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.
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.
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!)
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!
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)