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Nobuo Uematsu: The Man Behind the Music of ‘Final Fantasy’

For those even remotely familiar with the Final Fantasy series, there are typically a few key features that jump to the front of their minds: intricate worlds imbued with magic, Moogles rearing their mischievous heads, Chocobos running wild through fields of Cactuars and epic boss battles like no other.

But underlying these elements is always a spectacular soundtrack, perfectly fitted to the game’s atmosphere. Since the start of the franchise, Nobuo Uematsu has been the man behind the music, creating the tunes that have now become synonymous with the Final Fantasy name.

As the musical responsibilities for the Final Fantasy franchise pass from his hands to the qualified hands of Yoko Shimomura (perhaps best known for her work on Kingdom Hearts) for Final Fantasy XV, it seems appropriate to honor the man who has been an intrinsic part of the game’s universe since its inception.

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Uematsu has written for most of the entries in the Final Fantasy franchise.

Uematsu, referred to in many circles as the John Williams of the video game industry, seemed destined for the world of music since his childhood.  Inspired by Elton John, he taught himself how to play the piano at the age of 12.  Through his entire career, Uematsu has never received any formal training.

Contrary to what many aspiring composers may do today, Uematsu did not set out to make his name as one of the masterminds behind one of the greatest video game or movie franchises in history.  Uematsu relied on pure talent and determination in creating his first video game soundtrack for Cruise Chaswer Blassty.  It was while creating this first composition that he was first enlisted by Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of Final Fantasy, to write music for the now-famous title.

Working within the confines of the electronic sounds produced by the NES would have been a challenge for any composer, even one with years of training. Uematsu’s creativity served him well as he chose to play with the frequencies of the sounds rather than the sounds themselves. This allowed him to show the emotion that has become a staple of any of his tracks, past or present.

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However, Uematsu never intended to enter the video game industry, and had no intentions of staying long.  His heart drove him closer to Hollywood than his homeland of Japan.

“When I was a kid I actually grew up desperately wanting to compose songs for movie soundtracks,” Uematsu said in an interview with IGN. “As fate would have it, I ended up in the video game industry, simply because there didn’t happen to be any jobs available for film composing at the time!”

Looking back on his early days now, Uematsu has found a certain level of appreciation for his stumble into the world of Sonic and Spyro. The esteemed composer found an independence in his work creating some of the most well-known video game tracks of all-time.

“Directors on films could be quite… bothersome to work with.  They tend to be very picky about how things should be and I think it’d be quite stifling as a composer. I wouldn’t feel the same amount of freedom that I have working with video games, and that I’m very fortunate to have,” Uematsu remarked.

This doesn’t mean that the world of video games has been without its share of pressures. One of the most memorable tracks ever written by Uematsu came from a last-minute plea by Sakaguchi. The music man had just finished composing what he thought would be all of the tracks for the game when Sakaguchi asked for one final track, giving Uematsu thirty minutes to craft what would be played in the background of the opening screen.

This became “Prelude”, a track so famous it is practically synonymous with the name Final Fantasy itself. Appearing in most of the Final Fantasy games (although with some variations and on different screens), “Prelude” has become one of the staples of the franchise.

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Uematsu decided to set out on his own in 2004, leaving behind the halls of Square Enix to create his own production company, Smile Please.  A few short years later in 2006, the gifted man began Dog Ear Records, a music production company specializing in video game soundtracks as well as some original albums.

Despite stepping out on his own and leaving an official role at the company, Uematsu has continued to act as a freelancer for the developer, working on tracks for more recent Final Fantasy titles like Final Fantasy X and the online MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV. He’s continued to find success, making history in 2012 when “Aerith’s Theme”, a track from Final Fantasy VII, became the first piece of music written for a video game to appear in the Classic FM Hall of Fame.

Although Uematsu will not be a part of the franchise moving forward, his legacy continues to live on in other ways. Orchestral concerts like “Distant Worlds” are centered on the tracks that have made Uematsu famous. Huge screens show images from the Final Fantasy games in the middle of the performance. This sets it apart from what many would consider the standard symphonic experience.

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Distant Worlds has performed around the world, releasing three albums of live recordings.

After creating over a hundred tracks for the franchise over his storied career, one track stands out to Uematsu as one he’s most proud to have left behind.

“The theme from Final Fantasy is basically the song I’d like to be remembered by,” Uematsu said.  “I think it’s very soft and warm, but there’s a strength to it. It’s appealing and I think it’s the most important song in terms of everything I’ve ever done.”

While the world of Final Fantasy will continue to grow and evolve without him, Uematsu’s inspiring tracks were vital to the creation of some of the world’s most beloved games.  He has paved the way for a new generation of composers to embrace what can be done with new technologies, and new forms of entertainment.

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2 comments

John Cal McCormick November 29, 2016 at 8:33 am

Super article. There should be more of this.

Uematsu’s music, particularly in the SNES and PSOne era of Final Fantasy games was amongst the best music ever composed for video games. Music was kinda more important back then – without voices or motion capturing, the music needed to more firmly convey emotions than in games today – and Nobuo Uematsu was a master. There’s dozens of great scenes in Final Fantasy games that are memorable not just for what’s going on on screen, but because of the soundtrack too, and a lesser composer wouldn’t have been able to pull that off.

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Sara Winegardner November 29, 2016 at 9:00 am

Thanks for the kind words, John!

100% agree with you there. Hearing the music from Final Fantasy VII in particular takes me back to my early days playing PSOne, and the way that his music transports you to another time or world is remarkable. I desperately wish that the man received more recognition for the work that he’s done by those outside of the video game world, he’s truly one of the greats.

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