Sound Field

S1 E12 | FULL EPISODE

The Magic Formula Behind Disney Music

The songs of Disney musicals do more work than you might think. Under all that fairy dust and sparkle, there are techniques songwriters use to make sure Disney musicals keep the story moving.

LA Buckner and Nahre Sol unlock the magic of Disney musicals and with the help of Alexandra Smither, try to write the next Disney hit song.

AIRED: July 03, 2019 | 0:08:51
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TRANSCRIPT

- Disney musicals have been making kids dance, laugh,

and cry for generations. (evil hag laughing)

If you look closely, you'll see there's a method

to the magic.

Techniques songwriters use over and over again

to make Disney songs sound uniquely Disney.

- So, we're going to be writing a song

with the help from my friend, Ali Smither,

that's hopefully worthy of being the next Disney hit.

(magic twinkling)

If you want to write the next big Disney hit,

the first thing you need to consider isn't the music,

it's the story. (magic harp arpeggio)

Sure, these songs need to be entertaining,

but they also have a function.

If your song isn't moving the story from point A to B,

it will likely end up on the cutting room floor.

Even one of the most popular Disney songs of all-time

almost never made it to the screen.

♪ I wanna be where the people are ♪

- Jeffrey Katzenberg, the head of Disney's

Motion Picture Division at the time thought

"Part of Your World" from the 1989 hit, The Little Mermaid,

was slowing down the story too much.

The writers then sprinkled in a little crab comedy

to give the scene more energy,

saving the now classic Disney song.

But "Part of Your World" is also doing some work.

It's a perfect example of one of the main song types

that appear almost every time songs

and storylines come together, which is the I Want song.

- Because if the story is going to move,

someone has to want something, right?

Like Broadway musicals, Disney musicals use a similar set

of song types in every film.

There's usually an intro song,

which introduces a few main characters,

and tells the audience exactly where they are.

♪ The village of Motunui is all you need ♪

- And every hero needs a villain,

and every villain needs a good villain song.

♪ Poor unfortunate souls ♪

- Disney also seems to love songs about work,

whether it's Snow White singing "Whistle While You Work,"

or Mary Poppins with her "Spoonful of Sugar,"

work songs are everywhere.

They even parodied the practice

in their 2007 film Enchanted.

♪ It's such fun to hum a happy working song ♪

- So, how are Disney songs able to do all

that storytelling work in under two hours?

They do more with less.

When you only have room for a handful of songs in each film,

you better make sure those songs work as well

as Geppetto's cuckoo clock. (cuckoo clock chirping)

(magic twinkling)

- Disney doesn't have as much time to dwell

on it's lyrical hooks as a typical pop song.

Take one song that's been at the top of the charts lately,

Post Malone and Swae Lee's "Sunflower."

♪ You're a sunflower ♪

- In the first quatrain, not only is the word "wreck"

repeated to rhyme with itself,

the entire quatrain is repeated.

You'll never see a Disney song spend this much time

on one thought.

It just doesn't happen.

- Repetition isn't new in pop music.

Check out Billboard's Top 100 Single of All-Time,

"The Twist" by Chubby Checker.

♪ Let's do the twist ♪

- There are only 48 unique words in the 145-word song.

- How does Disney squeeze more from less

with their song forms?

Well, they cut out the chorus.

Disney songs often use refrains or title hooks,

instead of a full chorus.

Cutting out the chorus leaves much more room

for a variety of verse lyrics.

More lyrics equals more information,

and more information equals more story.

- Another way Disney trims its song forms down

is by cutting already established sections in half.

So, let's say the first time we hear a verse it's 16 bars,

the next time we hear it, it's only eight.

Sneaky, right?

Look for this in songs like "Once Upon A Dream,"

"A Whole New World," or even "Breaking Free"

from High School Musical. ♪ We're breaking free ♪

♪ We're soarin' ♪

- Of course, why find sections to trim in half,

when you can just write super short sections

to begin with?

Like in the bridge of "Colors of the Wind."

It's a scant five bars long.

(five bars popping)

A five-bar bridge in a pop tune is almost unheard of.

