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!)
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)