Imagine the sound of a clock tower striking midnight: "dong... dong... dong... dong..." It's monotonous. It's rigid. It's forceful. In between each stroke, there's this ominous silence that feels like holding one's breath.
That's the sound Alan Menken evoked at the very beginning of the movie, shown in the sheet music excerpt below. Check out those repeated whole note Ds in the bass clef! Every measure begins with a massive "dong": fortissimo, accented, extremely low-pitched, and marked "roughly, with force" (as if being struck by the bellringer).
"The Bells of Notre Dame" follows a long classical tradition of imitating bell sounds, stretching all the way back to the 17th century. Bell imitations became especially popular during the 19th and 20th centuries among composers of virtuoso piano works, and to this day have inspired numerous pedagogical character pieces for young piano students. For example, here's a very short list of 20 classical works from the 17th-21st centuries, whose collective influence shines forth in Menken's bell-like music for Hunchback:
There are many things to say about Menken's imitation of bell sounds in this song. But in this introductory post, I'd like to share with you three of the techniques that he borrowed from the classical tradition.
1. repeating the same note multiple times
As already mentioned, "The Bells of Notre Dame" begins with massive clock strokes in the orchestra: fortissimo, accented, extremely low-pitched, and marked "roughly, with force" (as if being struck by the bellringer).
Here are some classical works by Franz Liszt, Blanche Selva, and Maurice Ravel that use this same technique of repeating a single note multiple times, albeit with very different moods in mind:
2. alternating between two notes a step apart
Just as a bell swings back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, one of the most common ways that classical composers imitated bell sounds was by alternating back and forth between two notes a step apart.
Menken used this technique in the middle of "Bells of Notre Dame," for the instrumental transitions between vocal solos. Here are two examples in which 8th notes a half-step apart are repeated, one after the other, for four measures:
Especially interesting is how Menken wove this technique into his lilting vocal melodies, which don't alternate strictly between two notes, but are definitely "somewhere in that zone" (to quote a later Disney princess). For example, in the main theme of this song, look at just how many notes are either an A (in blue) or a step above/below A (in green)!
Again, Menken did not invent this technique of evoking bell sounds by alternating between two notes a step apart.
For example, the bass line in William Byrd's harpsichord solo, "The Bells" (ca. 1610-25) just rocks back and forth, back and forth, back and forth between the notes C and D:
Another 17th-century example is Nicolas Lebègue's "Les Cloches" ("The Bells," ca. 1685) for organ. Not only does the soprano line rock between G and A, but the alto line rocks between E and F. So the effect is of two different bells swinging in unison:
And jumping ahead several centuries, Rachmaninov used this same technique to imitate the ringing of church bells for Easter in 1893, at the start of the 3rd movement from his Suite No. 1 for two pianos:
3. alternating between two notes a leap apart
When classical composers wrote ostinatos that alternate between two notes a step apart, as in the above examples, one might imagine small bells. But other times, composers alternated between two notes a leap apart, giving an impression of larger bells.
A fascinating example from the 17th century is the blisteringly virtuosic third movement of Johann Paul von Westhoff's Violin Sonata No. 3 for unaccompanied violin (1683), subtitled "Imitazione delle campane" ("imitation of bells.") The first several measures contain rapid alternations between notes that are a fourth, fifth, sixth, and even seventh apart.
200 years later, Rachmaninov often wrote bell-like piano pieces with booming leaps in the left hand, such as this excerpt from his famous Prelude in G Minor, Op. 23 No. 5 (1903):
A less-known example, from Jacob Schaeffer's masterful Yiddish choral work, "Kirkhn Glokn" ("Church Bells," ca. 1930), combines all three of the above-mentioned techniques: the alto and bass alternate between two notes a fourth apart; the soprano alternates between two notes a step apart; and the tenors repeat a single tone.
So, too, does this passage from Alan Menken's "Bells of Notre Dame" utilize all three techniques:
Making it Menken
Perhaps it's no surprise that the most obviously "bell-like" moments in "Bells of Notre Dame" don't copy the classical tradition exactly, but rather adjust it to Menken's own musical personality.
To see what I mean, let's do a thought experiment.
1. Begin with a two-bar ostinato. Put a repeating note in the bass (technique #1). Alan Menken likes thirds, so have the melody alternate between two notes a third apart (technique #3). For kicks, we'll add the lyrics: "bells, bells!" Here's what it looks and sounds like:
2. Alan Menken likes sequences. So, let's take that two-bar ostinato and turn it into a sequence. For dramatic effect, have the last step of the sequence go up a 3rd, rather than a 2nd:
3. Now let's add a dramatic ending. Open fifths are another classical technique for imitating bell sounds, so let's tack on two open fifths a fourth apart, ascending this time rather than descending. Then repeat those two measures a fourth higher. And there! We've got the end of "Bells of Notre Dame!"
And there you have it: a musical passage that is thoroughly Alan Menken, but draws on three different centuries-old classical techniques for imitating bell sounds (repeated notes, alternating thirds, and open fifths).
I hope you enjoyed this blog post - the third in a 12-part series about the Hunchback of Notre Dame soundtrack! The remaining parts will be posted weekly over the next few months.
If you'd like to support this blog, I invite you to to do so with a one-time or monthly donation at Ko-Fi.com/DisneyMusicTheory. Monthly subscribers get access to my teaching guides and sample assignments, as well as the deep spiritual satisfaction of supporting a blog about the music theory of Disney music! ❤️
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?
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")
Samantha Zerin has a PhD in historical musicology from New York University, and has taught music theory at NYU, Brown University, and the Borough of Manhattan Community College. She is also a composer and poet, and teaches private students. To learn more about Dr. Zerin and her work, you can visit her main website, www.CreativeShuli.com