Covering a Tune: Arranging Music for Groundhog’s Day with Beta Test Music – Part 5

On February 2nd, my band, Beta Test Music (, will be performing another big concert of video game music and other nerdy favorites at First Unitarian Church in downtown Philadelphia (see here for information and tickets).  This series of posts will highlight the music that I arranged for the concert, explaining the choices in musical selection, instrumentation, and overall presentation.

Man, I love Amano’s artwork.

In Part 1 and Part 2, I discussed my musical selection process/performance considerations for my medley of music from Akumajou Densetsu (Castlevania III) for Beta Test Music and 2a03+VRC6.  In Part 3, I discussed my arrangement of music from Earthbound/Mother 2.  In Part 4, I talked about my arrangement of tunes from Nintendo’s Pokemon – 1st Generation (Red, Green, Blue, Yellow).  AND TODAY – in the FIFTH AND FINAL INSTALLMENT of my posts – we’ll talk about my arrangement of music from Squaresoft’s (it was still Squaresoft back then, I believe) Final Fantasy III/VI.

First Impressions:

Many of you by now know that the game we played as kids, Final Fantasy III, was actually the sixth installment of the Final Fantasy series.  There’s a lot of reasons for us not getting the other games but I won’t really go into it.  Google can explain everything, I promise.

Final Fantasy VI is probably the reason I’m doing what I do today.  The tunes from this game are really what solidified my love of music, both classical and video game based.  I’ve played through this game so many times that I can successfully write down an entire walk-through, room by room, without actually being in front of the game (I’ve had to exercise this ability before on command and I’ve been pretty darn accurate).  I used to sit in my room and play along with the battle themes and dungeon themes on bass.  I was that kid.  I mean, did you expect anything different?  I’m writing a game blog haha.

I was trying to think of how many play-throughs I’ve done of FF6 and I think it’s something like 45-50.  I lost track.  I used to beat this game once every other weekend when I was in middle school, start to finish.  My favorite set up is the Invincible Gau – Merit Award + Genji Glove + 2x Tempest + Rage: Stray Cat = Cat Scratch for everyone… a lot of times!  Try it – it’s a lot of fun.

Anyhow, enough nerd flexing here.  Let’s talk about the music.

Musical Selections:

Final Fantasy VI, composer: Nobuo Uematsu

The soundtrack to this game is massive.  And it’s also really good.  There are very few tracks that would boring for the audience to experience if they’ve played the game.  Most of the music is iconic in its own right.

Naturally, the one thing I’ve wanted to do from this game for YEARS is “Dancing Mad” – the whole freaking thing.  Like, that would be so epic and amazing.  There have been other versions of this tune, by Uematsu’s own The Black Mages, at Distant Worlds II, etc.  I’m actually disappointed with these versions… I don’t know if they capture the tune exactly.  I mean, one of them is Uematsu’s direct interpretation of his own music… but still!  I think it could be better, somehow.  Point is:  I’m not covering “Dancing Mad”…. this time…

My selection process boiled down to really what works for the group.  A lot of the battle themes and what not have a wide array of extra instruments that we can’t really pretend to emulate.  That’s kind of the issue with covering tunes from SFC/SNES games- it’s not just 3 audio channels.  There’s incredible amounts of polyphony and with a group that only has 4-5 instruments, it’s really hard to give the music justice.  This immediately eliminated many of the tunes with deeper polyphonic textures.

I did, however, find some pieces I thought really fit for the style of the group.  Uematsu likes to write for some SNES instruments that sound like french horns and trombones.  I really geared my selections toward that.  Let’s take a look.

Performance Considerations:

For this piece, we’ll be using our standard set up:  soprano sax, french horn, trombone, tuba, piano, and drum set.

As you know, I’m a big fan of covering tunes from the beginning of games, throwing in some tunes that I like, and then kind of making a medley out of all that material.  Naturally, I wanted to start this off with something you’d see/hear just by starting a new game:

Final Fantasy VI – “Opening Theme”

Okay, so while I love the stacked fourths that this opens with… well… we only have 4~ instruments and there’s certainly more than 4 notes here.  I decided to cut part of the intro.  We will start right at 1:14, skipping the initial part.

We don’t have bells so I decided to have the tuba come in with a low C.  I mean, LOW C.  We’ll see if I can pull this off on Saturday.  I may wuss out.  I have everything orchestrated so that the soprano sax takes the upper lines.  French horn and trombone travel a bit across the harmonies.  There’s so many instruments in the texture, I had to really scale down what I thought we’d be able to do.  I have piano try to save us a bit by covering some lines… but still.

We then move to that “Terra” or “Tina” part of the “Opening Theme”.  Soprano sax is a dead ringer for oboe or whatever that instrument Uematsu assigns for the melody is.  I have trombone and french horn cover the string flourishes in the background.  Tuba covers the bass line.  Piano covers the “celeste”-ish sound.  Simple.

