High Scores: Song of Storms

Perhaps you also had this experience during your first playthrough of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time: You’ve just met the Big Z herself. You’ve learned “Zelda’s Lullaby” from Impa. You’ve been entrusted with Zelda’s Letter and instructed to give it to the Gatekeeper in Kakariko Village, where you head promptly, meeting the guard in question at the foot of Death Mountain and pressing the assigned C button to show him the Letter. However, you’ve pressed the button just out of range of the guard’s narrowly programmed zone of attention. The Letter does nothing. There must be some other check to clear in Kakariko, you conclude. You do everything you possibly can in the Village, wrangling Cucco Lady’s seven deranged chickens just to get an empty bottle, warding off subterranean zombie hugs to learn the “Sun Song,” its ability to turn day to night of no immediate consequence. The gate to Death Mountain remains decidedly closed. Eventually, you make your way inside the village Windmill, where you’re greeted with a question mark and the smiling, avuncular Phonogram Man. By now, you know strangers in this universe love nothing more than unsolicited ocarina jam sessions, so you pull out your trusty tootler, and lo and behold, a staff appears at the bottom of the screen, your cue to let music open the way forward. You play “Zelda’s Lullaby”—nothing. “Saria’s Song”—zilch. Perhaps you correctly guess the melody playing in the background, what you will come to know as the “Song of Storms”: A, C-down, C-up, A, C-down, C-up—still, bupkis.

Reader, I tell you I stayed in that windmill for hours, running through eight-note combinations like a problem child hacking the parental controls on the cable box. All I needed was to go back to the Gatekeeper and pull out the Letter a few pixels to the left. Instead, I stayed up all night playing a song I was too young to learn.

That’s the temperament of “Song of Storms”: agitato. It’s a song of not knowing what to do with what you’ve just encountered. No matter how obviously meaningful the thing in front of you appears, there is no way you can learn its meaning. Not yet. It’s a tease, a feeling Zelda fans at least tolerate and likely love. “Song of Storms” is that feeling in triple time. When you finally learn what Phonogram Man is doing in the windmill as Adult Link, that’s when you learn “Song of Storms” officially. It conjures a cloudburst in the windmill, rain falling like a rush of dopamine as the windmill’s axle spins faster and faster. You know what you’ve got to do: go back in time and wreck this man’s life.

Phonogram Man: what’s his deal? I had long thought of him as an organ grinder, sans monkey, because he’s turning a crank while vaguely Italian music plays. (He can’t be playing the song, can he? You haven’t taught it to him yet.) But it’s not an organ he’s grinding: it’s a Victrola-ish doohickey. (Yet another complication: Phonogram, a phonetic term, should be Phonograph. This must have been a misprint in the Zelda Encyclopedia.) So…he’s holding and cranking a record player, with no visible record, and somehow, he can also learn and play songs taught to him by time-traveling children? There’s more than a bootstrap paradox going on here.

“Song of Storms” is structured like the songs you learn as Child Link: a sequence of three notes played twice in a row. There are six of these songs, marked with gray eighth-notes on the Quest Status menu, and six songs with more complicated, colorful, nonrepeating melodies all learned as Adult Link. These latter songs suffer from their maturity: in a soundtrack full of classics, they are among the least memorable. Compare the “Song of Time” to the “Prelude of Light”; both are associated with the Temple of Time, but the simpler melody of the “Song of Time” slaps while the cheery “Prelude” is just kind of … there. “Song of Time” has the richer legacy; it shows up in several post-OoT Zelda and Smash Bros. titles, while “Prelude of Light” enjoys an a-woo rendition by Wolf Link in Twilight Princess and that’s about it.

Another problem with the Adult Link, nonrepeating songs is their relatively narrow application: each one can teleport Link to one of six locations throughout Hyrule. Yes, teleportation is great and all, but narratively, it doesn’t have the same payoff. All six songs do essentially the same thing. “Song of Storms,” on the other hand, is a musical Swiss-army knife: it opens grottoes, fills up ponds, entertains frogs, and, most importantly, drains the Well in Kakariko Village, giving Child Link access to the ghoulish flophouse known as the Bottom of the Well. It’s telling that the greatest reward for learning the “Song of Storms” is access to horror. The impossibility at the center of the bootstrap paradox (known as the Windmill Paradox in the OoT fan community) is monstrous. When it is represented in literature, time travel rarely goes well for the traveler. Yet the ability to return to one’s childhood with the knowledge gained in adulthood is tantalizing. Perhaps one would be able to confront the sources of evil in one’s past, to obtain the Lens of Truth and return to the present to ferret out falsehood. “Song of Storms” teases the player with the ultimate power: controlling one’s own fate.

While not a whole lot has been said publicly about “Song of Storms” by its composer Koji Kondo nor by the OoT soundtrack’s many fans, it is without a doubt beloved and recognized as a classic. In SupraDarky’s legendary list of the 2,600+ “Best VGM” songs, “Song of Storms” is No. 11. It also bears a remarkable resemblance to the iPhone’s default text-message chime, which feels appropriate. Nothing feels quite as pregnant with unknown consequence as the moments between receiving and checking a text. Did the folks at Apple rip Kondo off? If they did, they had good reason. An homage to frustration, “Song of Storms” is also frustratingly catchy. It has been stuck in my head for roughly the last 24 years, especially when it rains. It’s what I’ll hum to myself when I’m white-knuckling the steering wheel through a downpour to keep my car from hydroplaning into a ditch. I love the “Song of Storms” even though it gave me no small amount of frustration as a youngster, frustration I am certain Nintendo intended.