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.
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There's a fascinating story behind how the song "Olim," from Hunchback of Notre Dame, came to be.
Before the film was completed, it was determined that the now-famous song "God Help the Outcasts" was too dramatic and would need to be replaced. Thus, Menken and Schwartz created "Someday" to replace it. But that, too, was deemed too dramatic, so they decided to just stick with the original plan and use "God Help the Outcasts."
But, as lyricist Stephen Schwartz explained in a published Q&A, "everybody liked 'Someday.'" So they preserved it in two ways. First, they turned it into a pop song for the closing credits. Second – and to the point of this blog post – they turned it into a Gregorian-style chant for the very opening of the film.
To wit: "Olim" takes its melody from the opening line of "Someday," and its text is a Latin translation of the latter's second verse:
"OLIM OLIM DEUS ACCELERE HOC SAECULUM SPLENDIDUM ACCELERE FIAT VENIRE OLIM"
"Someday, someday, God speed this bright millennium. Let it come someday."
In many ways, the melody from "Someday" lends itself to being reconstructed in a Gregorian style. Like Gregorian chant, it uses predominantly seconds and thirds, and the overall range is limited to one octave. Although the background harmony is rooted in major, the melody itself appears to be in Mixolydian, one of the more common modes used in Gregorian chants. This modal flavor is reinforced by the ascending third in the melodic cadence.
Perhaps most notable of all are the long, repeated notes that begin and end the tune. Menken took this opportunity to begin and end "Olim" with a series of reciting tones, perhaps the most recognizable element of Gregorian-style chants. Every syllable of the opening words "Olim, olim deus" is on the note A, as are every syllable of the concluding words "fiat venire olim."
Nevertheless, it's important to recognize that "Someday" itself was not composed in the style of Gregorian chant, and so, as well, is "Olim" not entirely authentic. The sequential structure, for example, which is stylistically unsurprising for "Someday" is historically anachronistic for "Olim," as is the cadence that leaps from a third below the final. When I asked about this melody in the Plainsong and Medieval Music Society group on Facebook, someone further explained that although "the scale is pretty clearly Mixolydian, the melody does not behave like a medieval mode. [...] I don't see the typical structural pitches here that one would in the medieval Mixolydian--in this key, A, E, G, and D."
But, as in most film music, the point here is not to be 100% authentic. The point is to create the illusion of being in a particular time, place, and mood. And given that Disney's target audience is NOT medieval music scholars, only a few very salient musical techniques are needed to create this illusion.
I hope you enjoyed this blog post - the second 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. Thanks so much!
Pop quiz! What's Alan Menken's favorite interval?
Answer: I don't know, but 3rds show up ALL over his Disney soundtracks!
He uses them in ostinatos, sequences, free-flowing melodies, emphatic gestures... have a listen to the examples in this video, and then read on to learn more!
Ostinatos establish a mood and anticipate motion.
Menken uses 3rds-based ostinatos to establish moods and anticipate motion. Ostinatos, in case you don't know, are musical patterns that repeat themselves over and over and over. For this reason, they both ground us in a particular sound-world and build up suspense over when, and how, the music will change.
In Newsies, the syncopations and brass orchestration of a 3rds-based ostinato set the movie in jazzy NYC, in a bustling orphanage where the newsies long for adventure.
In The Little Mermaid, a 3rds-based ostinato is played smoothly and evenly by sweet violins, creating an aura of peace and satisfaction as Ariel lies down to sleep. What will tomorrow bring? We'll find out tomorrow; in the meantime, she basks in her happiness.
In Aladdin, the end-of-bar accents, abrupt rests, and flurries of sixteenth notes in this 3rds-based ostinato create anxiety. Trapped by the guards, unable to escape, he prepares himself to jump for his life, colorfully depicted by a falling glissando.
Here are those same examples in sheet music format:
Sequences create movement and anticipate arrival.
Menken uses 3rds-based sequences to create motion and anticipate arrival. Sequences are like ostinatos, but each time the pattern repeats it's a little bit higher or lower than the time before... like climbing on rungs in a ladder.
