In our Facebook group, we had a great discussion about uses of the Lydian mode in Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Wall-E. But also, several people asked what modes are, how they're different from "normal theory," and how one can go about learning them.
SO..... welcome to Modal Harmony Week! Let's start from the very beginning, and talk about various ways that modal harmony is used in Disney music. Today (Monday), I'll explain the basics of what modes even are, explain some brief examples from Little Mermaid and Nightmare Before Christmas, and then the rest of the week will be devoted to exploring various other examples in the magical world of Disney music.
What are "modes"?
OK, so the first question is: what is a mode?
To answer this question, let's talk about video games.
When you play a video game, you can set it up in various modes: "practice mode," "beginner mode," "expert mode," and so forth. What does this mean? Essentially, modes define the entire system of rules in which a video game will function:
In music, modes work in a similar way. They tell us what notes will be used, how they will function, and how they'll combine into chords. Modes tell us what progressions to expect, which cadences to use, and what sorts of intervals will be used to make melodies. They even tell us what kinds of gestures to use.
(Disclaimer: modes are not dogmatic, and there are many ways to idiomatically "break" the rules of a mode. That's true of all music theory.)
Major and Minor
The two most famous modes are called major and minor.
"Oh yes!" you might be thinking. "I know what major and minor scales are!"
Scales tell us what notes we're likely to use.
But scales are only one tiny part of what makes the major mode "major" and the minor mode "minor."
Modes tell us way more than that. For example, in major and minor modes:
These features are so central to the development of Western music theory that most people don't even think about them as being particular to the major and minor modes.
But they are.
The phrase "modal harmony" refers to music that functions within other modes, i.e. not major or minor. (Major and minor modes are called "tonal harmony," and all the rest are called "modal harmony." The reasons are fascinating but for a different conversation.)
Just like major and minor, the other modes have their own scales, which tell us what notes to expect. But also, like major and minor, the other modes have other characteristics that tell us how cadences are formed, which chord progressions to use, etc.
The most common "modal" modes are:
I'm bored. Let's hear some music.
OK, cool! Let's take a listen and a look at some awesome bits of Disney music to see how these modes actually work in practice.
Mixolydian: "Fathoms Below" (Little Mermaid)
Alan Menken's score for The Little Mermaid (1989) begins with a sea shanty called "Fathoms Below." At first glance, you might think it's in C major, but it's actually in the folksy key of C Mixolydian.
The C Mixolydian scale is almost identical to C major, but the last note is a half step lower:
This does two things. First, it destroys the half-step leading tone between 7 and 1 that is so central in tonal (major and minor) harmony. Second, it makes the dominant V chord minor, rather than major. Take a look, for example, at the final v-I cadence in the last two bars. The dominant chord is G minor, not G major, and the melody emphasizes the whole step between Bb (7) and C (1).
"BUT WAIT!!!!!!!" you might protest. "There are B naturals in measures 3 and 11! How is that mixolydian and not major?"
Yes, it's true! But these B naturals are not part of any chords. They both appear as passing notes in an F major chord. By contrast, the final cadence uses Bb as a fundamental chord tone in the G minor dominant harmony.
This is typical of modal harmony. Although characteristic tones are often used for characteristic moments, they can be altered for less significant moments. Let's explore this particular idea in more detail with our next example, from Nightmare before Christmas.
Phrygian: "Sally's Song" (Nightmare Before Christmas)
Danny Elfman's score for Nightmare Before Christmas is honestly the best thing about the movie. (Sorry!) But seriously, it's really neat music.
Part of what makes "Sally's Song" so cool is that it cleverly takes advantage of the similarities between E minor and E Phrygian.
Minor and Phrygian use almost identical scales, except that 2 is a half step lower in Phrygian:
So to get a sense of what I mean, take a look at measures 1-2. The melody outlines an E minor triad, and – notably – does not include scale degree 2, which is the primary difference between these two modes. So if you just hear the first few measures, you'd rightfully think this is in minor. But then measure 3 comes as a total surprise: highlighting scale degree 2, F natural, it suddenly jolts us into Phrygian. Phrygian's power in this song is not just from being an unusual mode, but from interrupting the more typical minor mode.
In measures 8-9, Elfman pulls another clever trick. Measure 8 feels like it's shifted to the relative major, G major, and the melody outlines a G major triad. But then in measure 9, although we get an A in the melody, the background chord is an F natural chord -- suddenly jolting us away from major and into Phrygian.
Now, you might be wondering: if the power of E Phrygian lies in the use of F natural, then WHY are there so many measures with F#s in them? (I've highlighted them in blue in the sheet music above.) This, too, is part of the ambiguity between E minor and E Phrygian. In these blue measures, the F# is part of a dominant V (B7) chord, which establishes us in E minor. Again, rooting the song in E minor makes the revelation of E Phrygian all the more powerful.
Whew, that's a lot!
Yeah, it is! And it's SO much fun!
Let's pause here, and tomorrow I'll write about another mode – Lydian – in Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. Can't wait. :-)
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)