You know what drives me BONKERS?
When people say that music theory is about "right" and "wrong" answers.
"This is the correct way to notate that measure," they say.
"This is an incorrect voice-leading pattern," they insist.
To be fair, it's not just music theory. Grade-based education rewards this sort of gooked-up thinking, especially when standardized tests are involved.
No, my friends, music theory is NOT about "right" and "wrong" answers.
And when I taught music theory to Ivy League students at Brown University, I made this clear in every. single. class.
Music theory is subjective.
And that's INCREDIBLY important to understand.
Here's a perfect illustration of what I mean.
At the beginning of the semester, I gave my students a handout much like the one shown above. (I gave them "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," but since this is a blog about Disney music, I decided to use a more appropriate example for this blog post. :-))
And I asked them:
"Which notation do you like better? #1, #2, or #3? And more importantly, WHY?"
At this point in the semester, my students had learned only the very basics of musical staff notation. They hadn't yet learned about harmony or formal structures. They hadn't yet learned about key signatures, dynamics, or scales.
So, as it happens, they were very confused when I asked them which notation of this tune they liked best. They had no idea how to answer, or how to even begin to process the question. Especially when I told them that all three of these notations, when performed, sound the same; all that differs is how they're written down. (Note the tempo markings!)
But I pushed my students.
And for the next 45 minutes, we had a lively, fascinating, and engaging discussion about the subjectivity of musical notation.
Music is all about PATTERNS... which musical notation either clarifies or obscures.
Take a look at notation #1, shown above. What patterns do you notice?
Remember, my students had only just begun to learn the most basic of basics. But even with minimal knowledge, some patterns can be easily noticed.
For example, the first three measures all have the exact same rhythm.
They also have the exact same lyrics.
And, they also have the exact same melody... except that each measure starts a note higher than the measure before.
Essentially, this way of notating the music breaks up the melody into four chunks, each chunk confined to a single measure. This allows us to clearly see that, except for the ending, each chunk (measure) is virtually identical, with each successive chunk starting a step higher than the one before.
It's also a very compact notation: only four measures! That makes it relatively easy to read. On the flip side, the dotted 8ths and 16th notes can be very daunting for a beginner. So, from a practical perspective, there are reasons to both love and resent it.
Now let's move on to notation #2. What patterns do we see?
This one's twice as long as the first one: 8 measures rather than 4.
And unlike version #1, each measure does NOT have the same rhythm or melody.
Whereas the first version encased each sentence in a single measure (repeated thrice), this version spreads each sentence over two measures. In other words, instead of chunking up the music into four parts, with each part corresponding to a full sentence in the lyrics, this version chunks it up into EIGHT parts, each corresponding to half of a sentence in the lyrics.
In doing so, it obscures the 3-fold repetition that was so clear in version #1.
But also, in doing so, it reveals a new pattern that wasn't as clear before: every measure – that is, each half of the sentence "It's a small world | after all" – begins with a dotted rhythm.
Every measure – that is, each half of the sentence "It's a small world | after all" – begins and ends on a single pitch.
What we're getting now is a more nuanced picture of the music. If version 1 shows us patterns that can be seen with the naked eye, version 2 shows us patterns that are revealed by a magnifying glass.
From a practical perspective, it also has pluses and minuses. It's much longer than version 1, which a beginning student might find daunting. On the other hand, it's got much more manageable rhythmic values – no more 16th notes!
If version 1 shows us patterns that can be seen with the naked eye, and version 2 shows us patterns that are revealed by a magnifying glass, then version 3 is like looking through a microscope.
Each sentence is now spread out over four measures, allowing us to examine its finer patterns.
Each quarter of the four-measure sentence, as we now can clearly see, consists of two notes. But they alternate straight (half note + half note) and syncopated (dotted half + quarter) rhythms.
It's an interesting pattern, isn't it? Sure, we can certainly find that pattern in versions 1 and 2, but only in version 3 is it clear as day.
