Here's a leit motif, called the "Cathedral Motif," that weaves its way through the entire score of Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame.
We hear it, for example, in D major when Clopin sings with reverence about the bells of Notre Dame.
We also hear it, for instance, in D minor when Frollo sings about his soul descending into Hell.
What do you think?
It's well-known among film music fans that leit motifs represent certain characters, emotions, or ideas.
But so, so, so often, leit motifs are more complicated than that. As the cool kids say, leit motifs can be semantically flexible: carrying a wide array of meanings that ebb and flow over the course of a film.
This is certainly the case with the "Cathedral Motif," which perhaps shows how a Cathedral can be a place of both sanctuary and imprisonment, or how a soul (in Christian theology, at least) can ascend to Heaven or descend to Hell, or how religion can be (ab)used for both good and evil.
And it's also the case with other leit motifs in Hunchback, such as the theme from "Out There" that we also hear during Quasimodo's public humiliation, or the recitative-like melody with which both Quasimodo and Frollo sing so much of their music.
But enough of what I have to say. What do you think? I'm really curious to know!
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.
The Lydian Mode in "Belle" (Beauty and the Beast), Part 2
Wow, is this fun!
In yesterday's blog post, I explored the use of the Lydian mode for little bursts of pizzazz in the otherwise major-mode opening of "Belle." As I explained in that post, all of the singing in the first two verses is in major. Lydian is used ONLY by the orchestra, either to add some space between lyrics or to underscore spoken dialogue.
ALL OF THIS CHANGES AT THE END OF VERSE 2.
Yes, Belle, this is going to be nerdy! And I can't wait to share it with you. ;-)
First things first: here's a video of the song and the structural charts of the first two verses from yesterday's post. Then we'll see how things are different after verse 2.
If you compare these charts for Verse 1 and Verse 2, you might notice that the first verse ends with a spoken dialogue, and the second verse doesn't.
Well, actually, the second verse DOES end with a spoken dialogue, but it comes after a lengthy verse extension that is ENTIRELY in Lydian.
Here's how that verse extension begins:
If you examine this passage closely, you'll notice two tell-tale signs that this isn't just in Lydian, but, like, really in Lydian:
After this, the verse extension continues with a spoken dialogue. As in the previous dialogue from Verse 1, we hear that playful Lydian melody in the cellos, as Belle talks shop with the bookstore owner.
HOWEVER, this time it's more complex (and the dialogue's much longer). As you can see in the sheet music below, this cello tune is played several times in D Lydian. Then, it's transposed up a minor third, to its chromatic mediant, F Lydian. After we hear it in F Lydian a few times, it then returns back down to D Lydian. These chromatic-mediant modulations mirror those in the Lydian singing just before this, where the music had modulated from G Lydian up to Bb Lydian.
Chromatic mediants, in case you don't know, often indicate some powerful emotional shift. So in the first passage, the energy of the group bursts suddenly higher with the shift from G Lydian to Bb Lydian, leading Belle to wail in misery: "There must be more than this provincial life!" Then, at the bookstore, as Belle begins talking about her favorite book, she gets emotionally carried away: with the shift from D Lydian to F Lydian, she begins to talk about why this is her favorite book, full of "far-off places, daring sword fights, magic spells, a prince in disguise..."
All of this is followed by Verse 3, which mostly follows the structure of Verse 2, and then we get to Belle's big solo -- "Ooooooohhh, isn't this AMAZING?" -- which is, you guessed it, also in Lydian. And then we get Gaston's solo, which is in Mixolydian.
But we'll save that for another day. :-)
The Lydian Mode in "Belle" (Beauty and the Beast), Part 1
My dear fellow nerds!
I have a confession to make.
In yesterday's blog post, I promised that today's post would discuss the use of the Lydian mode in music from Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.
Welllll... the thing is... this music is SO fascinating, and SO complex, that I was only able to get to ONE song from Beauty and the Beast today!
And not only that...
I only got through a 3rd of that song!
So, without further ado, I present to you the first couple verses of "Belle," that amazing opening number from Beauty and the Beast. Tomorrow, I'll continue with the middle section, and hopefully the ending, as well.
"Belle" is in the key of D Major. Pretty simple, right? But the thing about modal harmony is that, although you could certainly have an entire song in the key of D Lydian, it's often used for brief splashes of color in an otherwise major or minor piece.
For example, consider the first few verses of "Belle." Whenever someone is singing, the music is in D major (except for the brief sequences that pass through C major and Bb major).
But in between the major-key singing are all these little bursts of Lydian, which I've highlighted in purple in the map above.
There's this spunky two-measure bit, which leaps about and emphasizes the tritone between scale degrees 1 (D) and 4 (G#):
... which reappears later, inverted and foreshortened, as a two-chord sighing figure in C Lydian (C-F#) and Bb Lydian (Bb-E):
These little bits of Lydian are like mini-transitions, or mini breaths of fresh air, or little bursts of color, within the much larger framework of D major.
And then there's this playful cello solo in the background music when Belle is having spoken conversations with various villagers, which highlights the #4 (G#) in D Lydian:
Give a listen to this song, while following along with my structural map, and see if you can hear these little bursts of Lydian. Doesn't it just make the listening experience so much richer and more delightful? That's the thing about music theory. It helps us notice details of the music that we never would have noticed before. And once we notice those details, it totally changes the whole listening experience.
Whew, ok, that's the intro and first two verses! Tomorrow, I'll continue with the third verse, Belle's solo, and perhaps even (gasp) Gaston's solo in (gasp) D MIXOLYDIAN! (How earthy!)
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.
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? :-)
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?!
Did you like this blog post? Help spread the word!
Disney Music Theory is a brand-new project, and I need YOUR help to spread the word about it! If you liked this blog post, please share it with your friends on Facebook and Twitter using the "like" and "tweet" buttons below. If you're a teacher, please share it with your students (and vice-versa!)
In fact, here's a direct link to this entire essay on Twitter - why not just retweet it? :-)
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)