In Hunchback of Notre Dame, for example, the villainous Frollo sings a descending sequence of 3rds as his soul descends into Hell.
In The Little Mermaid, by contrast, Ariel sings an ascending sequence of 3rds as the sea witch, Ursula, rips her voice up and out of her throat.
Isn't Disney just lovely for children? Here are those same examples in sheet music format:
Free-flowing melodies are more flexible than ostinatos and sequences.
The challenge with ostinatos and sequences is that they're structurally very rigid. But that's precisely where they get their power: they're incredible at establishing moods and carrying the music in clear directions.
But Alan Menken also often uses thirds to create his own, free-flowing melodies, such as the following gruesome duet from Hunchback and snazzy, finger-snapping bridge from Newsies.
In the Hunchback duo, Frollo and Quasimodo sing short phrases based almost exclusively on thirds. Thirds are useful in duets, because they are very consonant, and they form the most basic building blocks of tonal chords. For these reasons, they're relatively easy to harmonize, which is a load off the shoulders when trying to blend two simultaneous melodies.
This snazzy bit from Newsies uses open thirds, omitting the middle note of each interval. Leaping around from syncopated note to syncopated note, this use of open thirds creates a feeling of lightness, joy, and happy-go-luckiness:
Of course, the happy-go-luckiness of these open thirds can be snuffed in a puff, when used for a rigid, choppy, ostinato such as that in Randy Newman's song "Friends on the Other Side" from Disney's The Princess and the Frog.
Good stuff. Here's the sheet music:
Emphatic gestures add "punch and pizzazz" (quoth the Genie...)
A lot of folks think that music is just about long, flowing melodies and longer, nerdier chord progressions. But that's missing the trees for the forest. Just as hand gestures and facial gestures add extra meaning to vocal speech, so, too, do itty-bitty musical gestures contribute to the flavor and meaning of a song.
Alan Menken is a MASTER of musical gestures, and one of these days I'll write about the multitude of juicy, delectable instrumental gestures in his background music for Aladdin. It's part of what makes the Aladdin soundtrack so expressive and engaging.
But for now, let's have a listen and look at a few 3rds-based gestures in his vocal melodies.
The choruses to "I See The Light" (Tangled) and "Go the Distance" (Hercules) are loud and exciting and triumphant and heroic... but if you want to know why that is, you have to look at the first three notes. Like a musical fist pump, each of these choruses begins with a sweeping gesture from scale degree 6 up to scale degree 1. They don't just break out into song; they leap into song.
In "Friend Like Me" (Aladdin), the Genie doesn't just sing; he laughs, he make funny sounds, he throws around little exclamations... and all these "extra" details are performed via charming musical gestures. Here are just a couple of them, which are based on the interval of a 3rd:
And here's the sheet music:
Putting it all together: "The Mob Song" from Beauty and the Beast
Ready to see something awesome? "The Mob Song" from Beauty and the Beast combines 3rds-based ostinatos, sequences, free-flowing melodies, and rhetorical gestures, all in a single verse!
- It begins with an emphatic gesture (a rising minor 3rd from scale degree 1 to 3), which immediately sets a dark and hurried tone.
- This gesture is then turned into an ostinato that wavers between two minor 3rds, one between scale degrees 1-3 and the other between scale degrees 2-4.
- The entire first phrase (emphatic gestures + ostinato) is then repeated a step higher, initiating a sequence.
- Then the same 3rds-based emphatic gesture is used as the basis for a free-flowing melody.
- The verse concludes with an ascending sequence based, again, on that same 3rds-based emphatic gesture.
Putting it all together again: "Arabian Nights" from Aladdin
The opening song from "Aladdin" also combines 3rds-based ostinatos, sequences, free-flowing melodies, and rhetorical gestures. My analysis below only covers the first half of the song, but I should warn you that the second half is also heavily based on 3rds as well. My gosh, does Alan Menken LOVE to use 3rds, or what?!
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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