to Luigi, which I am. So much of what both scribes did (and did quite well) resulted in nearly the same thing–namely spending a great deal of time writing out the music for a 25-year-old video game. Both musicians were committed to authenticity and accuracy, and the fact that both were willing to give it all away for free warms my heart.
But enough of that mush. Which one is better? I don’t want to seem wishy-washy with this answer, but it comes down to what you want in your Mario Music. Educationally, Karam’s score wins for being much easier to learn on. Kim’s score gets pretty tricky with constant meter changes and other added difficulties, not to mention the fact that Karam’s score provides fingering, an extraordinarily useful addition for any pianist.
Artistically, though, Kim wins hands down. I enjoyed listening to his piece more, and he infused more creativity and thoughtfulness into the project. It’s his personal touch that makes his transcription more memorable and more—well—musical.