Undertale OST: 021 Dogsong
Updated: Jun 12, 2022
I work as a piano practice coach with a group of students. For those who don’t know, it’s kind of like a piano tutor: I’m not their main piano teacher who gives them learning material, sets a curriculum, and decides and directs the educational activities (performance opportunities, festivals, competitions, exams…) - that is not me for this student. Usually the teacher assesses the benefits and necessity of having a practice coach on their piano teaching team, they or the students' parents contact me, and then I show up and help navigate their practice sessions to hit their weekly piano goals! It varies a lot between students: sometimes they hardly need my help but our lessons provide some structure in the week to form a habit and discipline of practicing regularly, sometimes my involvement is much heavier and requires more creative personalized strategies if a student is struggling with a concept, or with executing a particular technique, or anything else related to their assigned tasks and homework given in their classes.
Anyway. This particular student I’ve been working with for a couple of years now. He is currently 11 and over time, I have had the privilege to watch him grow as a person and a pianist, as well as learn about all his other interests and fun answers to “how was your day? What fun things did you get up to this week?”. One (of many) of these includes video games.
Undertale is an extremely popular video game that I have… not yet played. 😂 I’ve heard about it not just among my students, but also my own friends and colleagues. One of these days I’m going to have to sit down and play it as some form of my own cultural education 😬. Having worked a few years in VR sound design, I would say I am rather biased with the opinion that music and sound have a large role in video games! Recently, in the incredibly chaotic time for everything child-related that is the month of JUNE, with its gripping summer vacation anticipation, my student presented some video game soundtrack sheet music he found on the internet, namely the 100th soundtrack to the game Undertale: Megalovania - super recognizable! We have recently decided to temporarily replace our warm up with sightreading what he found.
I know, I’m taking a long time to get to Dogsong, but we’re here now. Because of this event, I learnt that this student’s favourite soundtrack is actually the 21st track: Dogsong. Having never played the game, without its context, I must say it was a bit bizarre of a discovery in our first YouTube listen. The notes are like sampled dog barks, pitched to the notes of the tune - not what I expected, although very fitting for its title (and later I would find, a creatively thoughtful choice for its use in the game), and there are parts with an unstable stuttered tactus (Is the dog distracted? Did it find a squirrel? I have no idea). You’ll just have to hear it for yourself below. Regardless, this was undeniably the best track and a total banger in this child’s mind. He mentioned you can’t really learn it on the piano though because it used sounds made with a mouth and not piano notes. Oh sweet sweet child.
Naturally I had to transcribe it for him. I mean, when a student brings material to YOU that they’re interested in, that’s gold - inspiration to take and mould into a FUN, relevant, useable application of the skills they’ve learnt and acquired! It brings learning out of the practice/class-room and into… life! Isn’t that the goal of practicing music in the first place?
The transcription of the song itself took about an hour from start to finish. Honestly that’s actually quite a bit longer than I expected it to take especially for something so repetitive and simple. The whole track lasts 37 seconds which means it took me ~1.6 minutes for every second of material to transcribe. I know my ear’s weak spots, which is still definitely hearing and deciding what harmonic content to write down (there are some LH spots with 5ths, some with 3rds, some alternating 8ves). I tried to stay pretty accurate and true to the original in its glorious Db major, so the music would remain recognizable and precious to him vs. arranging anything differently to accommodate for other considerations (hand span, skill level, reading skills…). I think if this were for any other student, I would most definitely simplify the syncopated rhythms. For my beginner students, the number of flats would be an immediate no, and the LH octave reach would be too great. Depending on the student, the ability to play single-handed harmonic thirds may be a barrier. This student is currently practicing classical material at an ARCT level though, so I had very little concern with tweaking the playability and adjusting the tune’s difficulty.
I WILL say though, that a chunk of time was spent on formatting. LOL Thank you MuseScore community forums once again! I wanted to incorporate visuals from the actual game, some funny inside jokes, memes he shares with me, and video game references related to the official soundtrack (OST) song. I also really wanted the font to match the style and I had to jump through some loopholes to get a pixel style font (VT323 designed by Peter Hull) into Musescore3. I ended up finding a workaround solution that involved putting the files into a deeper hidden Microsoft AppData folder. It works. It’s great. I’m definitely going to play with more fonts now that I know how to do this.
