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?
To pass the time during my cancer treatment, I did a live stream on Twitter about the history of Disney music. Why not, right? :-)
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)