"Frozen" and "Moana" songbooks just arrived in the mail! Thanks to those of you who donated to my Ko-Fi page for giving me the money to buy these!
And now (because I said having these scores would help me help you, didn't I?), here is an awesome example of rhythmic diminution from "Let it Go."
The first two measures present a melody in 8th notes; the next two measures repeat the same melody in 16th notes.
You're welcome! (And thank you!)
There are many reasons I dislike "interval reference songs."
And I may be unpopular for saying so: interval reference songs are one of the most popular ear training methods.
The concept is simple: if you want to remember what a minor 2nd sounds like, think of the Jaws theme. If you want to remember a perfect fourth, think: "Here comes the bride!" Perfect fifths? "Star wars!"
While this works to a certain extent, I have so many complaints about it.
But my biggest complaint is that they take musical intervals completely out of context.
Consider the examples in this excerpt from my four-page reference guide, "Teaching Musical Intervals Through Disney Music: A Source Sheet for Teachers."
Example #1, from Snow White, begins with a perfect fourth. But it's not simply a perfect fourth: it's a cadential leap from the dominant to the tonic, energetically launching us into the beginning of the melody. This is the same opening gesture that music theory students learn when they associate "Here Comes the Bride" with perfect fourths.
But how different it is from Example #2!
Example #2 begins with this same opening gesture, a perfect fourth leaping from the dominant to the tonic. BUT, then it has another perfect fourth just a couple bars later: from 6 up to 2. Unlike the opening 5-1 gesture, which relieves tension, 6-2 increases tension. While 5-1 completes a cadence, 6-2 initiates a cadence. In short: while both are perfect fourths, they feel, mean, and sound very different.
Example #3 adds a descending 4th into the mix. But it's not simply a descending 4th. It descends from 5 to 2, from the dominant to........... just quite NOT the tonic. It delays resolution. In a sense, it's exactly the opposite of "Here Comes the Bride," which resolves tension by moving from the dominant up to the tonic. Here, the dominant, moving downwards, is stopping just short of the tonic.
So why don't I like interval reference songs?
The truth is, I do agree that they can be very useful...... but we need to learn how to use them in context. If a student is in the middle of a dictation exercise, and they encounter a perfect fourth from 6 up to 2, then thinking about "Here Comes the Bride" is just as likely to confuse them as it is to help. And if it does help, the student is likely to lose their sense of the melody as a whole, requiring the teacher to replay it for them.
But what if we conceptualized interval reference songs differently?
What if, instead of learning a song to pair with "perfect fourths," we learned a song to pair with "the perfect fourth from 5 up to 1?" And a different song to pair with "the perfect fourth from 6 up to 2," and yet another for "the perfect fourth from 5 down to 2?"
"Here Comes the Bride" is a GREAT reference for perfect fourths when they're used as an opening gesture from 5 up to 1.
Example #3, from Moana, is a GREAT reference for perfect fourths when they're used as a teasing gesture from 5 down to 2.
Examples #2 and #4 are GREAT references for perfect fourths in sequential contexts.
Using interval reference songs in this way requires, in some sense, a paradigm shift in how we think about musical intervals.
Instead of treating them as isolated sounds – this note to that note – we should treat them as musical gestures that serve particular functions within a musical context.
What do you think?
I invite you to download my four-page guide, "Teaching Musical Intervals Through Disney Music: A Source Sheet for Teachers," and give some thought to the examples it includes. How can you use these to improve your teaching and learning? What other examples could you draw on, if you shift your focus from isolated intervals to intervals in context?
Spread chords are common in orchestral film music, especially in the string sections.
Basically, a spread chord is a root-position chord, but with the third above the fifth:
Here are some examples in the official piano transcription of "All is Found" from Frozen 2. You can also find them in "Into the Unknown" and "Lost in the Woods," too. :-)
p.s. If you'd like to support my blog, I invite you to buy me a "cup of tea" over at http://Ko-Fi.com/DisneyMusicTheory. I'm currently raising money to buy more songbooks (Frozen, Moana, Brave). This will help me help you find even more useful ways of using Disney music to teach music theory! ❤️
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!
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!
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.
Music theory is not about rules! It's about conventions!
And sometimes, those conventions aren't the best way to do things.
Take the opening of "Do You Want to Build a Snowman" from Frozen. The "correct" notation in 4/4, shown above, completely blurs the meter, the counterpoint, the rhythm, and even the genre. What's more, it's hard to play! (Catch that left hand Eb on the last 16th note of beat 1!)
But when we re-beam it to fit the three unequal beats of 8/8 rather than the more conventional 4 equal beats of 4/4, a whole galaxy of details springs to life.
Why does any of this matter? Well, this passage is not just dramatic but also a huge part of both setting up the film's narrative and establishing Anna's personality.
This song comes after that heart-wrenching scene where the troll king erases Anna's memory, to spare her the trauma of her near-death experience. As the scene comes to an end, a confused Anna watches as her sister completely shuns her by locking herself up in her room. The musical background fades into a soft, slow, descending melody, orchestrated very sparsely, a perfect depiction of the loss, abandonment, confusion, loneliness, etc. felt in this scene by both sisters.
And this lonely music moves immediately into a fast, upbeat tango as a now-older Anna races to her sister's door to invite her to play together. What a dramatic contrast! It highlights how playful, giddy, and carefree Anna has become, and makes the tragedy of her memory loss and abandonment all the more poignant.
Sure, you don't need to know any theory to feel this emotional contrast between one scene and the next. But music theory -- including a sensible, if unconventional, notation -- helps us understand that contrast on a much more nuanced level, which means we can also feel it in a more nuanced way. And it also makes it easier to perform!
To pass the time during my cancer treatment, I did a live stream on Twitter about the history of Disney music. Why not, right? :-)
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