Interview: Making music with Masashi Hamauzu

The legendary composer who worked on FINAL FANTASY X, FINAL FANTASY XIII and FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE looks back on his career and how to make unforgettable music.
By Square Enix

If you’re a fan of game music, you’ve almost certainly heard of Masashi Hamauzu - or at least listened to his work.

The legendary composer has contributed to some of the greatest soundtracks of all time, including SaGa Frontier 2, FINAL FANTASY X, FINAL FANTASY XIII and FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE.

Hamauzu-san was recently in Los Angeles to attend the DISTANT WORLDS concert series and kindly agreed to speak to us about his career, the concert and more.

How did you get your start as a professional composer?

I became interested in composing music in my late teens, and I went to college to study vocal music. I liked games a lot as well, so I thought it would be great if I could do that sort of work.

Square Enix - or Squaresoft as it was at the time - was looking for a composer, so I applied and got accepted.

How did you come to work on FINAL FANTASY?

During the development of FINAL FANTASY VII, I was involved as a chorus member. Because I went to college for vocal music and singing, when I joined SQUARE ENIX, I sang in the first recording Sephiroth’s song - One-Winged Angel.

A short time later, I was asked to participate in the development of FINAL FANTASY X as one of the composers - either by the development team or Nobuo Uematsu (Composer, FINAL FANTASY I-XI). I wrote about a third of the music overall.

A few years later, FINAL FANTASY XIII came about, and as development was about to begin, I was asked by the producer, Yoshinori Kitase, if I would be interested in composing the music. So, I took the job.

How would you describe your own process of composition?

For a long time, I did not really know what my style was, but recently I have come to feel that all I have done so far has been a lot of trial and error, which has not been very good.

If I continue to disregard the methods of academics and pioneers and rely only on my passion and the momentum, not only does it take time for trial and error, but it also tends to limit the range of my expression.

I have recently taken up DIY and illustration, and I have found that learning from the ground up allows me to progress very quickly and, more importantly, greatly expands my range of expression. When I applied this perspective to composing music, I now find that my work efficiency has improved dramatically.

So much so that I think it would be faster to learn composition from scratch now as well (laughs).

You’ve also worked on games in the SaGa series. How would you say composing for SaGa differs to FINAL FANTASY?

That was a long time ago - the last title I worked on was more than 20 years ago now (laughs). It's hard to compare because those tracks were made when I was just starting out.

Nowadays it’s possible to record the music, but in the past, the SaGa series had a lot of sounds that were completely confined to the computer.

So, the approach to composing must be fundamentally different now…

Basically, you now have to make something on par with movies or anime.

In the past, sound sources were built into the games, which in today’s terms made it “cheap.” But we had to make do with those limitations.

Fans know your name and admire your work - does this add extra pressure when composing for a project now?

Honestly, no, not so much. Once I start making something, all I can think about is the world of the project on hand, so I don't really think about my surroundings.

You were part of the music team for FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE and now FINAL FANTASY VII REBIRTH - did you feel any extra responsibility working on such a beloved game and soundtrack?

No, I didn’t feel any extra responsibility (laughs).

I guess that’s because you’ve been involved since the original.

Well, regardless of that…

You know, I’ve composed music for various media, including anime or movies, but I don’t feel any pressure at all from the fact that a title is well known. It’s all the same. It comes down to whether the work feels fulfilling.

If there is a difference, it would be when the director is more involved in the work. Whether it’s a game or anime, what kind of vision a director has, or how much passion they have for a project will really impact my level of motivation.

So, the mere fact that this is a remake doesn’t necessarily make too much of a difference to me.

We’re talking here at DISTANT WORLDS, and I think “Jessie’s Theme” from FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE is in today's set list. Hearing this track really elevated Jessie to heroine status in my mind. Did you compose this newly for REMAKE?

Yes, I did. Many composers took part in FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE, but there was a distinction of roles, such as me being in charge of basically the new characters and themes. It wasn’t an absolute rule, but I was put in charge of the newer parts.

What sort of style or feel did you want “Jessie’s Theme” to convey to the fans?

Actually, when I’m composing a piece, I don’t think about what I want to communicate to fans at all. The priority for me is the scene or how to portray a character, so I think about what kind of song I personally would want to hear if I was a viewer or player.

I feel you really need to pursue that point, otherwise the music won’t come across to players in a good way.

How does it feel to see your work performed live in series like DISTANT WORLDS?

I always get quite nervous! Making music for a game and having it performed by an orchestra in front of an audience are two very different things, so I have mixed feelings about it. I always wonder how it will turn out or what kind of reaction it will receive.

For example, the original game music itself may be for recording purposes only and not necessarily be composed for a stage performance. Such music is arranged for an orchestra, so it’s hard to tell how that would turn out.

So, I may ask someone else to arrange the music, but we’d have to determine whether it’s suitable for the stage - it’s a major consideration.

Which other composers do you admire?

I’m trying to be completely honest these days, so the answer is, there are none.

There’s a simple reason for that: I don’t know. I don’t really listen to much music.

Of course, there are composers I like. I like classical musicians, and I like a composer named Koichi Sakata, who wrote music for Taiga dramas (Japanese historical dramas) and such, though many people today may not be familiar with him.

But I don't actually listen to too much music. I don't know why, but I stopped listening to a lot of music after entering my 20s. I’m easily influenced by anything I hear, so I get overloaded just going through my daily life.

What would you say is your proudest career achievement?

There’s a music group that I established and am a part of called IMERUAT (which means “flash of light” in the Ainu language). It’s an independent project, which is something that I’ve put a lot of effort into.

With games and anime, you add music on top of a pre-existing story or theme, but with my own group, I can come up with the theme or story myself, write my own lyrics, and ultimately write my own songs, so it's always interesting to see how my world expands.

For example, I design my own cover art and make my own music videos, and to do that I studied how to use After Effects, so that sort of thing is fun.

That's great! And you are also a part of this group, Mina-san (Manager)?

Mina (Manager): Yes, I'm the vocalist!

Hamauzu-san: In live shows I play piano and keyboards.

Many thanks to Hamauzu-san for his time! You can listen to this great composer’s works on FINAL FANTASY X, FINAL FANTASY XII, FINAL FANTASY XIII and FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE via the Square Enix Music YouTube channel, or streaming services, including Amazon Music, Apple Music, and Spotify.

You can also play along with many of his tracks in THEATRHYTHM FINAL BAR LINE! The rhythm action extravaganza is available now on PS4 and Switch:

Of course, Hamauzu-san’s work also features in the DISTANT WORLDS concert series - check the website for tour dates. A number of soundtracks are also available - the most recent, DISTANT WORLDS VI, which includes an incredible orchestral version of Jessie’s Theme from FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE, is available to buy or stream now:

Finally, if you’d like to check out IMERUAT (and you should), check out the group’s website. Multiple albums are also available to listen to now on streaming services including Spotify, Amaztron Music, and Apple Music.