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The Copyright Incident, which gave rise to the well-known Zelda theme

Shigeru Miyamoto, Takashi Tezuka, and Koji Kondo all spoke about how the game’s title music was created in an interview for The Legend of Zelda’s 30th anniversary in 2016. Tezuka’s notes just asked for “title music,” so Kondo didn’t have much to go on of.

As a result, Kondo arranged “Bolero” by classical composer Maurice Ravel for the NES to play over the scroll. Everything appeared to be in order until the crew discovered that “Bolero” was still under by copyright and wasn’t allowed to be used without the appropriate licensing.

The interview talks about the early NES projects’ strict schedules, and Kondo-san explains how vague briefing documents were often, leaving him with limited information when composing tracks for early NES projects.

The original intention was to include a NES reworking of some classical music—Ravel’s Boléro—before “The Copyright Incident” in The Legend of Zelda’s opening theme. The track in question was not exactly 50 years out of copyright (counting from the date of the composer’s death), according to Nintendo’s first belief, so Kondo-san had to work swiftly through the night to replace it.

Following below is a trimmed version of the relevant section.

Kondo: I knew I needed completely different music since Super Mario Bros. is a completely different world, so I wasn’t sure what to do. And The Legend of Zelda has an opening crawl, so I wondered about what should play during that too. Tezuka-san’s written request simply says, “title music.” (laughs)

Tezuka: (laughs)

Kondo: For quite a while, it just played Ravel’s Bolero. It really matched the opening crawl!

Miyamoto: You rearranged it for the NES, right?

Kondo: Right. But immediately before finishing The Legend of Zelda, we learned it was still under copyright.

Tezuka: Uh-huh. (laughs)

Miyamoto: Oh, I remember that! (laughs) The Copyright Incident! In Japan, music usually enters the public domain 50 years after the death of the composer.

Ravel, who wrote the music we were using for the opening crawl, lived a long time ago, so we thought we were safe. But we looked it up just to be safe and found out it had been something like 49 years and 11 months since Ravel’s passing and the copyright would run out in a month. But we didn’t think we could wait that long. (laughs)

And we couldn’t delay the release of the Family Computer Disk System.

Kondo: So I pulled an all-nighter to compose the opening song. But it’s just an arrangement of music used in the game.

Miyamoto: He reworked it to sound more like an intro.

Kondo: I was desperate. It was really down to the wire.

Miyamoto: The Legend of Zelda was nearly complete. Perhaps that incident is why I really like that opening song. It’s sort of like music in a spaghetti western film.

The essence of that type of tune is concentrated in the opening song and, above all, it suggests courage. So I think it’s the perfect song to play when you set out on an adventure.

So it’s a good thing that Kondo-san spent all night composing it.

Kondo: For sure! (laughs)

Check out the video of Ravel’s Boléro below if you need a refresher.

Wondering how the opening may have sounded if Ravel’s Bolero wasn’t protected by copyright? Listen to the 8-bit arrangement one fan added to the Zelda title scroll.


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