I hope you're well!
As you may have noticed, I have not been very active on my blog these past few months.
There are personal reasons for this, but first and foremost, I would like to say the most important thing:
I value and appreciate your interest in this project so very much, and I look forward to resuming with regular posts when I'm able to do so. Meanwhile, I will continue to post on an as-the-muse-inspires me basis, while I figure out how to get my life in order.
OK, so, now for the personal updates that may help to explain my radio silence:
1. I got my Ph.D.!
I'm officially Dr. Zerin! In December 2019, I successfully defended my Ph.D. in historical musicology at New York University! Although it took me 8 years to complete my program, it's been 12 years since I first began researching my dissertation topic. So this is a real relief and achievement. I'll let you know when I've got a full PDF of my dissertation online for people to read. :-)
2. I came out as transgender
My Ph.D. diploma won't say "Samuel Elliot Zerin" on it, but rather "Samantha Elisheva Zerin." A few weeks ago, I came out publicly as transgender. As you can imagine, the months leading up to this announcement were both exciting and intensely stressful. But I am truly humbled by the overwhelming support I have received from my family, friends, colleagues, and community. If you would like to follow my transition/journey, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @ShuliElisheva.
3. I started a blog for my poetry and music
I have a new blog, where I've been posting my poetry and musical compositions under my pen name "Shuli Elisheva". This project began in June 2019 as a way of processing my emotions as I struggled with my gender identity and transition. With a few exceptions, I write all my poetry first in Yiddish and then translate them all into English. My musical compositions include both vocal and instrumental music. I plan to continue with this creative project on an as-the-muse-inspires-me basis; it's not only helping me continue to process my gender transition, but also to fulfill my deep craving for a creative outlet.
4. I'm looking for a day job
I'm looking for a steady day job to help pay the bills, so that I can continue my social media projects without constantly worrying about money. Ultimately, my goal is to make a living from sharing my research and teaching online. Although I have been exploring ways of doing this for a couple of years now, I've had to constantly battle a tension between (1) wanting to create an authentic and engaging presence and (2) needing money ASAP. Unfortunately, the latter has often hindered my ability to do the former. SO, I am hoping that once I have a steady day job, I'll be able to focus on truly being me in my social media work. Meanwhile, freelancing in a variety of areas is helping me piece together some income (blogging, tutoring, video editing, translation work, adjunct teaching, etc), but this has been neither sustainable nor predictable for me.
What about the blog?
I'll continue to write in this blog as I have time. In fact, having just watched the first episode of Galavant this morning (SOOOO GOOD!), I'm mulling over ideas for a post about Alan Menken's melodic style. But I don't want to pretend any more that I've got a regular blogging schedule.
Of course, I'll let you know as plans for the future settle.
Thanks again for your interest,
and all my best from Rhode Island,
Frozen 2 came out last week, and the soundtrack is SOOOOOOOOOOO good!
I live-tweeted my reactions to *almost* the entire soundtrack earlier this week; I'll post it here when I've gotten through the whole thing, but meanwhile you can view the Twitter thread by clicking here.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Let's do an actual analysis of the opening song, shall we? ?
(Disclaimer: I transcribed the notes by ear, so there may be some inaccuracies. I was a little unsure of the 3rd-4th measures in the second system, but everything else seems pretty clear.)
So, what really excited me the most when I first heard "All is Found" is its folksy, fantasy-esque sound.
But what makes it sound so folksy?
Here are some thoughts, just based on the opening verse:
What do you think? What'd I miss? What else do you like about this song, aside from its folksiness?
IF YOU HAVEN'T HEARD IT YET, you should! Here's the entire soundtrack on Spotify:
Who's seen Frozen 2???
Not me (yet!)
But the soundtrack is already up on Spotify! So I'm going to listen to the whole soundtrack now, literally for the first time in forever, and share my thoughts in real time.
Before listening to the music...
OK, first of all, this soundtrack is HUGE. 46 tracks! Some of those appear to be covers, but still. So excited to experience this.
Just glancing at the track list, I'm excited to see that Olaf (Josh Gad) gets several songs! And seriously, there's a continuation of "Reindeer(s) are better than people"?? ?
1. "All is Found"
WOAH - what a great opening! I love the folsky, fantasy-esque feel of it. It's modal (Mixolydian? Love those bVII-I cadences). There are magical chromatic mediants. It's a breathy female voice, accompanied by...what instrument is that? Some kind of dulcimer?
I also love how the piece builds up tension -- starting with a very thin orchestration, then get thicker with a wash of strings, and then even thicker... so powerful.
Listening to the first track again. The melody comes out in bursts... it's not one long melody. It's a little phrase, (breathe), a little phrase, (breathe), a little phrase... part of what makes it so folksy. (Oh, and gotta give a shout out to those magical string triplets!)
