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.
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.
To pass the time during my cancer treatment, I did a live stream on Twitter about the history of Disney music. Why not, right? :-)
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)