A WAY too in-depth Breakdown of Disney Songs

Posted: February 21, 2016 by Jaden C. Kilmer in Article
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What exactly is in the water in Disney studios that let them turn out great musical after great musical? Well I don’t think it’s much of a secret. One of the huge keys to their success is that they stick to their playbook when it comes to the kinds of songs they write. There are five distinct types of songs you’ll hear in a Disney musical, and they’ll appear in roughly the same order. And that’s not a dig against Disney. There are so many different ways to take each song type they don’t feel old, and they all speak to something universal.

rapunzelFor this, I’m going to take AladdinMulanTangled, and Frozen as the movies to exemplify the song types most. Why? Because I’ve seen them all recently. That’s why.

First up: The Exposition Song: Here we set the scene. It’s Disney’s version of Shakespeare’s “In Fair Verona where we lay our scene” monologue. It gives a sense of charm and scale, and is usually pretty catchy. They also always occur at the start of the movie.

Aladdin: “Arabian Nights.”

Mulan: “You’ll Bring Honor to us All”

Tangled: “When Will my Life Begin?”

Frozen: “Frozen Heart”

The easy pick for the all time greatest Disney exposition song? The Circle of Life.

Right after this, usually no more than five minutes, you get the I Want Song. Here we get to see what the princess (or sometimes prince) character wants. Having a MC with a clear goal and desire is essential to having a good story, so Disney makes everything easy by giving them a song to explain it for you. It’s almost always a solo song, and the personal nature of them mean they make for good singles. You’re more likely to hear this song on the radio or covered by your favorite band than the exposition song.

Aladdin: “One Jump Ahead.”

Mulan: “Reflection”

Tangled: “When Will my Life Begin?”

Frozen: “Do you Want to Build a Snowman?”

Tangled, lighter on songs than your typical Disney musical, uses the same song for both exposition and the “I Want” song. (You could argue “I Have a Dream” is the “I Want” song, but I’m putting that in a later category.) I think combining the songs into one actually made for a more concise story, and is one of many reasons why Tangled is my pick for the best Disney movie. But Frozen, not to be outdone, puts an interesting spin on the song type by making the “I Want” song into a “Do you Want” song. Perhaps, given Frozen‘s merciless takedown of Disney tropes, that shouldn’t be surprising.

f4f0c3e1-66c7-48c5-808d-e6566ccef87bThe greatest “I Want” song ever? Probably “Part of Your World.”

After the “I Want” song, you’ll get a good deal of story before getting to the Fast-paced Wake up the Kids and Bored Parents song. Which I’ll just call the Wake Up Song. This one is easy to identify: It’s fast paced, it’s funny, usually a big ensemble piece. It’s the song you know the tune to, but there’s way too many words to remember. It’s also usually (big exception coming up) a standout.

Aladdin: “Friend Like Me”

Mulan: “A Girl Worth Fighting For”

Tangled: “I Have a Dream”

Frozen: “Fixer-Upper”

(My apologies to J.A. Prentice for this bit.) Ouch. One of these things is not like the others. Frozen’s “Fixer-Upper” comes too late to serve as a wake up moment. Even it was good, it would still be an unnecessary drag in the plot. Most other Wake Up songs are usually considered the best, or one of the best, of their movie. It’s almost necessary, as this is the “big” song where the movie pulls out all the stops to sell you. Now thankfully, Frozen‘s big song is not “Fixer-Upper.” It’s a little diddy you may have heard of called “Let it Go.”

Picking the best Wake Up song is like picking your favorite child. There may be one, but it’s really hard to do. I can narrow it down to three- “Friend Like Me” and “I Have a Dream” are joined by “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast.

bbdinner

The next song can come before or after the Wake Up song, but after the Exposition Song and before the next category. This is the Non-Princess Song, which I’ve so named because it doesn’t star the MC. These are often solos, and similar to the Wake Up Song, they are often standout songs, fan-favorites or simply just radio hits.

Aladdin: “Prince Ali”

Mulan: “I’ll Make A Man Out of You”

Tangled: “Mother Knows Best”

Frozen: “Let it Go”

Frozen kind of has two MC’s, but Anna is the princess and Elsa is the queen, and Anna is the star of most of the other songs, so “Let it Go” qualifies for me. Lots of awesome here, and like the Wake Up Song, it’s really hard to pick a best one.

I’m kidding. It’s “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” and everyone knows that.

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We’re nearing the end of the movie at this point, the conflict is reaching its high point. But out Princess and Prince haven’t fallen in love yet. When they do, often right before the climactic battle, they sing a Love Duet. The sweet, slow, and sometimes sappy song where our MC’s lock hands and kiss and make us all have impossibly high standards of romance.

Aladdin: “A Whole New World”

Mulan: N/A

Tangled: “I See the Light”

Frozen: “Love is an Open Door”

Again, Frozen shakes its fist at Disney tropes. “Love is an Open Door” comes at the start of the film, rather than the end. The whole song is basically a parody of this song type, as the characters clearly have no chemistry, even when it comes to finishing each others’ lines in the song, something that comes naturally to every other Disney character not named Flynn Rider.

But even more daring is Mulan. She doesn’t have a love duet, because she’s a boss-ass chick who don’t need no man. There’s a war to win, damn it!

And at the end, perhaps during, perhaps right after the climactic scene, you get one more song. It will wrap everything up nicely, but won’t provide a new tune. Instead, it’s a Reprise of either the Love Duet or I Want Song. Sometimes it’s sung, but often it’s more subtle, just instrumental. Either way, it’s the thing that makes grown men cry and children wonder why their parents are crying at the funny movie. (Note for the music/film nerds: A recurring piece of instrumental music in a song is called a leitmotif.)

In Aladdin, Aladdin and Jasmine reprise “A Whole New World” as they fly off into the sunset.

In Mulan, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” gets an ironic reprise as the soldiers dress in women’s clothing to save the emperor.

In Tangled, the melody of “I See the Light” is heard when Rapunzel meets her mother again. They go 2 for 1, getting the dark version of the reprise as well with “Mother Knows Best.”

In Frozen, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” is heard when Anna freezes.

It applies to non-musicals as well. The main theme of Inside Out, called “A Bundle of Joy,” plays again at the very end. As far as musical scores go, it’s a very common technique when wrapping things up. Disney just takes it another level, making it a bit more obvious for the kids.

This won’t encompass every song, as every musical is a little different. And that’s the other part of the formula- flexibility. Tangled and Mulan both go light on the songs, heavier on story. Frozen plays with the songs’ usual purposes and Aladdin gives the Prince center stage instead of the princess. It’s this combination of familiarity and variation (constants and variables, as Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite would say) that make Disney a treat after all this time.

 

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Comments
  1. Meagan says:

    AWESOME I didn’t even think about all these similarities!

    Like

  2. mandibelle16 says:

    Interesting break-down of the types of song that comprise most Disney films. A good read 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. […] girl bored with her life that wants to fall in love and/or have an adventure. Hell, you can even sort every single Disney princess song into one of just five categories. And each time, we eat it up. We love it. At least, I […]

    Like

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