Okay before I list my favourites I’m going to give some context.
Musically speaking, character themes are generally a weird thing to consider in Key works, because generally themes are meant to be developed, or have different versions/style (like a vocal version), and in many ways I feel like this isn’t something that Key has properly taken advantage of until more recent titles. This is a really big factor of whether or not I like a character theme, since if there are multiple tracks with the same theme, then it allows that characters personality to be presented in multiple ways.
There’s also the problem of making a theme distinct. Generally, each visual novel sticks to a specific set of instrumentation for the majority of the soundtrack, which is generally fine because it makes the soundtrack consistent, but this starts to become an issue when someone starts composing a lot of tracks in a very similar style. This causes many different tracks to become unmemorable, because they sound the same as many other tracks, and I feel like some of the character themes fall into this issue. So to fix this issue, a piece would either have to be composed for using different instrumentation, or a very different style from other pieces, and when a piece does that it becomes noticeable and it’s more easily associated with a character because it is different and noticeable.
Now, onto my list:
As if I wasn’t going to put this piece on my list. First of all the English title (Summer Lights) captures the feeling of this piece perfectly. The section in the middle of the piece uses sustained strings with just a hint of vibrato and it really emphasises the idea of the someone feeling the suns heat coming down on them. Generally though this is just a really nice piece. To me, the way the main melody grows in parts shows that the music is working towards something, It’s been a while since I’ve seen Air so I can’t really comment on it much, but I do feel like it does capture the idea of ‘summer’, which is something that I feel captures Misuzu’s character quite well.
Aka the most covered and redone piece in the entirety of Key’s history. Seriously. There are so many versions of this piece all with their own unique feel - they all capture an element of Nagisa perfectly. I could rant on about each version but I’d be writing this forever so I’m just gonna talk about the main one. The original has a really nice sense of innocence and fragility to it. The nursery song like nature of the melody makes Nagisa emphasises Nagisa’s very simple and pure nature. The solo piano part makes the music feel exposed, and the synth part that plays a few seconds in only emphasises the pieces uncertain nature at this point. The piece builds and builds in terms of instrumentation, slowly becoming more confident until it reaches the chorus. At this point, the piece shows its true beauty. This is so reminiscent of Nagisa’s growth throughout Clannad. This piece tells a story which is something not many other character themes do and it only makes this piece even more special than it already is.
Étude pour les petites supercordes
One of the main reasons I like this piece is because of the instrumentation. It’s written as a string quartet, and that contrasts the nature of many of the tracks in Clannad’s soundtrack. It makes the piece stand out, which is what a character theme should do, but it also emphasises many character traits of Kotomi. Since the instrumentation is so different to the rest of the music in Clannad, it shows that Kotomi is different from the rest of society. Also, this piece captures Kotomi’s intelligence and organisation through a variety of different things such as instrumentation, harmonies and how the rhythms are generally distributed the same across multiple parts. This does a really good job at capturing the feel of Kotomi. Minor complaint - I wish the synths used were higher quality.
Okay I’m not going to lie, if it wasn’t for Only One Magic Word, this piece wouldn’t be here. Magic Ensemble is nice, but in my opinion it’s a bit too generic and I didn’t see it as Komari’s theme until I listened to Only One Magic Word. That being said, Only One Magic Word wouldn’t exist without this theme, so I kinda have to acknowledge it. Despite my issues with the piece, the playful happy nature of it is just representative of Komari’s persistent happiness, and her urge to make other people happy. However I like Only One Magic Word more because of its fairytale like nature, which is created through the sustained strings, music box style instrumentation and writing, and a variety of different harmonies - some very simplistic and some very dissonant. I like this because not only does it create a dream like state, but it emphasises a part of Komari outside of her general happy mood. It’s also good because one of the main things about Komari’s character is her focus on fairy tales, so having this piece being written in a fairy tale style emphasises that part of her character.
Contrasting the rest of the character themes in Little Busters!, this piece is very simplistic. There’s not much going on in terms of texture - many of the other character themes have several instruments simultaneously playing but this piece on features piano and strings. To me, this emphasises the mysterious ‘silent beauty’ nature of Mio - the slow tempo of the piece combined with the lack of parts and the soft instrumentation makes the listener relax and just take in the music, similarly to how one would naturally relax upon seeing something beautiful. Also similarly to Kotomi, since the instrumentation and part writing is significantly different to the rest of the character themes, it emphasises how Mio is very different from the rest of the main cast.
This is probably the most folk song-esque piece I have ever heard in a Key novel and I love it. This brings back the idea of distinct character themes. As soon as this music played I instantly associated with Tsumugi because it’s so different than anything else I’ve heard in a Key novel. While I can’t be really specific with my commentary on the piece because I don’t know the character to well, to me this piece feels quite playful, but also quite strict. The constant beating of the bass drum emphasises a strict tempo, while the instrumentation and the compound time signature of the piece and the swung rhythms emphasises freedom, and I feel like both these factors play a notable role in Tsumugi’s character, but I may be wrong.
Hurry, starfish! - Its distinct instrumentation and very playful and childish nature captures Fuko really well.
The Grief of a troubled girl - I really enjoy the quirky nature of the piece combined with the random pieces of percussion played. It emphasises the randomness of Haruka and her whimsical nature.
Sunbright - Because I love Lucia and I love the vocal version of the piece (the instrumental version less so). Also the theme is used for Lucia’s ringtone in the VN, which I think is a really nice touch.