(magic twinkling)

- Most pop songs, and most songs in general,

have steady tempos throughout,

but Disney disproportionately changes tempo,

and even meter in their music.

Take the song "Winnie the Pooh."

It starts off in 3/4 time.

Deep in the Hundred Acre Wood, (snapping)

but by the time we get to

Winnie the Pooh, (snapping)

Winnie the Pooh, (snapping)

that's 4/4 time.

The song "Be Our Guest" from 1991's Beauty and the Beast

uses five different tempos.

You find me a song on the radio

that uses five different tempos.

No discussion of Disney rhythm would be complete

without mentioning the novelty Speed Up Ending,

as used in countless songs,

such as "Fixer Upper" from Frozen,

or in the classic "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."

♪ Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious ♪

- Disney songs use a lot of chords,

around double the number of different chords used

by your average pop song.

One study of the 70 top Disney songs of all-time

averaged over eight types of triads used per song.

So, in any given key, there are seven diatonic chords.

Diatonic, meaning that the notes involved

stay within the scale.

Let's take this song for example,

("When You Wish Upon A Star" playing on the piano)

The A-Major (playing chord) is a non-diatonic chord.

If we are to reimagine this tune using only diatonic chords,

it might sound something like this.

(slightly different "When You Wish Upon A Star" playing)

And if you're writing a Disney hit,

you'll probably want to throw in a key change.

Disney songs average just over one key change per song.

If you compare that to the Rolling Stone Top 500 Songs

of All-Time, Disney songs are ten times more likely

to contain a key change.

This matches pretty well with how things are always changing

in Disney movies, such as pumpkins turning into carriages,

puppets into real boys,

and princes into frogs. (frog croaking)

- The difference between a Disney song and a pop song

becomes clear when you compare two versions

of the hit Disney song "Let It Go" from Frozen.

The Disney film version, sung by Idina Menzel,

and the pop music version, sung by Demi Lovato.

First, the film version.

Key changes, check, with four changes in the tonal center.

A whole lot of chords, yep, 11 chord types,

not including modulations well North of our 8.5 quota.

A cut-in-half verse, got it.

There's even a mini-novelty speed up motif

when Elsa starts building her ice castle.

(portion of "Let it Go" playing)

Now, let's explore how the song changed when they ran

it through the pop song ringer.

Key changes, all gone.

Whole lot of chord types, trimmed down from 11 to just four.

That half-verse?

Homogenized.

And the mini-novelty speed up?

Yeah, they let it go.

And remember the difference between pop lyrics and Disney?

Demi's pop version uses the phrase "Let it go" 26 times.

In the movie version, Elsa sings "Let it go" only 12 times.

Demi's pop version employs 106 unique words.

In the movie version, Elsa sings 136 unique words.

All while crossing the finish line a few seconds earlier.

Should we pick one song type?

- What if we just did a yearning song.

- What do we want, what are we wanting?

- To win over just one more subscriber.

- Absolutely. (both laughing)

I'm Disney animated right now, like, look at me,

just one more.

Okay, how we gonna do this without any lyrics?

- Let's get a singer to sing it.

So, okay, I need help with filling in the lyrics,

and also finishing the melody.

- Maybe it's like

♪ Just one, just one more subscriber ♪

- Also, what about a line, sort of in the realms

of "Will you be a subscriber?"

- But I know you're out there,

so won't you be my subscriber?

Won't you be my connection?

Won't you be my friend? - So won't you be my neighbor?

♪ Just one, just one more subscriber ♪

♪ Just one connection ♪

♪ Just one more friend ♪

♪ I have these dreams, these ideas, these hopes ♪

♪ And I want to share ♪

♪ Sometimes I feel there's no one around ♪

♪ Who knows what it means to be me ♪

♪ But the world is wide ♪

♪ And I know you're there ♪

♪ With hopes and dreams like me ♪

♪ So, won't you be my subscriber ♪

- You know what this reminds me of?

I'll just say it.

Sappy Korean drama music. (LA laughing)

Do you know what I mean?

But all of these chord changes,

and all of these lyrics are very earnest.

(LA laughing)

- Bye, nice to meet you all.

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