The Art of Sound: Attack On Titan

There’s no denying the colossal hit that Attack On Titan has become, almost from the moment the first episode hit the airwaves. Nobody had ever seen anything quite like it, and the series has almost defined itself as a unique genre all it’s own at this point.

What makes Attack On Titan such a huge success, however, is pretty easy to explain. To put it simply, it has everything a good story needs. An epic plot for the fate of humanity, driven forward by extremely well realized characters, and enough plot twists to make Game of Thrones feel a bit envious. You can never be sure what’s going to happen next, and by the end of the first season, enough mysteries were hanging in the air that Colombo was stumped.

However, Attack On Titan had one more element working for it that took it to the next level. A truly amazing soundtrack that was designed, at every turn, to not just enhance the viewing experience, but to actively help tell the story, by filling in for dialogue when the need arose.

This is probably the smartest move that was made during production, to be honest. With this soundtrack working as an extra storytelling mechanic, Attack On Titan managed to reach a height of global popularity very few anime have ever seen before.

Crafted by Hirouki Sawano, the composer behind the soundtracks for shows like Zombie Loan, Sengoku Basara, Guilty Crown, Kill la Kill, and The Seven Deadly Sins, the music for Attack On Titan still stands head and shoulders over his other work.

Yes, that was a pun. I make puns now. Puns are cool.

A good soundtrack collaborates with a scene, enhancing it and helping sell the emotional state of the moment. A great soundtrack is part of the story, something that the final product would be much less appealing without. Sawano obviously knows this, and set out to create a soundtrack that was as integral to the story as Mikasa.

Yes, Mikasa. Screw Eren. Mikasa is the hero we need.

Right from the outset, the epic plot of the series is distilled down into a musical form. A composition that is such a part of the story now, we can’t imagine one without the other.

The piece starts with discordant noise almost, before launching into a choir piece that evokes The Omen. From there, it just gets… intense. I mean, that’s an intense piece of music. It doesn’t just sell the horror of the first Colossal Titan attack, it is the horror of that attack, and everything that comes after. The entire fall of Shiganshina and Wall Maria, the death of Carla Yeager, and Eren’s subsequent obsession. Everything. All of it. This one piece sums it up, and tells that story as well as the visuals.

It is the scene, and that’s flipping amazing.

Sawano wasn’t done with just building that, though. One of the key elements of Attack On Titan is the three dimensional maneuver gear, the only effective weapon humans have against Titans, and Sawano built an entire piece of music around it.

It’s a big piece of music, over five minutes long, but it is a multi use score, that can be cut up and moved around to built tension in almost any scene its needed, all without ever sounding repetitive. That’s pretty ambitious when it comes to an anime series score already.

However, it goes a step past that. It captures the feel of using the 3DM gear. The heavy, almost primal drumming that pounds like a heart running on pure adrenaline, the almost 80’s style synthesizer score that calls back to the big action films of that era, and the massive symphony horns that revel in the exhilaration of moving using such an amazing piece of equipment, as well as building the tension for what that gear is designed to allow you to face.

The whole thing is more than an action piece, it’s designed to emulate what it would feel like to the person using the 3DM gear. Physically and mentally, this is the piece of music that tells the story of being a solider in the world of Attack On Titan.

To me, it’s just plain amazing that Sawano saw that, and was able to construct such a huge piece of music around it. that’s talent, and skill, right there.

It wasn’t the only time Sawano sought to capture such a complex concept in the score, either. He focused another piece entirely on the very idea of being a soldier in this world, what it meant, what they stood for, and how important what they did was, including the sacrifices.

Counterattack Mankind is the music most people will recall playing during the cadets training, and the part where the cadets chose their military branch. Everything about it is part of those scenes, written specifically to tell the story of what they had trained for, what they were going to go do, and what it meant.

They were Titan hunters. The last, best hope of humanity. Their blood, their deaths, might move humanity forward an inch, and they knew it. They were hope incarnate, and they felt it.

The transition in the second half of the piece takes us to the weight of that, as the burden of being that hope begins to be realized, and the danger that comes with it is made manifest. Being the thing all mankind looks to for salvation is no easy thing to carry, and as the cadets, now soldiers, stepped into their role as the saviors of humanity, the lighter sounds of the first half become darker, more threatening, and more jagged.

It’s an incredible piece of music that tells the story of every solider in the world of Attack On Titan. That it does such a great job of conveying all of that, of being such an integral piece of music to conveying what every cadet is, is just amazing.

Sawano melded elements of all of these together to create one of the most recognizable pieces of the show, as well. The terror, the hope, the exhilaration, and the determination to survive at all costs, to live, and keep on living, with one of the most amazing pieces of musical composition I’ve heard in years.

So much of what drives this piece of music goes back to what Eren said to Mikasa that day, when they were still children. The words that turned Mikasa from a scared young girl, into one of the greatest soldiers in history.

“Fight! You have to fight to live! If you don’t fight, you’ll die, but if you fight, you might win! Fight!”

Attack On Titan is a series built around very deep seated human instincts. The will to live being the strongest of them. That piece of music, it captures the simple nobility of living, as well as the epic nature of that battle to survive. Setting it against the backdrop of Attack On Titan gives it even more resonance, as survival is the one thing humanity may no longer be able to do.

The music becomes the story of the human race as they stare into the face of extinction, and instead of cowering, spit in its eye, and fight for all they are worth, to live just one more day.

The entire soundtrack for Attack On Titan is simply amazing, but these are the pieces that I felt most strongly defined both the show, the concept of the story and the characters, and the things the story is trying to say. They are the best examples, at least in my mind, of how music can do more than add an extra element to a scene. How music can become part of telling the story, and elevate the entire thing into a whole new level.

In other words, epic music is epic, yo.

Much like Mikasa’s abs. Epic.
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