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.
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)