Video game music consistently offers wonderful opportunities to learn about unique musical practices from around the world.  From erhu in Borderlands to duduk in DotA, you can hear a lot of regionally specific sounds from our blue planet.

Like “kulning”.  On one hand, I am a Minnesotan who works at a classical music station.  Choral music is HUGE here in Minnesota, and we’re all Scandinavian (truth).  We know what “kulning” is.

On the other hand, I never imagined I’d hear kulning in a video game soundtrack.

Now we can, thanks to Gustaf Grefberg’s stunning score for Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.

In Scandinavia, back in the day, women tended the livestock herds.  They sang to call the herds home.  It is a unique way to sing, called kulning.  Just listen to the main theme for Brothers, and you’ll hear the gorgeous calls, right away.

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Kulning demonstrates strength, clarity and precision in a human voice.  Grefberg used more live instruments than just voice in the Brothers soundtrack, like viola and guitar.

Naia” is a great example of kulning.  The voice doesn’t always sound precise to our ears, since kulning often incorporates quarter-tones, like a lot of Eastern music.  It makes the voice sound slightly out of tune at times, yet I assure you, singer Emma Sunbring is right on pitch.

Kulning isn’t intended to be delicate; you gotta belt it out if you want the cows to come home.  Not delicate at all.  It is, however, hauntingly personal and intimate while bordering on grandiose.  I find it fascinating.

Viola gets a bad rap.  It always has, and it always will.  Viola is the black sheep of the string section.  Unfortunate, since there is quite a bit of lovely viola music out there (Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, Beethoven’s late string quartets are magnificent, and Hindemith wrote a bunch of viola music, to name a few).

Viola, though, is a great instrument.  The range extends from the upper reaches of a cello to the lower reaches of a violin.  In “Winged Hope” you can hear how it bridges the gap between the two, sounding slightly colder than a cello, but far warmer than a violin.

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Grefberg creates terrifying sounds as well.  Like a bad situation getting worse, the texture of “Mountains” breaks down over the course of the piece.  Initially, waves of ominous cries weave through the texture together.  As the cries become shorter, individual voices break out on their own, almost sounding like animals bleating in the distance.  By the end of the track, most of the voices (instrumental and human) have given up altogether, and “Mountains” fades into silence.

Frozen World” is full of metallic sounds, like singing bowls.  The piano surfaces on occasion, dropping one note at a time, like icicles falling from a roof.  How do you write music that sounds cold?  Just ask Grefberg.  Or Björk.

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With his soundtrack Brothers, Grefberg did what many composers of media hope to do – he created a sonic world that doesn’t rely on visuals for support.  The instant the voice starts in the “Main Theme” you go somewhere.  It’s amazing.

After the holidays, I’ll share one more totally fricking incredible “unconventional soundtrack” with you.  Until that time, what’s on your “best” list this year?

Emily Reese is an on-air host for Classical Minnesota Public Radio. She is also the host and producer for Top Score, Classical MPR’s podcast about video game soundtracks, and created MPR’s Listening to Learn series. She earned an undergrad certificate in music education and jazz studies from the University of Colorado — Boulder, and a Master’s degree in music theory from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Emily lives in Twin Cities with her cats Atticus, June Bug and Lee, and loves gaming, with or without friends.