2. "Some Things Never Change"
Starting off with an ensemble number this time! (Doesn't the Frozen 1 broadway show do the same? But not the movie...) Cool to hear our favorite characters returning, one by one, before the whole chorus joins in.
The obvious thing is to write about the energy (1-7-6-5 bass ostinato, power chords, etc). BUT, what really excites me is when Elsa enters and ALL THAT GOES AWAY! Weird tonal shift, string tremolos, very soft... just like her solo in "First Time in Forever." Marks her as uncanny!
3. "Into the Unknown"
I've only just listened to the opening, but... so cool. The "destiny topic" that Jesse Kinne talked about at this year's American Musicology Society conference is so salient: the solo female voice over a hollow piano accompaniment...
Also, the piano's odd meter reminds me of "Do You Wanna Build a Snowman..." Is it just me?
Kristen Anderson-Lopez might be new favorite Disney composer... and Frozen 2 might be my new favorite Disney soundtrack. My goodness, "Into the Unknown" is soo dramatic... don't even know where to begin... But on a different note, I hear so many references to the Frozen score in "Into the Unknown" - background melodic stuff, lyrical references, even topical stuff (the destiny voice like in the troll scenes from Frozen 1, the galloping rhythms in what feels like a chase?)
4. "When I Am Older"
Only just listened to the opening measures, but now I'm SO CURIOUS to see the movie! It starts off so Olaf-y, with that Broadway style... and then the sudden slashes... perfect! OK, now to listen to the rest of the song...
So, obviously, it's fun that Olaf's character is musically connected with punchy Broadway cabaret type stuff. Also cool, though, how this old musical style is mixed with digital sound effects -- echos, alien-like bleeps, heavy reverb.... so creative.
5. "Reindeer(s) Are Better Than People."
What a cool idea to have a reprise of a Frozen 1 song in Frozen 2... but it's immediately different, b/c it starts off a cappella. And then when Sven comes in with his advice, the shimmering strings make him sound like the voice of G-d...!
6. "Lost in the Woods"
OK, again, just listened to the first few measures, but..... ELECTRIC GUITAR??? Whaaaaaaaat.
It's nice how Kristoff harmonizes himself in "Lost in the Woods" (did he record each track separately, or is this just a digital effect? Either way...) (Note: later found out that Bobby Lopez asked Kristoff to sing 18 different tracks to layer over each other!)
... also, why are we back in the 80s suddenly? ? I'm really impressed by the Anderson-Lopezes' stylistic versatility in this score. Film composers generally have to know how to write in many different styles, and it's just done so well in Frozen 2.
7. "Show Yourself"
There are some cool orchestral things in here... sudden silences in the chorus, string echos, sci-fi-esque aug 7ths.... what was Christoph Beck's role in these songs? Did Anderson-Lopez write all the background texture in these songs, or did Beck? Or someone else? (Edit: later found out it was Dave Metzger who did most of the orchestration, not Beck.)
I'm curious about the Queen Iduna vocalise (3-2-3-1), which we hear not only sung by Evan Rachel Wood in this track but also weaved into the piano accompaniment. Is it a leit-motif throughout the underscoring? Again, haven't seen the movie yet. But it's just screaming LEIT-MOTIF!
8. "Next Right Thing"
So empty... such loss & solitude... there's the almost non-existent texture in the beginning with long drawn-out chord tones... background cello solos... her sobs... harp ostinati... dear G-d, does this movie have a tragic ending? Better keep listening....
OK, I've listened to all the vocal tracks. So interesting how Elsa and Kristoff barely sang in Frozen 1, but they've got most of the singing in Frozen 2. And Anna - Anna only sings at the very beginning and the very end? And how enigmatic her final solo is - no resolution?
Taking a break for breakfast. Then I'll skip over all the cover versions and head right to the instrumental tracks. This is fun!
17-24. Karaoke Tracks
OK, listening again, now to the instrumental versions of each song. Karaoke?
When I've taught Disney music in the past, students get so caught up in lyrics that they can't listen to the actual music. These would be great for analysis, eliminating the distraction of lyrics!
To be sure, lyrics are important, too. But as a music theorist, it really irks me when people ONLY talk about lyrics, as if lyrics are the be all and end all of Disney music. So it's cool to have just the background tracks to listen to.
"Into the Unknown" without the vocal track is cool. You can really hear how stagnant the opening ostinato is, until suddenly the shimmering strings come in with new harmonies. Again, lyrics are important but can be a distraction - here I can listen distraction-free.
"When I am Older" - instrumental track. The big silences in the middle, when Olaf would be singing a cappella, are so hilarious.
