How can a Disney song in D major sound so, so sad?
The emotional power behind the music of "Remember Me," a bittersweet song of farewell from a father to his daughter, is deep and complex. In this post, I'll just give a hint of what's happening in the first couple phrases. Perhaps in the future, when I have more time, I'll dive into the rest of the song, as well!
The song begins with a "minor plagal cadence," a form of modal mixture that replaces the major IV chord with a minor iv chord. It's like pulling the rug out from under the listeners' feet: we think we're in major, but suddenly it sounds like minor, and then it cadences in major again. As music theory YouTuber Jake Lizzio puts it, this is a progression "to make you cry."
But what I really want to write about is what comes next: a Neopolitan cadence in the relative minor, B minor.
In their study on music and emotions, theorists Daniela and Bernd Willimek describe the Neapolitan chord (bII) as "a symbol of death," noting its use in a song by Schubert to highlight the phrase "weinen ganz totenbleich" (weeping, and deathly pale).
In fact, the Neapolitan chord – which appears in measure 4 of "Remember Me" – has long been associated with death and destruction.
Vivaldi, for instance, used the Neapolitan chord in the second movement of his Four Seasons to evoke human suffering during the blaze of summer: "Under a hard season, fired up by the sun / Languishes man, languishes the flock and burns the pine."
Bach used the Neapolitan chord in his St. Matthew Passion No. 19 on the word "Plagen" (suffering): "What is the source of all of this suffering?"
Mendelssohn-Hensel used it in her song "Ferne," Op. 9 No. 2, on the word "ertötest" (mortify): "Why do you mortify me?"
There are so many more examples one could give – from Mozart's Requiem Mass, Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata, Wagner's opera Das Rheingold – which also utilize the Neapolitan chord in conjunction with deathly thoughts.
But the point is, the Neapolitan chord also plays a crucial role in establishing the mood of "Remember Me" from Coco, and understanding the long history of its usage in classical music can help us better appreciate its use in Disney.
OK, so what is the Neapolitan chord, anyway, and what's it doing in Coco?
Glad you asked!
The Neapolitan chord is a ii chord in minor, but lowered by a half step. For example, in C minor, a regular ii chord is a D chord, and the Neapolitan (bII) is a Db chord. That's jarring, because Db is not part of the C minor scale. In other words, it's chromatic.
But why is it associated with death?
Part of the reason, perhaps, is that lowering scale degree 2 turns the minor mode into the Phrygian mode, which, as I wrote in a previous blog post, is also associated with death.
Another possible reason is that the Neapolitan chord is generally used as part of a cadence (bII - V7 - I), and when you do that, you set up a tritone between the root of the Neapolitan chord and the root of the dominant chord. Tritones, of course, are also associated with death.
What's especially interesting about "Remember Me" is that it doesn't, in fact, use the Neapolitan of D major. Rather, it uses the Neapolitan of the relative minor key, B minor, followed by a full V7-I cadence, making us feel like the music has suddenly slipped into minor. But it hasn't gone into minor! The song really is, ultimately, in D major. This is just one of the many tricks that composers Kristen and Robert Anderson Lopez used to make the song feel like it's ever floating between major and minor, not quite happy but also not quite sad:
And it's ironic, isn't it? Coco's father wrote this song for her so that she'd remember him while he's away on his concert tour and look forward to seeing him when he gets back. But while he's away, [spoiler alert!] he gets murdered. And decades upon decades later, after waiting so long for his return, Coco has almost entirely forgotten him.
So it's appropriate that the song should hinge on a chord that Vivaldi, Bach, Hensel, and so many others have for centuries associated with death.
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)