I’ve been fascinated for the last few months by Disney’s Frozen – more specifically, by the music of it. Yes, having children I know many of the words (though not as well as my three-year-old, who corrects me from time to time. At some point I’d like to look at it more in-depth, but in the interest of shipping, I’ll share my thoughts here.

There’s a pretty good selection for most people – “Frozen Heart” for a men’s chorus; the duets between Anna & Elsa, and Anna & Hans; ‘fun’ solos from Kristoff, Olaf; a ‘fun’ chorus for the Trolls, and, of course, Elsa’s blockbuster “Let It Go.” That last one, in particular, I really like, though I have mixed feelings about the lyrics – while “A kingdom of isolation,” is brilliant in its garden-path syllables (“kingdom of ice…”), I wish “Let it go, let it go, Turn my back and slam the door” at least attempted a slant-rhyme (“slam the do-oar” etc.)

But my overall favorite moment, and the one that sparked this post, is the final, climactic scene.  Anna and Elsa are wandering through the mist and blizzard, while Kristoff rushes to rescue Anna. The music is in the background, but it so perfectly matches the action and emotion of the scene that I find myself rewinding just to rewatch it. While Anna wanders, the music is slow, plodding, and mournful – she’s dying and she knows it. It pans over to Kristoff, and immediately picks up in time and mood with the galloping of his steed’s hooves. It’s a great scene, and a rare moment of true musical, sound, and visual harmony that I don’t see much in film anymore.

21. November 2014 · 1 comment · Categories: Glissandi · Tags:

(For the first part of this look at the break between “classical” and “popular” music, go here:  Part 1)

Renaissance Music (~1400-1600)

The increase of Polyphony – multiple voices/parts moving separately from one another – opened up a wide range of choices to the composers of the era. No longer were they restricted to a melody with unobtrusive and  mild harmonization; now they could begin weaving multiple musical threads together. And while the melodic and harmonic simplicities of Medieval music required some rhythmic complexity, the music of the Renaissance was able to have smoother, more flowing music that was offset by the more diversity allowed elsewhere. This included larger instrumental requirements, so larger ensembles began forming. However, there still existed (at least in the early part of the period) a heavier reliance on modal, rather than tonal, structures. As time progressed, however, the increasing usage of the circle of fifth progressions led naturally to the tonal cadences we’re used to today.


Baroque Music (~1600-1750)

No discussion of the Baroque period would be complete without mention of the Florentine Camerata. This group of thinkers met in Florence to discuss the arts, and are responsible for many changes that occurred. One more significant is their revival of Greek theater, which manifested as opera. One more familiar member was Vincenzo Galilei, father of the famous Galileo Galilei.

As music evolved in this period, a heavy emphasis was put on idomatic writing – that is, the idea that certain styles of music were more fitting for some instruments than others. Additionally, the evolution of tonal writing, built on cadences, meant that music of this time put a heavier focus on harmonic writing, rather than polyphonic (though this was often blurred in canons, fugues, and so on). This meant that, while Renaissance music essentially saw each voice as equally important, the music of the Baroque relegated some voices to supporting the main line. This also meant that very unlike instruments were mixed in an ensemble, allowing for greater contrasts in pieces of music.


Classical Music (1750-~1820)

The date of transition between Baroque and Classical music is chosen because this is the year of Bach’s death. There’s an old joke in musicology circles: Bach died at the end of July, 1750. Letters went throughout western civilization calling all the composers to a great conference, where they agreed that, since Bach had died, it was time to start the Classical period. An agenda was handed out with the changes to be made in composition style.

In many ways, Classical music could be seen as a reaction against the complications and ornateness of the Baroque period (in fact, that’s what Baroque means, a definition applied some time after) and a yearning to return the the aesthetics of the “classical” period of history (~5th century BC). Classical music is marked by cleaner textures, simpler parts, and an overall “lighter” feel. It is also much more monophonic – a melodic line over harmony. A contrast could be made between the “elegance” of the classical and the “magnificence” of the Baroque.

That said, there was still more growth in the contrasts that could be made. Orchestras grew more in size; the harpsichord (an instrument that sounds by plucking a string with a feather quill; ergo, not very dynamically variable) was replaced by the fortepiano (today shortened to “piano”, but named after the dynamic contrasts it allowed (literally, the “loudsoft”). Additionally, instrumental music became much more dominant over choral, and it is around this time that the symphony was developed.