Learning Material Presentation
I think the aesthetic in the presentation of the learning material is extremely important especially for a child. Actually, the presentation of any material is important to anyone! Just take a look at any enticingly marketed product you’ve bought (and didn’t need/step into Costco for) because of the product packaging!
Remember these in the 2000s (gosh how are we 20 years in already…)? It’s just chapstick! Oh but it’s colourful, it’s chic, it’s smooth, it’s natural and organic, it’s round. It’s not chap-stick, it’s innovatively a chap-sphere! And they were EVERYWHERE. #notsponsored
I digress. All of this is to say I have an opinion that the aesthetic/design/colourful nature, the “packaging”, of learning material can really affect how much a child finds it appealing to learn. Motivation is an area that I find really difficult to help with when teaching children. If a child is disinterested in music/piano, I can try my best to show the sides that are fun and meaningful and valuable, I can try to be a fun(ny) person to be around, but the minute the lesson ends, the reality is that most practice happens alone and requires a great deal of self discipline, self desire - an intrinsic motivation. That’s hard - if not impossible - for me to give. But if a seed of it already exists, it is much less hard to foster.
So motivation matters to me. Aesthetics of learning material matter to me. And when a student demonstrates some outside interest that I can incorporate into their learning, trying my best to do so in a fun inviting approach matters to me. If two hours of my time can motivate a child to play more and have fun on an instrument, then those two hours are totally worthwhile for that potential impact. It’s about planting more seeds!
Dogsong Trivia + Download
And because I’ve never played Undertale, I had the opportunity to look a bit into their sound design/placement of musical themes! Thought I’d share some fun trivia I discovered (primarily on wikis like https://undertale.fandom.com/wiki/Category:Music so please don’t hesitate to fact-check me if you’ve played the game yourself and let me know if I’m wrong!):
The entire official sound track (OST) has 101 tracks and was produced in 2015
The composer Toby Fox is also the video game’s sole developer! I learnt he uses FL Studio which started in the early 2000s. Industry standards seem to be changing but it’s always interesting to see what DAWs (digital audio workstations) other people are using.
Toby Fox’s avatar is an Annoying Dog
The track Dogsong appears in many moments of the game, which has multiple paths and choices to play. One of these paths is the Genocide Route where the player spares the final enemy boss character named Sans. At the end of this path, Dogsong plays and Sans message ends with "geeettttttt dunked on!!!"
Another time the track Dogsong plays is when the Annoying Dog steals an artifact if the player uses or drops it. Annoying indeed! (it's the gif of this post's cover image on my home blog page!)
This one pager is a pretty small file so for my friends that have asked me for the pdf, click on the image below to download it!
I’ll come back and add an afterword with how my student received this - maybe it’s fun, maybe it’s a bummer I turned video games into “work”. We shall see!
June 2022 Post-lesson Update:
Let me just start this by saying: this was worth it. At the beginning of our lesson, I told this student that I had something for him and handed him the single sheet of paper which he quickly recognized was the sheet music that would allow him to play his beloved Dogsong, sheet music he had tried and could not find anywhere on the internet! It was decided right then and there that we were going to warm up with sight reading Dogsong that day.
It was really quite interesting to see how he would approach a new score, which we’ve done before in his classical repertoire, but this time with non-classical music he already knew and internalized. He decided to approach a RH-only first sight read and did so with excellent pitch accuracy. This was an interesting discovery for me because this student is actually not yet comfortable with sight reading. It’s definitely a skill we’ve practiced together, and for exams too, but still a struggling point (I’m not sure if it’s due to a common pressureful “you only have one take” self-talk or something else). I was really pleased to see he read the ledger lines (up to three) with much greater ease than usual; I’m guessing it’s correlated with the fact that he knew what notes to expect.
I showed him that Db major may initially seem intimidating on paper, but if you look at the piano keyboard, Bb Eb Ab Db Gb are really just Db Eb Gb Ab Bb... and in that order… they’re just ALL the black keys! After our first read through, he pointed out “You know, this is pretty easy for something with five flats”.💡And that felt very fulfilling. If a short video game music sight read can be the means to introduce a seemingly scary key signature in an approachable way, that’s a win.