Interesting that there doesn't seem to be a villain song. Is there no villain? Or does the villain just not sing (like in so many of the pre-Menken Disney films)?
Nice plagal cadence (aka "amen cadence") at the end of the last vocal track. (Disclaimer: there's a V-I cadence after the IV-I cadence. But still. Nice touch.)
OK, on to the underscoring by Cristoph Beck. ("Underscoring" is all the background music you hear in a movie when characters are NOT singing. In my opinion, it's sometimes the best / most interesting music in a Disney musical, but NOBODY TALKS ABOUT IT!)
0:00 this sounds SO familiar, very wintery... like Inside Out? Home Alone?
0:07 oh cool, it's the same theme as the opening of Frozen 1
0:10 uh oh, what's this menacing low brass interruption?
0:13 oh, phew, the theme is back
0:17 whaaaaaat (low brass)
0:32 - this is flying music... wonder what the animation is like here.
0:50 - DO YOU WANNA BUILD A SNOWMAN!!!!!
A huldra is a Norwegian forest/water nymph. So is this gonna be like the trolls from Frozen 1?
- nice opening with a folk flute/pipe, emphasizing open fourths and fifths. - oh, nice repetition a step higher!
- sudden entrance of piano timbre is so magical.
So many magical things going on in the orchestration ...
- the use of a folk instrument over a string drone
- the sudden addition of a piano timbre
- the chimes
- the quasi-tremolo 7-7-1-1-7-7-5-5 ostinato in the strings
- chromatic mediant harmonies
- harp-like broken chords
Nice pentatonic melody on a folk pipe. But then, the orchestration changes from folk instruments to orchestral instruments. Sure, orchestration usually changes to make repetitions less repetitive, but... there MUST be something driving this folk --> orchestra shift?
WOAH -- so amazing. I'm used to hearing these swirling arpeggios played by strings at moments of panic/tension/running. It's a cliché in film music. But to hear them on piano (and brass!) is so unusual - it's like my ears are exploding!
The clock tower chimes are a nice touch. I wonder if there's actually a bell tower in the movie, or if this is purely for timbral effect?
32. "The Mist"
The timbral palette is incredible. Forget about listening for a melody. This track is all about the interactions among so many diverse timbres.
Woah, what wind! The string whips, the woodwind/brass double-tonguing, the woodblocks, the sudden appearance of a deep, deep brass theme.
WAIT WAIT WAIT
IT'S THE FEAR MOTIF FROM FROZEN 1!!!!!!
So there are definitely leit motifs from the first film in the second film. OMG
The Frozen 2 soundtrack has a much more overall sci-fi / fantasy vibe to it than the Frozen 1 soundtrack. These slowly-unfolding aug7 chords in the second half of "Wind" are so trippy...
34. "Iduna's Scarf"
Oh hey, it's the opening vocals come back, this time a cappella in a 2-part canon. I wonder why? Will have to see the movie. The opening of this track (0:15-0:40) reminds me of Giacchino's Inside Out score. And the aug7ths after that are so alien-y...
So much cool stuff being done with high-register piano timbres in this soundtrack. I love it.
35. "Fire and Ice"
Another timbre-based track. AND...... it's the fear leit-motif from Frozen 1 again!
What about the rest of the soundtrack?????
Honestly, I was so exhausted from analyzing these couple dozen tracks that I couldn't get through the rest! But I'll certainly be writing more about this soundtrack / film in the coming weeks!
OK, hear me out.
I know, I know, this is probably going to ruffle some feathers.
And the thing is, I really do love Beethoven! Really truly!
And, not only that – but I even agree with the weight of pedagogical tradition that the opening of Beethoven's 1st Piano Sonata is a GREAT example for teaching music theory students about the concept of melodic foreshortening.
But here's the thing:
I've got a 4-year-old son who is OBSESSED with a Disney Junior TV show called The PJ Masks. And not only is he obsessed with the show – he's obsessed with singing the theme song!
The PJ Masks theme song is catchy; it's fun; it's raucous; it's mysterious and spylike in the grand musical tradition of James Bond, Mission Impossible, and The Incredibles.
But let me tell you... from the moment I first heard the opening BUM BUM BA BA BUM, all I can think about is melodic foreshortening.
Every time my kid turns on the TV, that's all I'm thinking: melodic foreshortening!
Geeky, I know. (But that's a compliment, right?)
Anyway, WHAT IS MELODIC FORESHORTENING?
Melodic foreshortening, simply put, is when you repeat a musical phrase several times in a row, but each time you chop part of it off, so that it gets progressively shorter.
Have a look at the opening of the PJ Masks theme. The basic pattern is: two quarter notes on the tonic (green), a leap of a third from the dominant to the 7th (blue), and then again the two quarter notes on the tonic (green).
