We're up to GOD HELP THE OUTCASTS! What a fabulous song. I'd like to share some thoughts on what makes this song sound so penitential and prayer-like.
Here are three things that contribute to its prayerful atmosphere:
1. plagal cadences (IV-I)
2. recitative-style in the verses
3. descending lament in the chorus
Plagal Cadences (IV-I)
Generally, tonal music uses V-I cadences. These are called "authentic cadences." But church hymns often conclude with a IV-I cadence over the final word "amen." This is known casually as an "amen cadence," and formally as a "plagal cadence."
Sure enough, "God Save the Outcasts" ends with a powerful series of "amen cadences":
But we don't have to wait until the end of the song to hear these "amens."
The very first measure of the song is a IV chord, resolving to I in measure 2:
It's weird to begin a song in the middle of a cadence, but it really sets the penitential mood.
Recitative-Style in the Verses
Catchy melodies are often very repetitive. But part of what fascinates me about this melody is how non-repetitive it is. While there are some melodic phrases that seem to sort of, kind of, repeat, they're rarely repeated exactly the same. They're always morphing, always leading in new directions. And not only that, but when phrases do seem to repeat melodically, their harmonies are TOTALLY different:
I've used some colors to highlight rhythmic phrases that do repeat. Notice how all the blue measures have the same rhythm, and all the green measures have the same rhythm. But also notice how none of the blue measures are exactly the same note-wise, nor are any of the green measures. The repetitive rhythms keep us grounded, while the pitches are leading all over the place.
But wait, it gets better.
Compare measures 1-2 with mm. 9-10, which, melodically, are almost identical. The harmonies are totally different!
Same with mm. 5-6 and 13-14. The notes are almost all the same, but the harmonies are completely different.
Again, there are some elements that repeat to keep us grounded, but around those few stable pieces, everything else is constantly changing. This gives the music a very introspective and improvisatory feel: just as Esmerelda is spinning out her prayerful thoughts in real-time, so, too, is she spinning out her music.
Descending Lament in the Chorus
Finally, there's the shape of the famous chorus. It's basically just a descending scale. The measures I've colored pink drop almost a complete octave - 1 7 6 5 4 3 2 - but stopping just before the 1, delaying that sense of completion. Then, in green, the melody jumps back up to 5 and tries its descent to 1 again... and as before, that resolution to 1 is delayed, as the melody begins again at 5 and descends, with an arpeggio, down to the 5 an octave lower:
So there are two elements at play here.
First, there's the descending melody which is a common signifier of sadness (think of that poignant line from Aladdin, "would they see a poor boy? No siree...")
Second, there's the evasion of resolution, getting almost all the way to 1, but not actually getting there, which I hear as a musical expression of Esmerelda feeling like her desires are never quite fulfilled, always just out of reach. In other words, perfect for a musical prayer.
And there you have it! Three elements that make this song sound prayerful: the plagal cadences; the non-repetitive melody/harmony; and the descending melody in the chorus.
Of course, there's SO much more we can say about this song. But let's pause here, and my next post will dive into the equally introspective "Heavens Light / Hellfire."
I hope you enjoyed this blog post - the seventh in a 12-part series about the Hunchback of Notre Dame soundtrack! The remaining parts will be posted weekly.
If you'd like to support this blog, I invite you to to do so with a one-time or monthly donation at Ko-Fi.com/DisneyMusicTheory. Monthly subscribers get access to my teaching guides and sample assignments, as well as the deep spiritual satisfaction of supporting a blog about the music theory of Disney music! ❤️
Samantha Zerin has a PhD in historical musicology from New York University, and has taught music theory at NYU, Brown University, and the Borough of Manhattan Community College. She is also a composer and poet, and teaches private students. To learn more about Dr. Zerin and her work, you can visit her main website, www.CreativeShuli.com