Music of the Storm Chapter 2: Cursed Hollow

RozaiNews

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. While 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.

If this is your first time reading Music of the Storm, be sure to check out Chapter 1: The Battle Begins, where I breakdown the main title theme.

No Need to Worry!

Before we begin, I have some ground rules for myself to help with the reader experience. I will try to avoid music theory jargon whenever possible. At the very least, I will briefly explain something when I feel it is necessary. That said, I will also use this opportunity to share small aspects of music history or composition. Please forgive me if I go too far down the rabbit hole. This is the stuff I do for a living after all!

Cursed Hollow

(Be sure to click on the hyperlinks below for musical examples, comparisons, and demonstrations)

Today we will dive into the music for the Cursed Hollow battleground, composed by Glenn Stafford & Jason Hayes. Before going into specifics, it is important to consider the thematic elements one might expect when picturing a cursed hollow. Washington Irving or Tim Burton fans may immediately jump to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which would serve as a splendid comparison. In fact, if you watch a lot of Tim Burton movies scored by the great Danny Elfman (Batman, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, etc.) the theme of Cursed Hollow will contain many similar elements.

A cursed hollow brings to mind images of dark, dilapidated forests, hosting ancient evils beyond imagining. Drawing from our breakdown of The Battle Begins in Chapter 1, we can expect the composer to be using some form of the minor scale, which is typically reserved for dark sounding music.

In fact, the scale of choice for Cursed Hollow's first half is "A Mixolydian ♭6," a special version of the minor scale. To create this scale, we have to take a few steps.

(♯ = sharp, ♭ = flat)

First, we start with the D major scale:

D   E   F ♯  G   A   B   C♯  D

Then play the same scale, but starting on the 5th note (A). This is called "A Mixolydian":

A   B   C♯  D   E   F♯  G   A

Then lower the 6th note (F♯) by one half-step to F. This is called "A Mixolydian ♭6".

A   B   C♯   D   E   F   G   A

This scale is also referred to as the "Hindu" scale, as it is common in south Asian Hindi music. It can also be found is a variety of jazz and blues. It is used in the Cursed Hollow theme in a manner that plays off the dark half-steps between C♯ and D and between E and F.

Now that the scene is set, let's break this tune down.

The Breakdown

  • 0:00 - 0:38
    • The strings start off playing one note on repeat, A, which serves as the tonal root of our aforementioned scale. Taken literally, I believe the root of our scale represents the roots of the trees which make up the Cursed Hollow. When a note or pattern of notes is repeated like this with a consistent rhythm, it is referred to in music as an "ostinato." The ostinato can serve many functions, such as adding underlying momentum to otherwise lethargic music. In this case, I believe the ostinato gives us the sense of ultimate inevitability: a constant reminder of something that is always there, lurking over your shoulder like a demonic presence or the cold hand of death.
    • The violins, cellos, and basses take turns playing a simple melodic pattern: C♯, D, F, E. These are the closest notes of our scale, with only a half-step between each pair. This gives an eerie sense of danger, much like the theme from Jaws which uses the same concept.
  • 0:39 - 0:56
    • The French horns join in, expanding the melody's range higher. If the note A was serving as the roots of the trees, the expansion of the melody can represent our increasing awareness of how tall each foreboding tree truly is.
    • You will faintly hear the tom toms and timpani drums slowly joining in on the ostinato, adding more momentum to the climactic middle point of this piece.
  • 0:57 - 1:46
    • As more instruments enter, our forest thickens, increasing the tension and volume of the melody concurrently with the ostinato underneath.
    • You'll hear two versions of the melody, otherwise known as melody and countermelody, that move in opposite directions of each other. As one goes higher, the other goes lower. Our forest has many winding paths, but they all lead to one place, represented by the full orchestra landing on octave A’s at 1:40.
  • 1:47 - 1:57
    • Our winding journey has led us to the center of the hollow, guarded by a thick patch of branches, but we can sense something on the other side waiting for us. The dead drone from the lowest end of the piano plays to our innermost sensibilities of caution and worry.
  • 1:58 - 2:48
    • Danny Elfman and Tim Burton fans will surely feel at home with this portion of the piece. Chanting voices on top of a glockenspiel (bells) and piano usher us into the center of the Cursed Hollow, the epicenter of its mystery and power.
    • Flutes, clarinets, and violins join in with a bright shimmer of notes (another Danny Elfman homage), as our curiosity and wonder begin to spark.
  • 2:49 - 4:05
    • Our presence has disturbed the slumber of the Raven Lord, who rises from the grave with the bold, sweeping melody of the horns and repeated by the voices. This B♭ harmonic minor melody has everything you'd want in an evil theme.
  • 4:06 - end
    • The Raven Lord is none too happy, "Gather tribute, or face my curse. The choice is simple." This imposing finale in 5/4 time (5 beats per measure) is much like Mars, The Bringer of War by Gustav Holst, with heavy emphasis on beats 1 and 4 of every measure. The Raven Lord certainly intends to punish those who do not obey his will.

Trivia

If you listen to the music of Haunted Mines, you'll notice the same Raven Lord theme (2:49-end in Cursed Hollow) is used in a more aggressive, heavy metal fashion. This is because the Haunted Mines, Cursed Hollow, and Towers of Doom are all areas of Raven Court, one of the ancient realms of the Nexus and ruled over by the Raven Lord. The Raven Lord is in constant battle against the Grave Keeper, who sought to gain control over the Haunted Mines and managed to gain a foothold in the Towers of Doom where the two come head to head.

Conclusion

Glenn Stafford & Jason Hayes once again took us on a very real journey. As with all good art, we were immersed in imagery and symbolism buried in our subconscious. 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 that awesome music is on!

Russell (Rozai) Greene is a composer, arranger, and music educator with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in music education. He is the flex player and captain for the amateur Heroes of the Storm team Lords of the Exodar.