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 their IPs, employing live musicians to create a genuine sound. While each IP 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 plays 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.
No Need to Worry!
Before we begin, I have set some ground rules for myself to help with the reader experience. I will always do my best to avoid music theory jargon whenever possible. At the very least, I will briefly explain something when I feel it is necessary. To those of you who also have music degrees, I’d love to go into deeper conversations with you on this topic, but for the sake of these articles I will try to keep them as readable as possible to the general viewer. Music is for all, not for some!
The Battle Begins
Today we will be diving in to the opening track of the Heroes of the Storm soundtrack entitled: The Battle Begins. To start, the chord structure of this tune is quite clever, skirting back and forth between two tonal centers of E♭ minor and E♭ major (read: E flat). For those unfamiliar with music terminology, minor keys and chords are often darker and used for more somber or evil sounding music whereas major is typically brighter in nature. E♭ minor is built from the notes E♭, G♭, and B♭, while E♭ major is built from E♭, G, and B♭. As you can see, one note change makes the difference between light and dark (G and G♭). Composer Glenn Stafford brilliantly uses the close relationship of these two tonal centers as a symbolic representation of what the Nexus embodies: the tense struggle of good and evil. The tune goes back and forth between E♭ major and minor and their related chords, even from measure to measure, as the battle rages on.
- Seemingly low-key, there is actually a lot going on here. Immediately we are introduced to a grim processional from the snare drum and timpani. Rudimental and persistent, this percussion entrance is marching us towards something, and as the mourning tones of the octave voices would indicate, that “something” is nothing good. A harp (and possibly a steel string guitar) is somberly plucking away in the faint distance. Violins enter with a sustained pitch on the highest string, resembling screams of pain, but that is counterbalanced by the bassoon entrance walking us back down to lucid reality.
- The oboe joins the bassoon with a unison melody, echoed and answered by the horns and male voices. This melody, unlike the percussion dirge underneath, is flowing above the rest, giving a sense of soaring and wonderment. The heroes are coming. Stafford adds hairpin crescendos and decrescendos (louder and softer) that matches the direction of the melody. As the melody goes higher in pitch, so does its volume and vice versa. Rising tension, lowering tension, rising tension, sustained tension.
- The melody is joined by a broader cast of characters: female voices, trumpets, and violins. The remaining strings transform into a repeated rhythm underneath, giving us rising motion and momentum. As more voices enter the fray, the intensity rises until it reaches its breaking point at 0:56. Finally, the battle has begun.
- The low brass and woodwinds, along with the timpani, blast resounding war cries (think the horn of Helm Hammerhand from Lord of the Rings). This harkens back to our earliest relationships with instruments in human history where horns made from antlers, bones, or shells were used to signal battle cries, communicate across the battlefield, or signal the hunt. The notes played here are just the roots of the chords used in the previous melody, just without the melody, leaving us to comprehend the sheer gravity of what is about to come.
- The rhythmic pattern in the strings continues, pushing us closer and closer to the front lines of the battle until…
- The strings are joined by the electric guitar! THAT’s what makes Blizzard, well…Blizzard! The drum set also joins the fray, bringing that modern edge. The voices bring back the soaring melody and now we’re cooking with gas!
- The last minute of this tune is just icing on the cake at this point. The theme has been reorganized in several different forms up to this moment, but now we are introduced to our first “B theme” which is like the continuation of a sentence. If the melody up to this point was, “We are heroes of the Nexus,” then the B theme is “…now watch this.”
- As the music comes to its dramatic conclusion with the cymbals still ringing and the strings returning to that shrill sustain, the baritone and bass male voices ring a resounding low drone, letting us know that evil will always remain, calling us to battle.
Speaking of that evil sounding ending. That four-note unison across the orchestra that occurs at 2:47 is a ubiquitous four-note pattern that pervades just about every single piece of music related to evil. Known as the "Dies Irae," a latin phrase meaning "Day of Wrath," this four-note pattern originated in old Gregorian chants of the 14th and 15 centuries. It has since been used across many symphonies, movie scores, and video games alike. If you hear this tune in a movie, you can bet that somebody is about to die. Check out this video below for some examples of the Dies Irae in popular films.
Glenn Stafford just took us on a very real journey. Much like a good story, this tune has an introduction phase where we get accustomed with the characters, a rising action and conflict, and a resolution. Even if you were to separate the music from the game to which it is connected, this track is self-reliant and tells its story through nothing but music and its connected emotions. That’s the abstract beauty that music and art brings 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 that awesome music is on!