But look what happens each time it's repeated. First, we hear the entire phrase (all 6 notes). Then, we hear it again, but one of the quarter notes at the end is chopped off. (So we only hear 5 notes). Then, we hear it again, but the first two quarter notes are chopped off as well. (So we only get 3 notes.)
So what does this all mean?
Well, what happens when the melody gets foreshortened like this is that it builds up a lot of energy and forward momentum. Every time the melodic phrase repeats, we expected it to be repeated exactly, but it's like our breath is being cut short... again, and again. So in addition to building energy and momentum, it also builds up suspense and even anxiety, drawing the listener closer and closer into the music.
So next time you're binge-watching Disney Junior shows on Netflix, and the PJ Masks comes on, listen to the theme song with foreshortening in mind. I guarantee, you'll feel EXTREMELY NERDY, and it will also make the music SO MUCH MORE FUN and INTERESTING to listen to!
Michael Giacchino's score to Disney-Pixar's Inside Out is soooooo good.
In fact, when it came time to pick a movie for our family Movie Night this weekend, I requested Inside Out specifically because of the music.
But as we were watching, I began to notice something really fascinating in the visual character design, which, I think, has an interesting connection with the music.
Maybe you noticed this before?
Or maybe you hadn't - but once you see it, you really can't unsee it.
So, you know how all the emotions look totally different? They're different colors. Different shapes and sizes. They personify different stereotypes...
But take a closer look at Joy and Sadness.
Don't they have... the exact same eyes?
And the exact same nose?
And did you ever wonder why Joy has blue hair, just like sadness?
And have you ever noticed – if you look really, really, really closely – that Joy often radiates a blue-ish glow?
It's almost as if Joy and Sadness are the same emotion?
Of course, one of the main themes of the film is that you can't have joy without sadness – a theory that psychology researcher Brené Brown has widely promoted in her popular books and TED talks.
Joy and Sadness are two sides of the same coin.
~ ~ ~
So, ok, let's talk about the music!
The opening track, titled "Bundle of Joy," is one of my favorite bits of film music... ever.
It just tugs at my heart-strings:
As the track title suggests, this music is all about joy. In fact, as the music starts to play, joy is the only emotion present in Riley's head (even if, importantly, she's glowing blue).
But why, then, does the music sound so... sad to me? Or perhaps, rather, bittersweet?
To answer this question, I purchased a PDF of the sheet music from MusicNotes.com, took it to the piano, and set to work on figuring out how this works.
To my astonishment, I discovered that the entire track contains only two chords!
There's a G major 7 chord (G-B-D-F#), and an F major 7 chord (F-A-C-E), and that's it.
Just those two chords.
And yet, somehow, the music sounds so much more complex than that. It feels, to me, like it's wavering between major and minor. It feels, to me, like there are some interesting cadences going on in there. It feels, to me, like the music has discrete sections to it, like the music has a direction it's heading in, a goal that it's aiming towards.
Well that, my friends, is the beauty of major 7 chords.
If you divide a major 7 chord into two halves, the bottom half is a major triad and the top half is a minor triad.
And this is key to understanding the bittersweet nature of "Bundle of Joy" from Disney-Pixar's Inside Out.
Let's take a closer look at the melody and accompaniment:
All four of these measures have the same chord – a G major 7 chord.
And yet, there's just enough ambiguity to create the illusion that it's alternating between major and minor triads.
The accompaniment just rocks back and forth between the notes D and B, which are found in both G major and B minor chords. So if we only heard the accompaniment, we wouldn't have any way of knowing if it's major or minor.
In order to know if it's major or minor, we'd have to add either a G to that B/D (to make it G major) or an F# (to make it B minor).
And that's exactly what the melody does.
In all four measures, the note G is heavily emphasized in the melody, suggesting G major.
But at the same time, there are a few spots – at the beginnings of measures 3 and 4 – that strongly emphasize the note F#, suggesting B minor.
And of course, these Gs and F#s are part of the G major 7 chord.
So even though it's all one chord – a G major 7 chord – it feels as if it's wavering between two different chords, one major and one minor.
And not only does it do that in these first four measures, but then these four measures get repeated several times: outlining an F major 7 chord, then back to a G major 7 again (with a slightly embellished accompaniment), and then again F major 7.
Of course, I could be totally wrong. After all, who says that we have to consider those 4-measure phrases to be one single chord, one single major 7 chord? Why COULDN'T we think of them as, in fact, wavering between two entirely separate chords, one major and one minor?
Well, take a closer look at those bottom two lines, where G maj7 and F maj7 repeat with a slightly embellished accompaniment.
What's the new embellishment in the accompaniment? It's a broken major 7 chord!