From a practical perspective, again, the beginning student might find this notation both a relief and an iron curtain. It consists entirely of (dotted) half and quarter notes. No 8ths! No 16ths! Easy-peasy, right? On the other hand, it's so "zoomed-in" that the much larger patterns revealed in versions 1 and 2 are totally obscured. So the overall structure and phrasing can seem very enigmatic.
Which version do you like better?
Now let's return to the original question: which version do you like better, and why?
Well, it all depends on what your SUBJECTIVE goals and preferences are.
Do you prefer a more compact notation (4 measures) or a more spread out notation (15 measures)?
Are you cool with 16th notes? Or would you rather stick with halves and quarters?
Are you interested in seeing the larger, overall patterns? Or, like a scientist examining a fossil under a microscope, do you prefer the tiny nuances?
Again, all three of these notations, when performed, sound virtually identical. (Yes, there are tiny differences with regard to metric pulse – which I made sure to discuss with my students – but otherwise they are the same.)
None of them is objectively "the correct one," and none of them is objectively "incorrect."
They are all equally valid, because at the end of the day, musical notation is a tool. We use it to reveal patterns that we're most interested in and to obscure those patterns that we deem unimportant. And since we all have different goals and preferences, so, too, will our notational decisions sometime differ.
And that's beautiful.
Question: what's the hardest concept to teach intro music theory students?
Well, there are all sorts of advanced harmonic concepts involving intricate voice-leading, harmonic resolution, motivic development, and so forth.
But by the time you get that far, your students have already developed a strong foundation of knowledge to help them understand these more advanced topics. They're already masters at reading and writing musical notation, which enables them to organize their ideas on paper. The advantage here cannot be understated.
I would argue that one of the hardest concepts to teach is actually one of the most basic, usually covered in the very first classes of Music Theory 101. And that concept is meter -- the idea that music is organized into beats and measures, with an underlying pulse comprised of strong beats and weak beats.
Think about it: to understand meter and how we notate it, the student has to already understand a wide range of intersecting concepts: beats, measures, pulse, rhythmic division, staff lines, bar lines, beaming, and of course all of the symbols (note heads, stems, flags, dots, rests, etc). And even once all of this information is learned, terminology soon becomes complicated: "whole notes" fill a whole measure in 4/4, but not in 5/4 or 6/4. By contrast, in 2/4, it's the half note that fills the whole measure.
It's a lot to take in all at once.
But even once the basics are well-understood, there's still one aspect of meter that – in my own experience teaching university students – continues to stump students for quite some time.
And that aspect is metric pulse.
What's the difference between 2/4 and 4/4?
Aren't 3/4 and 6/8 exactly the same?
Why use 8/8, when you could just use 4/4?
For some reason, the idea that each meter has its own unique pulse – that 3/4 feels different than 6/8 because one of them is triple and the other is duple, for instance – is really hard for students to grasp.
In the spirit of helping my fellow educators teach about meter, I'd like to offer a useful example from Disney's Frozen, which might help your students to better understand metric pulse.
The song I'll discuss is actually metrically ambiguous, but this is precisely its pedagogical value. The ambiguity forces us to listen more closely than we otherwise might. It also encourages us to tackle difficult questions about what meter is and why it matters.
And finally, it's an INTRIGUING example, because it doesn't start off with musical instruments. Rather, it begins with the sound of ice saws being thrust through the frozen waters of Norway... not what you'd expect to hear in a course on music theory!
(starts around the 0:42 mark in this video)
As I've written in a previous blog post, one of Disney's hallmarks is a musical technique called "Mickey-Mousing" - the close synchronization of music, sound effects, and animation. "Frozen Heart" is a great example. As the scene opens, we see the workers thrusting their saws into the ice, and we hear the sound effects that result from this labor. There's no indication, at first, that what we're hearing is music. But when the workers start singing, the sound of the ice saws continues, becoming an important part of the music's percussion section. Are the ice saws musical instruments? Well, not necessarily, but that's exactly the point: as in so many other Disney movies, this scene blurs the boundaries between music and noise.
But I digress.