His first read had slightly less rhythmic accuracy but I’ll get to that soon enough.
Visual Fun and an aside on teacher approachability
As expected, I was pleased to find the efforts in text style and aesthetic, images, and silly text were appreciated. I couldn't hold back a smile when he laughed and surprised himself catching an emOtional dAmage YouTube meme (which he regularly quotes when he makes silly mistakes) on the page where the music stutters.
I'll take any opportunity to make a child laugh while playing music, because then they're associating it (even and especially if it's during practicing music) with something fun and enjoyable... which music should be!
And you know what I've discovered in my time spent teaching? Is that the easiest way for an adult to make a child laugh is to step away from an "adult reality" and into the child's world. The minute you show you care about and integrate more of the things they care about, be it silly videos, trends, characters, games, tv shows... I think there's a level of approachability made for the student because you've shown you want to meet them where they are. You've more actively shown that you care not just about their learning but about them. That you're not "too busy" to engage with seemingly unrelated and "unimportant kid things". If a child is shy and exhibits "You probably don't care about this kid thing" symptoms, my next goal is usually to find a way to pleasantly surprise them.
Additionally, you've demonstrated a vulnerability especially through being "ridiculous" by adult standards. This is extremely important to me, because practicing is extremely vulnerable - imagine allowing another person to witness all the flaws, mistakes, and messy parts of your learning prior to having achieved any specific ability. In my experience, it seems to lower the "I am a kid and need to act like an adult in front of adults" walls and form a greater bond of trust and respect, while having more fun together! Their imaginative worlds are pretty darn fun and ridiculous, so why not join them?!
Fantaisie-impromptu, Op. 66 by Chopin
Yes, the iconic piece many start learning when you first hit ARCT Piano. This is a new piece this student has been recently assigned that we’ve really just started to learn. Up until this point (pre-Dogsong), the opening C# minor section was all we got to: HS (hands separately) and then HT (hands together) with its 4:3 polyrhythm. Coincidentally enough, today was the day we tackled the more lyrical middle Db major section. Oh I’m sorry, did you say Db major? Didn’t we just explore that key somewhere before? Why we did! In Dogsong!
This was completely unintentional on my part. I had not changed the original key of Dogsong but upon reaching this key change in this Chopin piece, I got the famed reaction to anything with more than 3 sharps/flats in the key signature:
I can’t blame him, as it initially looks like a horrible 9-element key signature. I mean look at the end of the top line of the screenshot below. You can understand why an 11-year old would potentially see this and die inside knowing he needs to step through the entrance of some mental ninja-warrior obstacle course of notes:
But after explaining the naturals simply “cancel” the previous 4-sharp key signature to transition into a 5-flat key, this student recognized the matching key with Dogsong and surprised me saying: “If I can play Dogsong, I can play this.” Um, I mean, the formula isn’t exactly...
Db Frederic Chopin = Db Toby Fox
... but hey, I’m not stopping you from making any meaningful connections. 😅 You go ahead and give it your best effort and I’ll be there to help you along the way.
The result was an incredibly effective and efficient practice session due to a more “I can actually do this!” approach to learning the notes hands separately. Goes to show how having self-efficacy can have a great impact on executing a task! #learningmentalities
At the end of the class, we had a few minutes to spare and he didn’t hesitate to take out Dogsong again to end the class. He wasn’t ready to put it hands together yet but I hopped onto the left side of the bench to play the LH part so he could hear the transcription in full. Doing so was quite effective in grounding his rhythm. Due to the regularity of the LH part, my “duet part” functioned well as a musical metronome.
A quick analysis with him provided the realization that the rhythm of the RH was actually the same throughout: learn one, learn them all! I find with introducing syncopation, reading and fitting in the “e”s precisely in time can be difficult: 1 e + a 2 e + a (yellow line shown above). Demonstrating and verbalizing this for him to hear and feel the rhythm was much more effective, something like a:
mm bap m baaaa
1 + 2 e + a
Many classrooms do a similar thing with the Kodaly teaching methods:
Once we figured out the placement of the second 16th note in that second beat, we were rolling, and the “duet for 2 hands” was really sounding like the actual tune which is always rewarding.
Because what better reason and reward is there to practice than to be able to play the music we want to play and actualize the sounds we hear in our minds?