Final Fantasy VI – “Awakening”

Okay, I don’t go and cover “Terra’s Theme” again here, I just use the first part of this piece as a transition.  Soprano sax covers the upper voice in a rubato style- the rest of the band enters on fermatas and moves harmonically when needed.  This is about a 10 second transition.  Then, we’re met with another theme:

Final Fantasy VI – “The Returners”

I always loved this theme.  It just happens to fit very well with our orchestration.  Tuba covers the bass line, of course.  Soprano sax covers the melody, with trombone and french horn assisting with the counter melodies as needed.  Piano covers the repetitive string parts.

As far as I know, there’s either no covers of this song or not many, at least live.  I’m happy we’re doing it.  I’m also happy we’re doing this:

Final Fantasy VI – “Save Them!”

This was a stretch.  There’s a TON of voices in this tune… but it’s so perfect.  This was probably one of my favorite themes as a kid.

Soprano sax covers a lot of the moving string lines.  Be on the lookout for Mark, he’s going to be playing a lot of notes haha.  French horn, in this piece, is actually orchestrated for low horn (you’ll notice it when you listen to the piece).  I have french horn cover those spots and more.  Trombone and tuba cover various lines.  There’s a VERY prominent timpani part so I have tuba cover a lot of that.  I also have tuba cover the very fast moving lower voice line at :33.  I’m proud of how this turned out.  It’s going to sound so freaking cool.

After “Save Them!”, I wrote an original transition based off “Locke’s Theme”.  Trombone is in the melody and tuba responds.  After two fermatas, we move to probably one of the most fun pieces we have planned for the entire program….

Final Fantasy VI – “Metamorphosis”

Wait for Shadow?

I love this piece.  A lot.  And anyone’s who’s played the game knows this is a very frantic and emotional time in the plot.  I know this has been covered before… but not with tuba, haha.  Soprano sax handles the upper lines (including some of the ridiculous string runs toward the end of the piece).  French horn and trombone act as a section and cover all those meandering, for lack of a better way to put it, “Phantom of the Opera”-like lines in the background.  Tuba rocks out.  This is criminally fun to play.  Drums hold down the hard rock beat.

This is a lot of material, obviously, but I figured we needed on last tune to bring it all together so I chose a theme that really shows off the orchestral nature of Uematsu:

Final Fantasy VI – “Locke”

I figured this would be a perfect closer.  Soprano sax covers the lead, as usual.  French horn and trombone… well, they cover tons of different parts throughout the piece to make it all work.  Tuba covers the bass line, as usual.

I created a small transition with french horn, tuba, piano, and drums alone and then we go into a reprise of Locke’s theme, in a new key and with a slower tempo.  I tried to really play hard into the orchestral nature of our instrumentation.  There’s a pretty dramatic trombone and tuba solo in octaves at the end.  The piece winds down and ends on a very open chord.  I thought this added a nice little touch.

Ah, darn, I said I wouldn’t go over 1000 words and we’re at 1500.  Yikes.


I’m extremely excited that we’re playing this piece.  If you want to hear it live, you’re going to have to come to our concert this Saturday, February 2nd, at First Unitarian Church – Chapel in Philadelphia.  It’s going to be a pretty amazing time, trust me.  It’ll be good to stop and talk to some of you about video game music too, IN PERSON.  So psyched for that.  If you’re interested in attending, you can find tickets here.  Otherwise, I promise I’ll put up some live audio after the concert so you guys can hear how some of the stuff turned out.  Take it easy, folks!

About Classical Gaming

Steve Lakawicz holds an MM in Music Performance from Temple University as well as a BM in Tuba Performance from Rutgers University . His teachers include Paul Scott, Scott Mendoker, and Jay Krush. His love of video game music has lead him to form a blog, Classical Gaming, to promote discussion both casual and academic about the music of video games. He is the co-founder of the video game/nerd music chamber ensemble, Beta Test Music and regularly composes/performs chiptune music as Ap0c. He currently resides in Philadelphia where he teaches college statistics at Temple University. View all posts by Classical Gaming

3 responses to “Covering a Tune: Arranging Music for Groundhog’s Day with Beta Test Music – Part 5

  • connorbros

    Reading “Wait for shadow?” just sent a shiver down my spine haha. Great memories of this game, and it looks like a solid line up of songs.

    • Classical Gaming

      Thanks! It’s going to be real fun. I remember the first time I got there as a little kid, I got to that point and jumped because I was so scared. I think there were tears. Nah, there definitely were! Hahaha.

      • connorbros

        I actually can’t even remember the first playthrough… I was more watching my brother play it (though he let me do blitzs with Sabin) because I was 5 or so, but definitely one of the most heart wrenching moments in gaming.

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