Here's an unmetered notation of the song's opening, starting with the ice saws and continuing with the melody:
I have heard this song so many times, but until this weekend, I was completely stymied by its metric pulse.
See, here's the thing: I imagined hearing each of these ice saws on the strong beats of either 2/4 or 4/4. That seems logical enough, but then the melody comes in awkwardly early, on a weak beat. The pulse feels consistently "off," accenting beats that feel like they should be weaker, while glossing over beats that seem like they should be more prominent. What gives?
And then this weekend, I was driving down Cypress Avenue on my way to our local grocery store, listening to this song, and it suddenly hit me. What if the workers aren't sawing on the strong beats, but rather on the weak beats?
What if, instead of sawing on the first beat of each measure, they actually saw on the second beat? WHAT IF THE SCORE ACTUALLY BEGINS WITH A REST? Here's what that would look like:
Bingo! Now, the melody comes in strongly on beat 1, and the pulse moving forward feels totally natural. The percussive sawing on the off-beats alternates with the singers' down-beats, creating a driving "heeve-ho" effect that befits a labor song.
In fact, this alternative notation feels so natural to me, that I can't believe I never thought of it before.
But that's the thing.
Why didn't I?
Why had I misheard this, for so long, as sawing on the downbeats, if that's so clearly not what's happening?
The answer is: the complete, total, and utter lack of musical context.
When the saws begin sawing, they don't sound like music. Each crash through the ice sounds identical. There's no alternation of strong and weak. There's no melodic contour or harmonic context to help shape an underlying pulse. How, in short, could one possibly know whether they're sawing on the downbeats or upbeats, when there aren't any contrasting sounds to tells us where downbeats and upbeats lie?
It's only once the singing comes in that we can identify a musical relationship: the sawing suddenly aligns with the melody's weak beats.
When students learn about meter, it's important for them to understand that meter doesn't work in isolation. Rather, it's a system for organizing the relationships among myriad musical elements. When all we hear is the repeated sounds of ice-saws crashing through the ice, each time with the same pitch, dynamic, and articulation, and always evenly spaced one from the next, how can meter exist? It's only once we add in the melody – with its melodic contour, rhythmic diversity, harmonic implications, and so forth – that the sound of the ice saws enters into a musical system, interacting and contrasting with other musical elements.
As a metaphor, consider that you're working on a puzzle. An enormous, 5,000-piece puzzle. You know the type. It's maddening, but so addictive. Anyway. You take a few pieces out of the box and look them over. They all look exactly the same. They are all solid black, with two innies and two outies. Now ask: which part of the picture are these? It's a ridiculous question, isn't it? Where is there a picture? Where are there parts? These are just a group of identical, solid-black pieces.
It's only once you dump out all of the rest of the pieces – all 5,000 of them – and you see that they are all different that any sense of a larger whole can come into play. Eventually, it becomes evident that these black pieces are part of one section of the puzzle, while these sparkly pink pieces are part of a different section, and these other pieces go somewhere else. It's only when contrasting elements enter into a relationship with each other that any sense of a larger whole can exist.
And that's how meter works. It organizes contrasting elements, contextualizing them in relation to each other, and showing how they all add up to a larger, meaningful whole.
The great thing about discussing "Frozen Heart" with our students is that is provokes conversation. Because it's so ambiguous, the students can be easily dissuaded from thinking they can take a single "correct answer" for granted. Instead of memorizing the single "right answer," they can actually think about the material, discussing the relative merits of each interpretation with their classmates. In the process, they dive into fundamental questions of what meter is, what it does, and how it works. It also challenges us to ask difficult questions about what music even is in the first place, which, in my experience, is GUARANTEED to spark curiosity and fill an entire class period with lively, engaging discussion.
What do you think? Would discussing this song make it easier for your students to understand meter? Let me know in the comments below!
What an incredible song this is! So poignant, so emotional, so sad, yet so happily nostalgic... how? I mean, seriously. How does this music evoke such powerful emotions?