And lest one think that this is still just incidental, take a look at how the next section begins, with those crystal-clear, slowly-unfolding G major 7 and F major 7 chords:
Of course, music isn't only about harmony, and there's more than just harmony making this music sound bittersweet.
There's also the orchestration: a solo piano melody, way up high at the top of the keyboard, above shimmering violins. As I wrote in an earlier blog post about the music from Toy Story, piano+violins = heightened emotion. And high registers typically signify goodness/purity, in contrast to low registers that signify villainy and anger.
And then there's the ostinato element, which film composers often use to establish, draw out, and maintain an emotional atmosphere.
And there are the metalicky sounds of someone rubbing their finger on a wine glass, which contribute to the magical feeling of the music, while also serving as little pin pricks that temporarily jerk us out of the acoustic dream-world of piano and strings.
So there's a lot going on to make this music sound bittersweet. And isn't that the whole point of the movie? That joy and sadness are one and the same?
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.
Here's a tricky riddle:
Listen to the following scene from Disney's Pinocchio. Do you hear "music" or "sound effects?" Or both, or neither, or something altogether different?
Obviously, this is supposed to sound like chaotic noise. That's the whole point of this scene: Jiminy Cricket can't sleep, because he's too much bothered by the random ticking of countless clocks, Gappetto's disgusting snoring, and the fish's bubbly breathing. So should we refer to this audio as "a noisy mix of sound effects?"
But the ways that these sound effects and their collective, chaotic noise are created rely on well-known musical techniques, employed by composers and performed by musicians. In other words, they're not the result of randomness, but rather of a carefully constructed musical score.
So when we ask if this is "music" or not, it really depends on whose musical experience we're prioritizing: the diegetic experience of the characters in the movie, or the creative experience of the composers and performers? (Or, for that matter, our own perspectives as listeners and thinkers?)
In this blog post, I'll explore some of the ways that this scene blends the boundaries between music and sound effects. Then, I'll conclude with a famous psychological study by Dr. Diana Deutsch that shows how simply the act of reading this blog post can literally change whether you hear this as music or not.
Let's get started!
1. Rhythmic Counterpoint - or, the Art of Hemiolas
In the image above, I've tried to notate some of the clocks' rhythms to show how they're interacting in musical ways. It's really hard! Part of what's difficult about transcribing the rhythms in this scene is that they aren't all consistent: some clocks come and go, while others remain more-or-less constant. As well, they don't all seem to be in the same meter, causing some cross-bar discrepancies that are really hard to decipher.
But consider the interactions of the brown circular pendulum, the acorn pendulum, the flower pendulum, and the heart pendulum, which I've transcribed in the image above. They form, in multiple layers, what music theorists call "hemiolas" – that is, the effect of hearing one clock tick thrice in the same time that another clock ticks twice. This is a common rhythmic device that can be traced in the classical music tradition at least as far back as the Renaissance.
2. Animating the Hemiolas - or, Jiminy Rolls His Eyes
We don't just hear these hemiolas in the ticking of the clocks – we also see them in the rolling of Jiminy's eyes.
To see what I mean, check out this 15-second clip (above).
First, the eyes on the owl clock move side to side with a simple, duple rhythm.
Jiminy's eyes repeat this same motion.
Then, the pendula from two different clocks move in a likewise rhythm, but in contrary directions.
Jiminy's eyes repeat this same motion – with one eye moving to the left while the other moves to the right.
And then we get to the cool part: the ticking of two other pendula forms a hemiola (3:2) rhythm...
... and Jiminy's eyes follow the rhythm and motion of that hemiola! One eye follows the triplet clock, while the other follows the duple clock, until Jiminy is so confused that he just shakes his head in frustration.
There's a technical term for this close synchronization of sound and animation. It's called "Mickey Mousing," because it's a technique that Disney pioneered in his earliest Mickey Mouse cartoons (late 1920s), developed to an art in his Silly Symphonies (1930s), and enshrined as a standard device in basically every single Disney movie from Snow White to Ralph Breaks the Internet.
It's a technique that blurs the boundaries between music, sound effects, and choreography. On one hand, the sounds appear to be coming naturally from the actions of characters and objects; and yet, the ways that those sounds are constructed are undeniably musical.
3. Tonality - or, Gappetto Snores in F Major
Despite the apparent monotony of this scene, if you listen to the pitches of every clock, snore, and bubble, you might notice that it's entirely in the key of F major.
Some of the clocks alternate between the pitches F and A (the root and third of an F major chord). Others clack away at F, A, or C. Gappetto's snoring takes the form of a glissando from a low F to a high F and back down again. The fish's breathing glissandos up from F to C (the tonic to the dominant).
