In his fabulous book on Music in Disney's Animated Features (2017), James Bohn explains what makes Dumbo's psychedelic dream so musically unsettling. After describing the melody's rhythmic instability, Bohn turns his attention to the harmony:
"The most emphasized tone in the melody is actually scale degree six, not the tonic. There are tonal, agogic, and dynamic accents on both the high dominant as well as the leading tone to the dominant (sharp scale degree four). While they are displaced by an octave, together these three prominent melodic tones form a chromatic cluster. It is only the last note of the melody that firmly establishes the tonic." (page 98)
Bohn assumes, quite correctly, that this passage is in the key of A minor. In fact, when I googled the sheet music, every single edition that I found harmonized the melody in A minor, as shown in the sheet music below. (I've added scale degree numbers above the melody so you can clearly see Bohn's "three prominent melodic tones" - #4, 5, and 6)
But here's the thing. If you ignore the accompaniment, and just consider the melody by itself... doesn't it seem like it could be in E phrygian, rather than A minor?
Phrygian is like minor, but with one crucial difference: scale degree 2 is lowered, creating an eerie half-step between scale degrees 1 and 2 and turning the dominant V chord into some sort of mutilated diminished chord. For these reasons, the phrygian mode is often associated with creepiness and evil. (It's often used in the score for Nightmare before Christmas, for example.)
So if we go back to "Elephants on Parade," which is DEFINITELY creepy and evil, it's so easy to see this melody as being in E phrygian. Measures 1-3 emphasize the half-step between scale degrees 1 and 2, which is precisely what makes phrygian unique. Measures 4-5 play with the tension between the tonic (1) and the raised leading tone (#7). Measure 6 repeats the tonic 3 times before cascading down an arpeggio to scale degree 2, which leads straight back into a repeat of the opening alternation of 1 and 2.
The only moment that DOESN'T seem like E phrygian is the final measure, which is clearly A minor. But even Bohn agrees that the only clear moment of A minor in this tune is the very last measure.
SO, I thought, what would this sound like if I harmonized it in E phrygian, rather than A minor?
BEHOLD, friends! Here it is, my re-harmonization of "Pink Elephants on Parade" in E phrygian. Again, I've added the scale degrees above each note of the melody. Be sure, as well, to listen to the audio file under the score:
So, what do you think?
Does it sound better to your ears in A minor or E phrygian? Let me know, either way! And be sure to share this post with your friends, so we can all nerd out together. :-)
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)