Over at our Facebook group, an elementary school teacher and Disney enthusiast named Darla hinted at an answer to this question: "The chords and progressions are breathtakingly beautiful."
The chords do seem like a good place to start, don't they?
And YES, in fact, there's a lot one could say about the emotional impact of the harmony in this song.
BUT, I would argue that the harmony is actually only a small part of what makes this song so emotionally stirring.
The orchestration, the vocal performance, and the silences are also REALLY IMPORTANT in establishing the mood, and yet, these are precisely the elements that are most often ignored by music theorists.
You see, back in the good ol' 19th century, German Romantics like Richard Wagner and Edouard Hanslick began promoting an idea called "absolute music."
"Absolute music," in short, is the idea that a musical work is defined exclusively by its harmony and counterpoint. Everything else – orchestration, performance techniques, dynamics, articulations, extra-musical associations – everything else is just gravy.
And so, the argument goes, Bach's "Prelude in C Major" from the Well-Tempered Clavier is the same piece of music, regardless of what instrument it's played on, how fast it's played, how loud it's played, or how the notes are articulated.
Honestly, this ideology is kind of poisonous. Believe what you want about musical ontology, but the ideology of "absolute music" has led music critics, audiences, and scholars to dismiss the importance of orchestrators. "Composers compose, and orchestrators just prepare it for performance."
I actually got into a fight with someone on Twitter last year, when I suggested that Disney's orchestrators should get more credit for their work. The dude I was fighting with argued that since the orchestrators don't actually write any of the music, they shouldn't get any credit. I replied that the orchestration plays a HUGE role in shaping the musical work, which I guess was pretty cheeky, because then I got blocked.
But let's return to "When She Loved Me" from Toy Story 2. It's orchestrated for piano, solo cello, strings, and soprano. That's the same orchestration that's used in countless commercials for medications, life insurance, public safety, and more, in order to get our emotions and pocketbooks flowing. I mean, just listen to this YouTube compilation called "The Most Emotional Commercials Ever Made" -
This is important, because those of us who have grown up listening to countless commercials (and movies, TV shows, and pop songs) use piano and strings to evoke strong feelings of sadness, have learned to associate the sound of piano and strings with sadness. Of course, not all piano/orchestra music is sad; the orchestration is only one piece of the puzzle. But, nonetheless, I don't think it's really debatable that orchestration is a significant part of what music theorists might call "a sentimental topic" in commercial music.
And yet, this orchestration would be dismissed by adherents to the ideology of "absolute music" as simply artifice – as the superficial clothing in which the more significant harmony is beautified. And they'd be wrong, wouldn't they? I mean, can you imagine if this song were performed by a military band, with blaring trumpets and pounding war drums? It'd be totally different!
Another important element here is the vocal performance. If you listen closely to Sarah McLachlan's voice in this recording, you'll hear all sorts of details that strongly contribute to feelings of sentimentality. Her voice cracks, for instance, and it slides from note to note. She often switches between a full-bodied timbre and a thinner, airier timbre.
These vocal techniques are not typically notated in sheet music, in part because the ideology of absolute music – the ideology that only the harmony and counterpoint really define a work of music – is so deeply ingrained in Western musical practice that most people just haven't felt the need to develop ways of writing them down.
And yet, I would argue, the vocal techniques employed by McLachlan in this song are SO crucial in establishing the song's mood and emotional impact.
One last element that I'd mention here is SILENCE. Yes, that's right - silence! Claude Debussy famously said that "music is the silence between the notes," which seems rather odd, if you think of music as a bunch of notes.
But listen to the way this song is phrased. Almost every measure ends with a rest in the vocal part and a sustained note in the accompaniment. The music doesn't flow like a mighty stream. It comes in small sighs. She sings a few words, and then she stops. Then she sings a few more, and she stops. Think about the way people talk when they're feeling deeply sentimental: this is it!
So, in sum:
What makes this song sound so deeply sentimental? Yeah, the chords are important. But if you really want to know? Listen to the orchestration, the vocal performance, and the silences, because that's where so much of the emotion is created.
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