Romantic Period (~1800-~1900)

Yes, there is an overlap. The seeds of the Romantic period began growing quite a while before blooming. It, too, can be seen as a reaction against the cleanliness and rationality of the Classical period. It is marked by a growing fascination with the supernatural, with the greatness of nature, with the unknown, with superstition. It was also influenced by the Industrial Revolution and the rise of nationalism (the Revolutions of 1848 happened in the midst of this period). Music became more elaborate – not necessarily in any one way, but generally more complicated: longer pieces, requiring more skilled musicians, and taking much longer to write. For example, Mozart, a Classical composer, wrote his opera “The Marriage of Figaro” was written in the first part of 1786, and has 12 main roles, 16-20 instruments, and lasts around 3 hours. By contrast, Wagner, a Romantic composer, wrote his operatic cycle (four full operas telling a single story) “The Ring of the Nibelung” over a period of 24 years, and has 34 main roles, plus a men’s choir and a small women’s choir, 92 instruments plus 6-8 unique instruments per opera (including 18 tuned blacksmithing anvils), and lasts approximately 15 hours (meaning each opera, on average, is nearly 1/3 again as long as Mozart’s).

The Ring cycle also serves to show another significant change in muic from this time period – as it progresses (and, due to its long composition time that reflects the progress of music as a whole), the concept of tonality, key structure, and so on breaks down – it becomes a shifting series of chords and harmonies, at some times appearing nearly atonal (lacking a clearly defined key). The composer is free to transition the melody, harmony, structure at will, without adhering to the confines of traditional harmonic and melodic progressions. This led to the next great evolution in music, which we’ll look at next week.


As a classically, academically trained musician, I’ve been fascinated for some time as to why “Popular music” deviated from “Academic music” around the end of the 19th century. It’s a topic I’m always interested in hearing opinions on from experts. I’ll confess it’s not a topic I pretend to be an expert on; I’m sure many a musicologist could shoot holes in my views faster than a half cadence in a Sousa march. This week, I’ll attempt to briefly walk through the history of Western music from up to the end of the Medieval period (~AD 1400).

Greek Foundations (~600 BC – AD 500)

Western music seems to have much of its roots in our music theory heritage from the Greeks. From them we’ve received our tonal sequence of eight half- and whole-steps (the black and white keys on a piano, with the last note repeating the first an octave higher), referred to as a diatonic scale. These were arranged into a series of modes – think scales, starting on different white keys: Ionian (C-C), Dorian (D-D), Phrygian (E-E), Mixolydian (F-F), Lydian (G-G), Aeolian (A-A), and Locrian (B-B). Additionally, the ideas of consonance (‘nice’ sounding chords) and dissonance (‘clashing’ chords) come from this time period, though the definitions of consonance and dissonance have shifted. Much of Greek music history was influence by Mr. “a2 + b2 = c2” Pythagoras himself, who mathematically defined many of the intervals we use today, based on the untempered perfect fifth (generated by a string, divided into a ratio expressed as 3:2 – ie, a C string, divided at the point of ratio 3:2, will sound a G).

The Evolution of Chant (~AD 500 – AD 1400)

The early medieval church took many of the Greek diatonic modes and used them as the basic for chants in the liturgy. While all the modes seem to have been used (with the exception of the Locrian, as it is the only mode in which the tonic-dominant interval is a tritone, rather than a perfect fifth – this was seen as an extreme dissonance, and has been referred to as diabolus in musica – “the Devil in music”). As time passed, the primary modes that were used became the Ionian and Aeolian – matching to our modern “major” and “[natural] minor” scales.

While the earliest chants were performed monophonically (no harmony, all voices singing the same notes), gradually the rules were relaxed allowing first octave harmony (the same notes but seperated by octaves), then fifths. This latter development became crucial to much of the later evolution of harmony – because parallel fifths became accepted, the possibility arose of a diminished fifth existing – the aforementioned diabolical tritone. To avoid this, the harmonizing voice was required to stay on a different note – which added a new interval to harmony. Additionally, this caused music to begin having counterpoint – voice wouldn’t necessarily move at the same time.

We’ve now (oh so briefly) covered about 2,000 years of music. Next week, we’ll cover the following 600-odd years to the present.

Read part 2 here