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.
In his fabulous book on Music in Disney's Animated Features (2017), James Bohn explains what makes Dumbo's psychedelic dream so musically unsettling. After describing the melody's rhythmic instability, Bohn turns his attention to the harmony:
"The most emphasized tone in the melody is actually scale degree six, not the tonic. There are tonal, agogic, and dynamic accents on both the high dominant as well as the leading tone to the dominant (sharp scale degree four). While they are displaced by an octave, together these three prominent melodic tones form a chromatic cluster. It is only the last note of the melody that firmly establishes the tonic." (page 98)
Bohn assumes, quite correctly, that this passage is in the key of A minor. In fact, when I googled the sheet music, every single edition that I found harmonized the melody in A minor, as shown in the sheet music below. (I've added scale degree numbers above the melody so you can clearly see Bohn's "three prominent melodic tones" - #4, 5, and 6)
But here's the thing. If you ignore the accompaniment, and just consider the melody by itself... doesn't it seem like it could be in E phrygian, rather than A minor?
Phrygian is like minor, but with one crucial difference: scale degree 2 is lowered, creating an eerie half-step between scale degrees 1 and 2 and turning the dominant V chord into some sort of mutilated diminished chord. For these reasons, the phrygian mode is often associated with creepiness and evil. (It's often used in the score for Nightmare before Christmas, for example.)
So if we go back to "Elephants on Parade," which is DEFINITELY creepy and evil, it's so easy to see this melody as being in E phrygian. Measures 1-3 emphasize the half-step between scale degrees 1 and 2, which is precisely what makes phrygian unique. Measures 4-5 play with the tension between the tonic (1) and the raised leading tone (#7). Measure 6 repeats the tonic 3 times before cascading down an arpeggio to scale degree 2, which leads straight back into a repeat of the opening alternation of 1 and 2.
The only moment that DOESN'T seem like E phrygian is the final measure, which is clearly A minor. But even Bohn agrees that the only clear moment of A minor in this tune is the very last measure.
SO, I thought, what would this sound like if I harmonized it in E phrygian, rather than A minor?
BEHOLD, friends! Here it is, my re-harmonization of "Pink Elephants on Parade" in E phrygian. Again, I've added the scale degrees above each note of the melody. Be sure, as well, to listen to the audio file under the score:
So, what do you think?
Does it sound better to your ears in A minor or E phrygian? Let me know, either way! And be sure to share this post with your friends, so we can all nerd out together. :-)
To pass the time during my cancer treatment, I did a live stream on Twitter about the history of Disney music. Why not, right? :-)
Pop quiz! What's Alan Menken's favorite interval?
Answer: I don't know, but 3rds show up ALL over his Disney soundtracks!
He uses them in ostinatos, sequences, free-flowing melodies, emphatic gestures... have a listen to the examples in this video, and then read on to learn more!
Ostinatos establish a mood and anticipate motion.
Menken uses 3rds-based ostinatos to establish moods and anticipate motion. Ostinatos, in case you don't know, are musical patterns that repeat themselves over and over and over. For this reason, they both ground us in a particular sound-world and build up suspense over when, and how, the music will change.
In Newsies, the syncopations and brass orchestration of a 3rds-based ostinato set the movie in jazzy NYC, in a bustling orphanage where the newsies long for adventure.
In The Little Mermaid, a 3rds-based ostinato is played smoothly and evenly by sweet violins, creating an aura of peace and satisfaction as Ariel lies down to sleep. What will tomorrow bring? We'll find out tomorrow; in the meantime, she basks in her happiness.
In Aladdin, the end-of-bar accents, abrupt rests, and flurries of sixteenth notes in this 3rds-based ostinato create anxiety. Trapped by the guards, unable to escape, he prepares himself to jump for his life, colorfully depicted by a falling glissando.
Here are those same examples in sheet music format:
Sequences create movement and anticipate arrival.
Menken uses 3rds-based sequences to create motion and anticipate arrival. Sequences are like ostinatos, but each time the pattern repeats it's a little bit higher or lower than the time before... like climbing on rungs in a ladder.
