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In the disney song "A whole new world" from the move Aladdin there is a part that I am trying to analyze and it doesn't really fit in with what I have learned so far in music theory (I am only 3/4 way through my harmony book so there is still a chance that it will be covered but I am impatient).

The song starts off in the tonic and just before the part I am interested in, there is a standard IV65 to V6 progression which usually resolves to I in my harmony books but here the bass rolls down to ^4 for a ii6 chord instead. This is a melodic interval of an augmented 4th which is advised against in most harmony books and here, it doesnt even change direction after the descent (as I have been taught in my harmony books you should do with dissonant leaps). I love the sound of this so I am trying to understand it from a music theory perspective. The progression then continues to a V of vi which seems pretty standard (the vi is not seen here).

I also love that D# incomplete neighbor there and also can't make heads or tails of why the composer uses this note.. is there some kind of middle easterness to it? Or perhaps he just needed another note that would allow contrary motion to the F# 8tvs on the syncopated upbeat. I tried substituting other notes here but they didnt have the same pizzazz as that D#.

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  • Do you mean ask, how come there's an Em/G instead of D in the third bar? It looks like a four or eight bar phrase harmonically. If you put a D already in the third bar, it would interrupt that idea and make it a two-bar form. The exact bass notes seem irrelevant, it's just doing inversions and moving the bass somewhere to add some variety, to sound slightly less obvious and maybe avoid doubling the melody. How would you have harmonized and arranged the melody? Aug 2, 2022 at 11:33
  • “Advised against in most harmony books” - I think this is the source of your question. What the books are probably trying to say is that the was a period of time when European composers almost never used it. But that isn’t the same as saying you shouldn’t use it. If you think harmony and music theory books are telling you how music "should" be written, it’s either a bad book or you’re reading too much into it, or both. Aug 2, 2022 at 11:33
  • Todd Wilcox Now that I think about it, the harmony book I am most familiar with does show the use of an augmented 4th but only as part of a sequence
    – user35708
    Aug 2, 2022 at 15:44

6 Answers 6

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One way to understand this passage is as the evolution of the concept of sequence in 20th century showtunes.

The music is by Alan Menken and he both pioneered and exemplifies this particular style of composition. If you wanted to read books that explain this music better, you could look for jazz, pop, and 20th century theory books. That said, this musical theatre style itself is not widely analyzed music theory texts, at least as far as I’ve found.

Notice how the third measure is very similar to the first measure with most elements transposed down a half step, but also with some harmonic modifications to create a certain feeling.

The key is D major and the first chord of the first measure is the tonic chord (D major) in root position. The melody starts on the third degree of the chord (F#). I think it is helpful to interpret the second chord of the first measure as an E minor 7th chord, with the 7th in the bass.

In the third measure, the melodic contour is repeated with the first note a whole step down and the rest of the melody only a half step down. As I mentioned, I think it’s helpful to see this as a melodic sequence, which is a common tool used for centuries to extend and develop a melody in a way that is the same but different. (“Same but different” is a great way to create music that is catchy and popular.)

The harmony for the third measure also imitates the contour of the harmony of the first measure, but it is not a whole step down. It’s a whole step up. There are two reasons I can think of for that. First, following the second measure Menken might have wanted to use a jazz-related harmonic trope of going down a tritone (augmented fourth) instead of a fifth. Tritone relationships are a whole thing in jazz. The second reason is a sequence can lose a lot of impact if the harmony is repeated the same way the melody is repeated.

And there’s a possible third reason. The D# of the melody can be heard as (perhaps weakly) tonicizing the E minor chord. This is another jazz related concept of “the key of the moment”. Without the fourth measure this is just a guess, but temporarily making the tonal center E minor could be a setup for a larger ii - V - I structure, which is arguably the quintessence of jazz (especially showtune jazz, if I can coin that sub genre). It’s common in jazz progressions to have a measure or two of chords based in a minor ii tonality, followed by a few measures in V7 tonality, followed by a I chord, or perhaps a deceptive cadence or turnaround, etc.

To summarize, it’s not going to be very helpful to try to analyze 20th and 21st century musical theatre and movie musical music in the context of 17th - 19th century European art music (AKA “classical” music). Musical theatre (and I’m lumping in movie musicals) as a genre is very fuzzy and borrows from many other genres, but it shares the closest kinship with jazz (in my humble opinion). You’ll get a lot more mileage out of studying jazz theory to help understand a lot of popular and commercial music of the 20th century through today.