Or perhaps it's more meaningful to say that this isn't "in F major," but rather that pitches in this scene "outline an F major triad." Indeed, there aren't any other chords, which means that there aren't any progressions or cadences that could ground us in a particular key. Rather, what we have is a single chord, stretched out through an entire scene, which reinforces the scene's overall monotony, but in a distinctly musical way.
4. Binary Form: A A' B B'
If one were to create a structural map of the audio in this scene, it might look something like this:
One might further note, then, that the dynamics gradually get louder from section to section, with slight subito decreases in dynamic at the start of sections B and B'.
One could contrast the thick orchestral texture of the A sections (featuring clocks), in contrast to the thinner texture of the B sections (featuring snoring/breathing).
In other words, one could structure this scene not only in terms of the animation, but also in terms of the sound itself.
"Music" is Ontologically Fluid
What is music? If you look in a dictionary, you'll get a definition that is ontologically-fixed. That is, you'll have a definition that can be applied to any source of sound to tell you: "this is music" or "this is not music." Either the sound is music or it isn't, right?
When I played this scene from Pinocchio for my music theory students at Brown University and the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and I asked them if it's "music" or "sound effects," my students were fairly split. Some said it's music, others said it's sound effects, yet others said it's both, and, of course, there were those who just had no idea.
The same thing happened when I asked this question on Facebook and Twitter: not much agreement as to whether this is music or not!
The more my students listened to it, and the closer they listened to it, and the more they shared and debated ideas, something remarkable began to happen.
Within minutes, nearly every student agreed that the audio in this scene could be called "music."
What changed their minds? Well, I don't believe that the initial nay-sayers were simply convinced by the arguments of their classmates. Nor, do I suspect, were they only trying to please their teacher. (I made it very clear from the beginning that I didn't think there was any correct answer, and that I was more interested in disagreement and debate than in blind acceptance.)
So what happened?
Dr. Diana Deutsch, a professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego, studies the psychology of music. She is best known for her work on musical illusions, particularly the so-called "Speech to Song Illusion."
In 1995, Deutsch recorded a snippet of spoken audio, set it on loop, and made a remarkable discovery. The more she listened to this recording of her speaking voice, the more it began to sound like music. And it wasn't just her. She would play this recording of her speaking voice for group after group after group, and in every case her subjects would initially claim that it was a recording of her talking..... but after listening to it just a handful of times, her audiences would not only begin to hear it as music, but would even sing it back to her with such clarity that it could be notated with precise pitches and rhythms.
Deutsch's "Speech to Song Illusion" proved that one-and-the-same audio recording could be alternately interpreted by listeners as "music" or "speech." And not only that -- but the same listeners who were initially so convinced that it's speech needed only hear it a few times before completely changing their minds and calling it music. In other words, what makes music "music" isn't the actual sound itself, but rather the listener's experience of the sound.
As it turns out, what makes us hear music as "music" is repetition. When we hear someone talking, our brains initially latch on to the words that they're saying. But if we listen to them talk on repeat, our brain gets so used to the words that it begins listening for other details: pitch, rhythm, timbre, articulation...
The same applies to any sound. When we listen to a sound on repeat, our brain tunes in to a wide range of details that we otherwise wouldn't have noticed. Our brains try to organize and make sense of these details, and eventually, we hear them as music.
So is the audio in this scene from Pinocchio "music?" Well, I don't think that we can objectively say "yes" or "no." Obviously, Jiminy Cricket experiences it as noise. But the more we listen to it, the more we analyze it, the more we discuss it, the more it will begin to sound like music... regardless of how we initially heard it.
Any sound can be music, if only are brains are open to the possibility.
Here's a leit motif, called the "Cathedral Motif," that weaves its way through the entire score of Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame.
We hear it, for example, in D major when Clopin sings with reverence about the bells of Notre Dame.
We also hear it, for instance, in D minor when Frollo sings about his soul descending into Hell.
What do you think?
It's well-known among film music fans that leit motifs represent certain characters, emotions, or ideas.
But so, so, so often, leit motifs are more complicated than that. As the cool kids say, leit motifs can be semantically flexible: carrying a wide array of meanings that ebb and flow over the course of a film.
This is certainly the case with the "Cathedral Motif," which perhaps shows how a Cathedral can be a place of both sanctuary and imprisonment, or how a soul (in Christian theology, at least) can ascend to Heaven or descend to Hell, or how religion can be (ab)used for both good and evil.
And it's also the case with other leit motifs in Hunchback, such as the theme from "Out There" that we also hear during Quasimodo's public humiliation, or the recitative-like melody with which both Quasimodo and Frollo sing so much of their music.
But enough of what I have to say. What do you think? I'm really curious to know!
