"Frozen" and "Moana" songbooks just arrived in the mail! Thanks to those of you who donated to my Ko-Fi page for giving me the money to buy these!
And now (because I said having these scores would help me help you, didn't I?), here is an awesome example of rhythmic diminution from "Let it Go."
The first two measures present a melody in 8th notes; the next two measures repeat the same melody in 16th notes.
You're welcome! (And thank you!)
Disney music can be SO USEFUL for theory teachers!
Even a tiny snippet, like this one from Newsies (name that tune?), can help us teach our students so much:
- simple/compound meter
- extended harmony / added dissonance
- parallel intervals
- blue notes
Personally, I'm excited to have an alternative to Bernstein's "America" (from West Side Story) when teaching about hemiola effects! And that's just scratching the surface of what Disney music can do for our teaching.
p.s. If you'd like to support my blog, I invite you to buy me a "cup of tea" over at http://Ko-Fi.com/DisneyMusicTheory…. I'm currently raising money to buy more songbooks (Frozen, Moana, Brave). This will help me help you find even more useful ways of using Disney music to teach music theory!
You know what drives me BONKERS?
When people say that music theory is about "right" and "wrong" answers.
"This is the correct way to notate that measure," they say.
"This is an incorrect voice-leading pattern," they insist.
To be fair, it's not just music theory. Grade-based education rewards this sort of gooked-up thinking, especially when standardized tests are involved.
No, my friends, music theory is NOT about "right" and "wrong" answers.
And when I taught music theory to Ivy League students at Brown University, I made this clear in every. single. class.
Music theory is subjective.
And that's INCREDIBLY important to understand.
Here's a perfect illustration of what I mean.
At the beginning of the semester, I gave my students a handout much like the one shown above. (I gave them "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," but since this is a blog about Disney music, I decided to use a more appropriate example for this blog post. :-))
And I asked them:
"Which notation do you like better? #1, #2, or #3? And more importantly, WHY?"
At this point in the semester, my students had learned only the very basics of musical staff notation. They hadn't yet learned about harmony or formal structures. They hadn't yet learned about key signatures, dynamics, or scales.
So, as it happens, they were very confused when I asked them which notation of this tune they liked best. They had no idea how to answer, or how to even begin to process the question. Especially when I told them that all three of these notations, when performed, sound the same; all that differs is how they're written down. (Note the tempo markings!)
But I pushed my students.
And for the next 45 minutes, we had a lively, fascinating, and engaging discussion about the subjectivity of musical notation.
Music is all about PATTERNS... which musical notation either clarifies or obscures.
Take a look at notation #1, shown above. What patterns do you notice?
Remember, my students had only just begun to learn the most basic of basics. But even with minimal knowledge, some patterns can be easily noticed.
For example, the first three measures all have the exact same rhythm.
They also have the exact same lyrics.
And, they also have the exact same melody... except that each measure starts a note higher than the measure before.
Essentially, this way of notating the music breaks up the melody into four chunks, each chunk confined to a single measure. This allows us to clearly see that, except for the ending, each chunk (measure) is virtually identical, with each successive chunk starting a step higher than the one before.
It's also a very compact notation: only four measures! That makes it relatively easy to read. On the flip side, the dotted 8ths and 16th notes can be very daunting for a beginner. So, from a practical perspective, there are reasons to both love and resent it.
Now let's move on to notation #2. What patterns do we see?
This one's twice as long as the first one: 8 measures rather than 4.
And unlike version #1, each measure does NOT have the same rhythm or melody.
Whereas the first version encased each sentence in a single measure (repeated thrice), this version spreads each sentence over two measures. In other words, instead of chunking up the music into four parts, with each part corresponding to a full sentence in the lyrics, this version chunks it up into EIGHT parts, each corresponding to half of a sentence in the lyrics.
In doing so, it obscures the 3-fold repetition that was so clear in version #1.
But also, in doing so, it reveals a new pattern that wasn't as clear before: every measure – that is, each half of the sentence "It's a small world | after all" – begins with a dotted rhythm.
Every measure – that is, each half of the sentence "It's a small world | after all" – begins and ends on a single pitch.
What we're getting now is a more nuanced picture of the music. If version 1 shows us patterns that can be seen with the naked eye, version 2 shows us patterns that are revealed by a magnifying glass.
From a practical perspective, it also has pluses and minuses. It's much longer than version 1, which a beginning student might find daunting. On the other hand, it's got much more manageable rhythmic values – no more 16th notes!
If version 1 shows us patterns that can be seen with the naked eye, and version 2 shows us patterns that are revealed by a magnifying glass, then version 3 is like looking through a microscope.
Each sentence is now spread out over four measures, allowing us to examine its finer patterns.
Each quarter of the four-measure sentence, as we now can clearly see, consists of two notes. But they alternate straight (half note + half note) and syncopated (dotted half + quarter) rhythms.
It's an interesting pattern, isn't it? Sure, we can certainly find that pattern in versions 1 and 2, but only in version 3 is it clear as day.
From a practical perspective, again, the beginning student might find this notation both a relief and an iron curtain. It consists entirely of (dotted) half and quarter notes. No 8ths! No 16ths! Easy-peasy, right? On the other hand, it's so "zoomed-in" that the much larger patterns revealed in versions 1 and 2 are totally obscured. So the overall structure and phrasing can seem very enigmatic.
Which version do you like better?
Now let's return to the original question: which version do you like better, and why?
Well, it all depends on what your SUBJECTIVE goals and preferences are.
Do you prefer a more compact notation (4 measures) or a more spread out notation (15 measures)?
Are you cool with 16th notes? Or would you rather stick with halves and quarters?
Are you interested in seeing the larger, overall patterns? Or, like a scientist examining a fossil under a microscope, do you prefer the tiny nuances?
Again, all three of these notations, when performed, sound virtually identical. (Yes, there are tiny differences with regard to metric pulse – which I made sure to discuss with my students – but otherwise they are the same.)
None of them is objectively "the correct one," and none of them is objectively "incorrect."
They are all equally valid, because at the end of the day, musical notation is a tool. We use it to reveal patterns that we're most interested in and to obscure those patterns that we deem unimportant. And since we all have different goals and preferences, so, too, will our notational decisions sometime differ.
And that's beautiful.
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.
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