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. :-)
What makes the underwater background music in Little Mermaid sound so magical? It's a combination of many factors, including the harmony, melody, rhythm, articulation, instrumentation, and formal structure.
One of these factors is its use of the Lydian mode, which is often associated with wonder, magic, and dreams. Part of Lydian's charm comes from the fact that, unlike major and minor, it has major chords on both I and II. It also has a tritone between 1 and 4 which has often been used to great effect (think of the Simpsons theme or "Maria" from West Side Story).
But in the case of the Little Mermaid, things are a little more complicated. The ostinato shown above can be thought of as I-II7 in Bb Lydian, but it can also be thought of as IV-V7 in F major. If you think of it as F major, then it's as if the music is wavering around the dominant without resolving. In the song "Part of Your World," this makes sense as she's spending the first part of the song talking about how unsatisfied she is. But then, when she finally puts a name to her dream – "I wanna be where the people are" – that wavering IV-V7 finally resolves to I in F major. Ah, resolution...
So the use of Lydian here is a doubly whammy. On one hand, it already comes loaded with connotations of wonder and dreams. And on the other, it serves as a dominant prolongation of the relative major, refusing to resolve until Ariel finally puts a name to her dreams.
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)