It's D major! Wait, no, is it? Yeah, it is. Wait a minute! (aka "Adventures in Tonal Meandering," Disney-Edition)
In my previous blog post, "The Chord of Death: How the Neapolitan Chord Makes 'Remember Me' from Disney's Coco Sound So Sad," I made the following argument:
I thought this was a pretty sound argument, but, as is often the case, the harmony is pretty ambiguous and there are multiple ways of interpreting it. (And that's why this stuff is so much fun to talk about!)
When I shared this post in our Facebook group, Dr. Kati Meyer, a professor of music theory at San Jacinto College, challenged my claim that the Neapolitan passage is, in fact, in D major:
Why not just analyze it in b minor? Then it would make sense as to why it is sad. [...]
I responded that although the music seems to be switching to B minor, it only does so for a single measure, which is too short to call it a real modulation:
Because it's not really tonicizing B minor. After that one single measure that has a B minor tonic chord, it's already on to other things, including a Bb chord several measures later. The one stable tonality here is that the song begins, ends, and keeps returning to D major.
But perhaps I was oversimplifying. As Dr. Meyer went on to explain, small-scale modulations like this – "localized tonicizations" – are a fairly common phenomenon and were used extensively by Bach. By this reasoning, the music does, in fact, shift to minor, even if only for a couple of measures - and hence, it sounds sad:
That cadential formula looks like a legit small scale tonicization in b minor to me. Bach does that all the time in fugal developments, modulation to even distant lands within the span of a few measures!
So this got me thinking... if that's what's going on, then what happens in the rest of the song? Are there other small-scale tonicizations like this that take the music "to distant lands" à la Bach?
It's an interesting way of looking at this. The opening phrase is in D major-ish... ("ish," because of the modal mixture). Then it's got a solid cadence in B minor. Then it's got a solid cadence in G major. Then the second verse begins in D major-ish again, just as the first verse had done. And then we get a series of adventurous sonorities that seem to take us through a circle of fifths - B minor, to E minor, to A major - which finally resolves with a cadence in D major. (And not even D major-ish this time... legit D major!)
So the question is, how do we make sense of this all?
One way would be to say that it's all in D major, but that the second phrase prolongs a vi chord by using an applied cadential formula, and the third phrase prolongs a IV chord by using its own applied cadential formula, and that then leads back to an actual cadence in D major. In other words, the first verse is basically I - vi - IV - DomAug7 - I, and each phrase just stretches out each of those chords for added color and length.
Another way would be to say that it starts and end in D major, but in between it meanders to a variety of other tonalities: the relative minor (B minor) and a nearby major (G major). In other words, rather than stretching out each chord in a relatively straightforward progression, it's taking us on an emotional journey through related minor and major tonalities.
What do you think? It's certainly a fascinating song, and I so wish that I had time today to dive into the second half of it! (Well, there's always another day!)
How can a Disney song in D major sound so, so sad?
The emotional power behind the music of "Remember Me," a bittersweet song of farewell from a father to his daughter, is deep and complex. In this post, I'll just give a hint of what's happening in the first couple phrases. Perhaps in the future, when I have more time, I'll dive into the rest of the song, as well!
The song begins with a "minor plagal cadence," a form of modal mixture that replaces the major IV chord with a minor iv chord. It's like pulling the rug out from under the listeners' feet: we think we're in major, but suddenly it sounds like minor, and then it cadences in major again. As music theory YouTuber Jake Lizzio puts it, this is a progression "to make you cry."
But what I really want to write about is what comes next: a Neopolitan cadence in the relative minor, B minor.
In their study on music and emotions, theorists Daniela and Bernd Willimek describe the Neapolitan chord (bII) as "a symbol of death," noting its use in a song by Schubert to highlight the phrase "weinen ganz totenbleich" (weeping, and deathly pale).
In fact, the Neapolitan chord – which appears in measure 4 of "Remember Me" – has long been associated with death and destruction.
Vivaldi, for instance, used the Neapolitan chord in the second movement of his Four Seasons to evoke human suffering during the blaze of summer: "Under a hard season, fired up by the sun / Languishes man, languishes the flock and burns the pine."
Bach used the Neapolitan chord in his St. Matthew Passion No. 19 on the word "Plagen" (suffering): "What is the source of all of this suffering?"
Mendelssohn-Hensel used it in her song "Ferne," Op. 9 No. 2, on the word "ertötest" (mortify): "Why do you mortify me?"
There are so many more examples one could give – from Mozart's Requiem Mass, Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata, Wagner's opera Das Rheingold – which also utilize the Neapolitan chord in conjunction with deathly thoughts.
But the point is, the Neapolitan chord also plays a crucial role in establishing the mood of "Remember Me" from Coco, and understanding the long history of its usage in classical music can help us better appreciate its use in Disney.
OK, so what is the Neapolitan chord, anyway, and what's it doing in Coco?
Glad you asked!