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  • Fantastic work in this answer. Thank you.. FYI classical harmony goes 95% of the way in most cases for my analysis requirements but I think I definitely need some jazz theory as well... any advice on the best books to get?
    – user35708
    Aug 2, 2022 at 13:45
  • Yeah, I'm fairly sure the next chord in the next measure is a (however decorated) Bm chord, to go with at least E-D in the melody. Man, that 3rd measure is a way to jam a deceptive cadence.
    – Dekkadeci
    Aug 2, 2022 at 14:06
  • I hear the 1st measure as a D major chord with with a neighbor motion in the upper voice ^3 ^4 ^3 (the ^4 supported by IV6/4 ).
    – user35708
    Aug 3, 2022 at 9:36
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The main structural point here is melodic imitation, Bar 3 echoes the melodic shape of bar 1.

The G bass note in bar 3 has the flavour of a last-inversion dom7 in D major, it could have well resolved to D/F#. Well, the bass line DOES do that, but with a twist, the F# becomes the root of F#7 instead!

I see most harmonic novelty in bar 2. It would have been so easy to use G, A as the bass notes!

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  • Is that really considered novel? I thought putting the bass just somewhere else, anywhere else than the root, is the first possible trick that anyone could think of. :) I might do that when I'm the bassist in a cover band, just to add a little bit of interest to boring chord progressions. Aug 2, 2022 at 11:35
  • Well, that's the point in that song where I think 'Hey! That's nice!' Your opinion may vary.
    – Laurence
    Aug 2, 2022 at 11:37
  • Laurence if you listen to the counterpoint with G and A as bass notes I think you will agree that it sounds better like this
    – user35708
    Aug 2, 2022 at 13:57
  • Interesting what you said about the move from G to F# and that V42 chord with ^4 as a bass tone does resolve to ^3 but I was more curious about the jump from ^7 down to ^4 although if that G is acting like an inversion of V7 then that could explain the progression from V6 since it is expanding a dominant chord moving between two different inversions.
    – user35708
    Aug 2, 2022 at 16:33
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This bass line is much simpler than it might initially seem. Although LP didn't use the word "phrasing," he gets at the same issue by identifying "imitation," although TW's term "melodic sequence" is more apt. In any event, once we identify bars 1-2 in your excerpt as one "unit" (phrase, gesture, segment, or whatever term you're comfortable with), we can recognize that there's no obligation to have smooth voice leading in the bass from the end of one segment to the next. Sometimes a composer uses smooth voice leading from one segment (or phrase, unit, etc.) to the next; other times not.

I'll include another similar situation from "La Vie en Rose." Here, too, we have a transposing melody. The end of the first phrase ends with a V chord, as does your excerpt from "Brand New World." And here too, the next phrase begins on ii. In other words, the V in bar 4 never resolves. The next phrase is free to start anew. This sort of non-resolution from the end of one phrase (or segment, etc) to the beginning of the next can be found in every style. If we try to use analytic gymnastics to explain the harmony or voice leading in such cases, we may well end up pulling a muscle. ;)La Vie en Rose first two phrases

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  • I like what you wrote David. Makes sense. There is a term in my Harmony and Voice leading book by Ed Aldwell and Carl Schacter that may refer to these non-resolving dominant chords as "back-relating" dominants. When V goes to IV it is kind of similar... there is a feeling of a new beginning.
    – user35708
    Aug 3, 2022 at 8:21
  • It may be helpful to still analyze these kinds of new phrases however since I love the sound of that descent by tritone and it would be nice to have other examples if anyone can think of any.... by the way V to ii is an ascending 5th so it is much more common than a progression by descending augmented 4th. Chords that are 5th related are never going to sound out of place. But a descending tritone? You may well find these tritone intervals as part of sequences, and indeed they are unavoidable in full sequences of descending 5ths but the way it is used here is very abrupt and exposed.
    – user35708
    Aug 3, 2022 at 8:39
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I made a simplified melody transcription from this:

A Whole New World Aladdin simplified melody

If you listen to that melody, and if your task is to assign backing chords to it, would a D major chord feel appropriate in the fifth bar marked with a question mark? I don't think so. The form of that melody is such that a tonic chord is out of the question.

Then, what the piano accompaniment does on that recording:

A Whole New World with piano accompaniment chords

Even if it was an Em/G in bar 5, I don't see a problem. If you want to make the chords sound slightly less obvious, you can do bass inversions. Avoid doubling the melody, if it doesn't suit your taste.

