Music of the Storm
Written by: Rozai
Floating above the vast desert sands of Luxoria, the Sky Temple serves as a center of worship for the snake god, Ka. He stores his great power within the temples, each of them secured by guardians. With such defenses, no warriors would think to seize the god's power for themselves... or would they?
Table of Contents
Welcome to Music of the Storm, a segment where we take a moment to break down and appreciate the music and sound effects in Heroes of the Storm. Blizzard has a reputable track record of incorporating highly cultivated and stylistically appropriate orchestral scores into all of their games, employing live musicians to create a genuine sound. Whilst each game universe has its own unique feel, there is a unifying quality that ties all of Blizzard’s scores together with a special flavor. As a musician, this is a big part of what draws me in towards Blizzard games and what hits me in the feels when I’m watching those teaser trailers.
Today we dive into Sky Temple, composed by Glenn Stafford, which serves as the main theme for the titular battleground. Upon entering the Sky Temple, players will notice obvious homages to Egyptian culture. Giant obelisks with the faces of snakes and jackals tower over the landscape, Jackals being a common Egyptian feature honoring Anubis, god of embalming and the afterlife.
Through embalming and other careful postmortem practices, Egyptians would ensure a person’s spirit, or “ka”, would have a home. The Snake God of the Sky Temple goes by the name of “Ka”, perhaps implying that he serves a similar role to that of Anubis. Coincidentally, the snake from Rudyard Kipling’s classic novel The Jungle Book is named “Kaa,” coming from the sound of an open-mouthed hiss.
Ulduum zone, World of Warcraft
While the Sky Temple battleground is a Nexus-original, World of Warcraft fans may feel as if the Egyptian-themed zone of Ulduum heavily influenced the design. Ulduum is the home of the Tol’vir civilization, a lost yet advanced culture serving the Titans to protect the Forge of Origination. High above the desert rests Skywall and the Throne of the Four Winds, home of the Air Elemental Lord, Al’Akir.
Musical Structure and References
With so many clear visual references to Egyptian culture, the composer must ensure the music completes the immersive experience for the player. The primary goal for any video game or movie composer is to make music that enhances the consumer experience with familiar sounds but new ideas. Additionally, Glenn Stafford had to make the culturally distinct music sound like it belongs in Heroes of the Storm universe.
Let us begin by understanding the scale and key on which the Sky Temple theme is based. The Double Harmonic Major scale is not particularly common in Western music culture, however, it is very commonly associated with Middle Eastern music. It goes by many names, including the Byzantine scale, Arabic scale, and Gypsy scale. You may hear this scale in any movie featuring Middle Eastern themes, namely Disney’s Aladdin, but the most well known pop music reference may come from Dick Dale’s 1962 adaption of Misirlou (seen below), which literally translates to “Egyptian” in Turkish. This version of Misirlou was heavily used by the Black Eyed Peas in their 2004 tune, Pump It.
The Double Harmonic Major scale itself is interesting in its design, only holding on to the “major” naming due to the major triad in its 1st, 3rd, and 5th scale degrees. The rest of the scale could hardly be considered major, as it is evenly split between two harmonic tetrachords, hence the origin of its name.
The two harmonic tetrachords, D-E♭-F#-G and A-B♭-C#-D are what give this scale its unique texture and Middle Eastern sound. You can hear this scale in action in the video below, along with how it creates the opening melody.
A tetrachord is a scale of four notes, with the interval between the first and last being a perfect fourth. A harmonic tetrachord is simply 4 consecutive notes that exhibit the following pattern:
- Starting pitch
- Half step
- Whole step + half step (augmented second)
- Half step
In Western music this pattern usually only occurs once at the end of one type of scale, known as Harmonic Minor. Double Harmonic Major uses this pattern to start and end its scale, once starting on D and again starting on A. This allows for strong melodies to occur in one of two tonal areas (D and A), while staying in the same key. It also provides a very fluid listening experience throughout, sliding up and down like the movements of a snake.
To keep things simple and focused, today’s article will only breakdown the first two-and-a-half minutes of music of the seven minute Sky Temple track. This section seems to be representative of a sacrificial ceremony being conducted by the denizens of the Luxoria realm. I will help paint the musical picture as I hear it, but I encourage readers to continue with the rest of the track and continue the story.
0:00-0:38 (Melody A)
- The drums enter with a ceremonial cadence, accented by two different types of shakers giving the distinct sound of a snake rattle. This may be honoring the Snake God Ka. The strings and flute enter with Ka’s melody, with a steel string guitar continuing the melodic idea. The flute returns at 0:20, doubling the guitar melody in an exotic dance. At 0:30 the shaker amplifies its rattle, building intensity towards the extension of the melody at 0:38.
- I believe the flute, violin, and guitar soloists to be major players in the ceremony. Any of which could be the ceremonial leader, performer, or perhaps a sacrifice.
- Ancient Egyptian flutes, called ney, were very much like wooden recorders and used in both ritualistic and entertainment venues. The kanun was a plucked string instrument much like a box zither. Glenn Stafford westernized these traditional sounds with the modern flute and electric guitar.
0:39-1:12 (Melody A extended)
- This is where Glenn Stafford begins to tie the Egyptian themes into the fabric of the Blizzard universe, which is so frequently represented by heavy metal. The drum set enters with a rock groove, with the electric guitar and electric bass strumming power chords throughout. The flute carries on its dance accompanied by the violin. The introductory line is directly repeated to herald a new section of music.
1:13-1:44 (Melody A, variation 1)
- The electric guitar takes the leading role once again, with counter-melodic responses from the flute and violin. Whatever ceremony that is taking place to honor Ka is moving towards its climatic moment.
- Two-part chanting from the choir enters, further solidifying the religious elements for the Sky Temple worshipers. The sacrifice to Ka is has been accepted and he is bestowing his power.
Glenn Stafford took us on a real, immersive journey. As with all good art, we were immersed in imagery and symbolism buried in our subconscious. He expertly combined real world musical references with quintessential Blizzard flavor to provide a unique listening experience. It is important to note that the breakdown I provided is only my interpretation of the musical story. These things are always up for interpretation and discussion, but that's what makes for good art. That’s the abstract beauty which music and art bring to the human experience, and Blizzard understands its importance intimately.
I hope this listening guide has been helpful to you. Next time you’re in the Nexus, click “Ctrl+M” and make sure the music is on!
If you enjoyed this content and want more, please check out my first two articles in this series and be sure to come back TeamLiquid.net for future installations.
Rozai is a brand new writer for LiquidHeroes. You can check out his debut article on the Diablo rework here