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:
Michael Giacchino's score to Disney-Pixar's Inside Out is soooooo good.
In fact, when it came time to pick a movie for our family Movie Night this weekend, I requested Inside Out specifically because of the music.
But as we were watching, I began to notice something really fascinating in the visual character design, which, I think, has an interesting connection with the music.
Maybe you noticed this before?
Or maybe you hadn't - but once you see it, you really can't unsee it.
So, you know how all the emotions look totally different? They're different colors. Different shapes and sizes. They personify different stereotypes...
But take a closer look at Joy and Sadness.
Don't they have... the exact same eyes?
And the exact same nose?
And did you ever wonder why Joy has blue hair, just like sadness?
And have you ever noticed – if you look really, really, really closely – that Joy often radiates a blue-ish glow?
It's almost as if Joy and Sadness are the same emotion?
Of course, one of the main themes of the film is that you can't have joy without sadness – a theory that psychology researcher Brené Brown has widely promoted in her popular books and TED talks.
Joy and Sadness are two sides of the same coin.
~ ~ ~
So, ok, let's talk about the music!
The opening track, titled "Bundle of Joy," is one of my favorite bits of film music... ever.
It just tugs at my heart-strings:
As the track title suggests, this music is all about joy. In fact, as the music starts to play, joy is the only emotion present in Riley's head (even if, importantly, she's glowing blue).
But why, then, does the music sound so... sad to me? Or perhaps, rather, bittersweet?
To answer this question, I purchased a PDF of the sheet music from MusicNotes.com, took it to the piano, and set to work on figuring out how this works.
To my astonishment, I discovered that the entire track contains only two chords!
There's a G major 7 chord (G-B-D-F#), and an F major 7 chord (F-A-C-E), and that's it.
Just those two chords.
And yet, somehow, the music sounds so much more complex than that. It feels, to me, like it's wavering between major and minor. It feels, to me, like there are some interesting cadences going on in there. It feels, to me, like the music has discrete sections to it, like the music has a direction it's heading in, a goal that it's aiming towards.
Well that, my friends, is the beauty of major 7 chords.
If you divide a major 7 chord into two halves, the bottom half is a major triad and the top half is a minor triad.
And this is key to understanding the bittersweet nature of "Bundle of Joy" from Disney-Pixar's Inside Out.
Let's take a closer look at the melody and accompaniment:
All four of these measures have the same chord – a G major 7 chord.
And yet, there's just enough ambiguity to create the illusion that it's alternating between major and minor triads.
The accompaniment just rocks back and forth between the notes D and B, which are found in both G major and B minor chords. So if we only heard the accompaniment, we wouldn't have any way of knowing if it's major or minor.
In order to know if it's major or minor, we'd have to add either a G to that B/D (to make it G major) or an F# (to make it B minor).
And that's exactly what the melody does.
In all four measures, the note G is heavily emphasized in the melody, suggesting G major.
But at the same time, there are a few spots – at the beginnings of measures 3 and 4 – that strongly emphasize the note F#, suggesting B minor.
And of course, these Gs and F#s are part of the G major 7 chord.
So even though it's all one chord – a G major 7 chord – it feels as if it's wavering between two different chords, one major and one minor.
And not only does it do that in these first four measures, but then these four measures get repeated several times: outlining an F major 7 chord, then back to a G major 7 again (with a slightly embellished accompaniment), and then again F major 7.
Of course, I could be totally wrong. After all, who says that we have to consider those 4-measure phrases to be one single chord, one single major 7 chord? Why COULDN'T we think of them as, in fact, wavering between two entirely separate chords, one major and one minor?
Well, take a closer look at those bottom two lines, where G maj7 and F maj7 repeat with a slightly embellished accompaniment.
What's the new embellishment in the accompaniment? It's a broken major 7 chord!