If a G bass note wouldn't be "allowed" there by some theory book, then you need to ask what the authors of that theory book were trying to achieve with their rule sets. I suppose the rules are tailored to some person's musical taste.

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Bass line aug 4th

I would not focus too much on the augmented 4th down as I do not think this is a big thing here, musically. The first phrase ends after the second bar ("shining, shimmering, splendid"), then the singer breathes, then the next phrase starts ("Tell me princess ..."), so I would rather interpret this as two harmonic progressions in succession, belonging to separate phrases, instead of one progression.

Also, the chords G/B, A/C# and Em/G are all built on their 3rds, which gives them a certain (and consistent) tonal color. With the chords and their inversions set, the augmented 4th down in the bass is a natural consequence which the composer may simply have decided to leave as it is.

Chromatic note D#

As for the chromatic note D#, I also feel that it gives a kind of "middle easterness" feeling. In terms of harmony, D# is the major 3rd of Eminor's dominant, B major. The teasing of B major "stabilizes" Em as the current harmonic center, like a short, temporary modulation. The modulation concludes when in the following bar 4 (not in the excerpt) the chromatic note D# will be resolved to the natural D and the harmony goes back to B minor. Taken together, this adds a lot of musically interesting elements to this short part of the song.

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I have tried to reduce this song to simple 4-part harmony to show that it uses common and idiomatic voice leading even by CPP standards and that most of the voice leading is indeed covered by one (out of 3) of my harmony textbooks. I will try:

  1. Explain how the augmented 4th may crop up and be used
  2. Explain why the D# note is used
  3. Show that the "classical" harmony is indeed sufficient in analyzing such a passage of music without resorting to study of jazz or other genres as suggested by Todd

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Other than the voices being out of range for SATB, the song actually fits in with most chord progressions in my book "Harmony and Voice Leading" 5th edition.

  1. The first 3 bars are just tonic harmony with a neighboring 64 chord while the 4th bar is a very idiomatic progression that usually resolves to I but what I believe happens here (and I actually have to say that Laurence was the one that got me thinking about this)is that the V65 chord is expanded to V42 position before resolving to iii, except the iii is V of vi and since the bass notes are the same (^3) the ear buys into it asif it were V42 resolving to I6. The bassline still is odd because of the metrical placement but I think harmonically speaking if we consider that the chord prior is actually V65, expanding that to V42 actually is not such a big deal and expansions of dominant chords where you move from one position to the other is rather a common thing isnt it? I have highlighted the notes of the tritone in red to show how they change position in the voice leading and that makes the progression "work".
  2. I think the D# is explained by the fact that the diatonic D note just doesn't work. If imitation is going to be used for the second phrase the melody needs to go down on that note there and it just doesn't sound right with D natural. Try playing it with D natural and you can hear what I mean. "Harmony and Voice Leading 5th edition" says that "At times the chromatic alteration is almost obligatory in that it prevents ugly repetitions and connects better with the main tone". I believe this is happening here.
  3. Despite the fact that jazz has its own quirks I think this is a good example that "classical music theory" is still perfectly sufficient for analyzing songs in many different genres. You can find good counterpoint in Alan Menkens songs and I think counterpoint is a classical thing, not a jazz thing.
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  • From which version or recording of the song is the music in your question transcribed or reduced? The one I found seems to be somewhat different. No F#7 chord anywhere. Aug 3, 2022 at 16:18
  • Here it is, can I post this here? Or must I add it to the OP? easysheetmusic.altervista.org/…
    – user35708
    Aug 3, 2022 at 16:37
  • Ok, I think it's this one from the 1992 movie youtube.com/watch?v=0eWUhXPhIaE I just initially picked the wrong video. Aug 3, 2022 at 16:49
  • Your starting chord in Bar 5 of your answer, an A/G chord, is inconsistent with the starting chord in the 3rd displayed measure of your question (Bar 5 of the full song) - the Em/G chord at "Tell". It's actually easier for me to buy the Em/G chord as G6 = VI"6"/vi (thus assuming the chord progression in Bars 5-6 is VI"6"-V7-V6/5-i in B minor) than as A/G = V4/2, especially since Em/G does not contain C# and therefore does not contain the tritone you mention in your answer.
    – Dekkadeci
    Aug 3, 2022 at 19:43
  • Dekka, the transcripts for this song vary depending on where you look, I tried to come up with chords also based on what the bass and melody were doing choosing to ignore certain aspects of this score and looking at others
    – user35708
    Aug 3, 2022 at 21:47

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