The Neapolitan chord is a ii chord in minor, but lowered by a half step. For example, in C minor, a regular ii chord is a D chord, and the Neapolitan (bII) is a Db chord. That's jarring, because Db is not part of the C minor scale. In other words, it's chromatic.
But why is it associated with death?
Part of the reason, perhaps, is that lowering scale degree 2 turns the minor mode into the Phrygian mode, which, as I wrote in a previous blog post, is also associated with death.
Another possible reason is that the Neapolitan chord is generally used as part of a cadence (bII - V7 - I), and when you do that, you set up a tritone between the root of the Neapolitan chord and the root of the dominant chord. Tritones, of course, are also associated with death.
What's especially interesting about "Remember Me" is that it doesn't, in fact, use the Neapolitan of D major. Rather, it uses the Neapolitan of the relative minor key, B minor, followed by a full V7-I cadence, making us feel like the music has suddenly slipped into minor. But it hasn't gone into minor! The song really is, ultimately, in D major. This is just one of the many tricks that composers Kristen and Robert Anderson Lopez used to make the song feel like it's ever floating between major and minor, not quite happy but also not quite sad:
And it's ironic, isn't it? Coco's father wrote this song for her so that she'd remember him while he's away on his concert tour and look forward to seeing him when he gets back. But while he's away, [spoiler alert!] he gets murdered. And decades upon decades later, after waiting so long for his return, Coco has almost entirely forgotten him.
So it's appropriate that the song should hinge on a chord that Vivaldi, Bach, Hensel, and so many others have for centuries associated with death.
Well, well, well. I had SO many ideas yesterday, that I didn't get around to posting ANY of them!
So I guess I'll just have to do a double post today. :-)
And since the last few posts have mostly discussed the Lydian mode, I figured I'd spend today writing about two other modes, which are rarely discussed in music theory classes: the major blues and the Mixolydian b6.
The Major Blues in "Carryin' the Banner" (Newsies)
One of the modes that rarely gets discussed in music theory classrooms (because racism) is the blues mode. As the name suggests, it originated with the blues genre in African-American music and then later entered the jazz repertoire along with all the other modes we've been discussing (plus even more - jazz is a galaxy of modes).
Alan Menken's score for the 1992 film Newsies uses the blues mode extensively, setting the scene in early 1900s New York City and characterizing the newspaper-selling orphans as poor, emotionally broken, and transgressive. By contrast, he used the major mode for more "innocent" characters, like mothers and nuns. It's important to acknowledge the racist underpinnings of Western musical culture, which associates a "white" mode like major with innocence and a "black" mode like the blues with transgression, even if this blog isn't the space to dive into that discussion at length. That's why modal contrasts like this are used by film composers, and it's why audiences pick up on them, even if neither the composer nor the audience is necessarily aware of the racist undercurrent driving their musical experience.
Anyway, there are two primary blues scales: the major blues and the minor blues. Since Menken used the major blues in Newsies, that's the one I'll focus on in this blog post.
The major blues scale is constructed like this:
1. Start with a major scale.
2. Grab five of those notes - 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 - to create a "major pentatonic scale."
3. Then add a sixth note - the "blue note" - which is a half-step lower than scale degree 3.
In Newsies, the opening song's verses use a D major blues scale, with a jazzy accompaniment that breaks all the rules of classical music theory. Here's the melody, with the scale degrees labeled and the "blue notes" color-coded:
Things get really interesting, though, in the bridge section. After several verses and choruses featuring the rambunctious newsies singing their energetic, syncopated blues, we suddenly hear a group of nuns solemnly singing in major about Jesus. (Hollywood is as Christian-centric as it is white-centric, but again, that's another discussion.) Then one of the kids' mothers sings the same major-mode melody about how terrible it is that her son ran away to join the newsies, WHILE AT THE SAME TIME the newsies sing their syncopated blues tunes. This contrast is especially poignant in the 2nd measure of the sheet music excerpt below, where the mother is singing F# (scale degree 3 in D Major) at exactly the same moment that the kids sing an F-natural (the "blue" note in D Major Blues):
This is an interesting moment of "polymodality" – having two different modes going simultaneously. But it's also a dramatic moment: the polymodal effect here is not just a stylistic thing, but even more so a way of dramatizing the split between a God-fearing mother and her rebellious, runaway child.
If you'd like to hear an alternate interpretation of the modal harmony in this song, check out Hunter Farris's podcast episode about it. It's also an interesting, if very different, take on both the harmony and its dramatic implications.
Mixolydian b6 (aka "the Wonder Mode")
Sam Zerin is a PhD student in musicology at New York University and a former lecturer in music theory at NYU, Brown University, and the Borough of Manhattan Community College. He also runs Social Media Music Theory (@SocialMediaMus1)