In Hunchback of Notre Dame, for example, the villainous Frollo sings a descending sequence of 3rds as his soul descends into Hell.
In The Little Mermaid, by contrast, Ariel sings an ascending sequence of 3rds as the sea witch, Ursula, rips her voice up and out of her throat.
Isn't Disney just lovely for children? Here are those same examples in sheet music format:
Free-flowing melodies are more flexible than ostinatos and sequences.
The challenge with ostinatos and sequences is that they're structurally very rigid. But that's precisely where they get their power: they're incredible at establishing moods and carrying the music in clear directions.
But Alan Menken also often uses thirds to create his own, free-flowing melodies, such as the following gruesome duet from Hunchback and snazzy, finger-snapping bridge from Newsies.
In the Hunchback duo, Frollo and Quasimodo sing short phrases based almost exclusively on thirds. Thirds are useful in duets, because they are very consonant, and they form the most basic building blocks of tonal chords. For these reasons, they're relatively easy to harmonize, which is a load off the shoulders when trying to blend two simultaneous melodies.
This snazzy bit from Newsies uses open thirds, omitting the middle note of each interval. Leaping around from syncopated note to syncopated note, this use of open thirds creates a feeling of lightness, joy, and happy-go-luckiness:
Of course, the happy-go-luckiness of these open thirds can be snuffed in a puff, when used for a rigid, choppy, ostinato such as that in Randy Newman's song "Friends on the Other Side" from Disney's The Princess and the Frog.
Good stuff. Here's the sheet music:
Emphatic gestures add "punch and pizzazz" (quoth the Genie...)
A lot of folks think that music is just about long, flowing melodies and longer, nerdier chord progressions. But that's missing the trees for the forest. Just as hand gestures and facial gestures add extra meaning to vocal speech, so, too, do itty-bitty musical gestures contribute to the flavor and meaning of a song.
Alan Menken is a MASTER of musical gestures, and one of these days I'll write about the multitude of juicy, delectable instrumental gestures in his background music for Aladdin. It's part of what makes the Aladdin soundtrack so expressive and engaging.
But for now, let's have a listen and look at a few 3rds-based gestures in his vocal melodies.
The choruses to "I See The Light" (Tangled) and "Go the Distance" (Hercules) are loud and exciting and triumphant and heroic... but if you want to know why that is, you have to look at the first three notes. Like a musical fist pump, each of these choruses begins with a sweeping gesture from scale degree 6 up to scale degree 1. They don't just break out into song; they leap into song.
In "Friend Like Me" (Aladdin), the Genie doesn't just sing; he laughs, he make funny sounds, he throws around little exclamations... and all these "extra" details are performed via charming musical gestures. Here are just a couple of them, which are based on the interval of a 3rd:
And here's the sheet music:
Putting it all together: "The Mob Song" from Beauty and the Beast
Ready to see something awesome? "The Mob Song" from Beauty and the Beast combines 3rds-based ostinatos, sequences, free-flowing melodies, and rhetorical gestures, all in a single verse!
- It begins with an emphatic gesture (a rising minor 3rd from scale degree 1 to 3), which immediately sets a dark and hurried tone.
- This gesture is then turned into an ostinato that wavers between two minor 3rds, one between scale degrees 1-3 and the other between scale degrees 2-4.
- The entire first phrase (emphatic gestures + ostinato) is then repeated a step higher, initiating a sequence.
- Then the same 3rds-based emphatic gesture is used as the basis for a free-flowing melody.
- The verse concludes with an ascending sequence based, again, on that same 3rds-based emphatic gesture.
Putting it all together again: "Arabian Nights" from Aladdin
The opening song from "Aladdin" also combines 3rds-based ostinatos, sequences, free-flowing melodies, and rhetorical gestures. My analysis below only covers the first half of the song, but I should warn you that the second half is also heavily based on 3rds as well. My gosh, does Alan Menken LOVE to use 3rds, or what?!
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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)