And lest one think that this is still just incidental, take a look at how the next section begins, with those crystal-clear, slowly-unfolding G major 7 and F major 7 chords:
Of course, music isn't only about harmony, and there's more than just harmony making this music sound bittersweet.
There's also the orchestration: a solo piano melody, way up high at the top of the keyboard, above shimmering violins. As I wrote in an earlier blog post about the music from Toy Story, piano+violins = heightened emotion. And high registers typically signify goodness/purity, in contrast to low registers that signify villainy and anger.
And then there's the ostinato element, which film composers often use to establish, draw out, and maintain an emotional atmosphere.
And there are the metalicky sounds of someone rubbing their finger on a wine glass, which contribute to the magical feeling of the music, while also serving as little pin pricks that temporarily jerk us out of the acoustic dream-world of piano and strings.
So there's a lot going on to make this music sound bittersweet. And isn't that the whole point of the movie? That joy and sadness are one and the same?
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.
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.
Well, well, well. I had SO many ideas yesterday, that I didn't get around to posting ANY of them!
So I guess I'll just have to do a double post today. :-)
And since the last few posts have mostly discussed the Lydian mode, I figured I'd spend today writing about two other modes, which are rarely discussed in music theory classes: the major blues and the Mixolydian b6.
The Major Blues in "Carryin' the Banner" (Newsies)
One of the modes that rarely gets discussed in music theory classrooms (because racism) is the blues mode. As the name suggests, it originated with the blues genre in African-American music and then later entered the jazz repertoire along with all the other modes we've been discussing (plus even more - jazz is a galaxy of modes).
Alan Menken's score for the 1992 film Newsies uses the blues mode extensively, setting the scene in early 1900s New York City and characterizing the newspaper-selling orphans as poor, emotionally broken, and transgressive. By contrast, he used the major mode for more "innocent" characters, like mothers and nuns. It's important to acknowledge the racist underpinnings of Western musical culture, which associates a "white" mode like major with innocence and a "black" mode like the blues with transgression, even if this blog isn't the space to dive into that discussion at length. That's why modal contrasts like this are used by film composers, and it's why audiences pick up on them, even if neither the composer nor the audience is necessarily aware of the racist undercurrent driving their musical experience.
Anyway, there are two primary blues scales: the major blues and the minor blues. Since Menken used the major blues in Newsies, that's the one I'll focus on in this blog post.
The major blues scale is constructed like this:
1. Start with a major scale.
2. Grab five of those notes - 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 - to create a "major pentatonic scale."
3. Then add a sixth note - the "blue note" - which is a half-step lower than scale degree 3.
In Newsies, the opening song's verses use a D major blues scale, with a jazzy accompaniment that breaks all the rules of classical music theory. Here's the melody, with the scale degrees labeled and the "blue notes" color-coded:
Things get really interesting, though, in the bridge section. After several verses and choruses featuring the rambunctious newsies singing their energetic, syncopated blues, we suddenly hear a group of nuns solemnly singing in major about Jesus. (Hollywood is as Christian-centric as it is white-centric, but again, that's another discussion.) Then one of the kids' mothers sings the same major-mode melody about how terrible it is that her son ran away to join the newsies, WHILE AT THE SAME TIME the newsies sing their syncopated blues tunes. This contrast is especially poignant in the 2nd measure of the sheet music excerpt below, where the mother is singing F# (scale degree 3 in D Major) at exactly the same moment that the kids sing an F-natural (the "blue" note in D Major Blues):
This is an interesting moment of "polymodality" – having two different modes going simultaneously. But it's also a dramatic moment: the polymodal effect here is not just a stylistic thing, but even more so a way of dramatizing the split between a God-fearing mother and her rebellious, runaway child.
If you'd like to hear an alternate interpretation of the modal harmony in this song, check out Hunter Farris's podcast episode about it. It's also an interesting, if very different, take on both the harmony and its dramatic implications.
Mixolydian b6 (aka "the Wonder Mode")
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)