Colors of The Wind (The Song)

Before I continue on from where I left off  with 13th chords back on Friday the 13th of April, I’m going to respond to a request made by one of my readers and take a look at a modern pop tune from a recent (1995) animated Disney film.

Like many other movies and plays based on this episode, Disney’s Pocahontas was really bad history (the Powhatan Indian girl eventually known as Rebecca Rolfe was actually a young girl of 12 or so at the time and was never romantically involved with Captain John Smith – nor did the incident in which she saved his life ever actually happen, according to scholars). It was however an excellent piece of entertainment with a compelling story that brings up many interesting ethical, moral and environmental issues (some real irony here, for me at least – considering where this film comes from).

The “showstopper” and most memorable song from this animated musical was a piece sung by the title character, Colors of The Wind.

The verse here (0:06-0:31) is rather complex from a melodic standpoint – and is actually more like an operatic recitative that precedes the aria. Harmonically, it doesn’t go very far afield, however. The initial key of C# minor is established from the beginning, and all the harmonic structures – C# minor, B, G# minor and A – are closely related keys that fit together quite naturally within the construct of the natural minor scale upon which this part of the song is built.

It’s worth noting however that except for an “A” passing tone in measure 8 (0:21), the composer uses only five notes in this recitative section, anticipating the pitch classes used in the refrain or aria that follows.

The “A” section (0:39-1:15) of the refrain is based on a simple Db Pentatonic Scale:

Db Pentatonic Scale

I believe if composer Alan Menken was asked, he would say these were conscious, thought-out choices. The pentatonic scale is considered by musicologists to be the oldest of all scales. It is common in Celtic music as well as that of ancient Greece and many African, Asian and Native American cultures. A pentatonic scale is also useful in the musical education of young children as well (Orff, Kodaly, etc.), as there are no dissonant intervals. (Try it by playing with the black keys of a piano: there is virtually no way to make discordant music with a pentatonic scale.)

The key of Db may have been chosen because there are some who believe it to be the the natural “key” of the Earth. As odd as this may seem, there may be a basis for this. Several years ago, a recording engineer and musician took recordings of a howling wolf, the screech of an eagle and a whale’s song and found them all to fit very nicely into the key of Db major. (I don’t remember where I heard this recording – if this rings a bell for anyone, please contact me.)

The initial I-vi Chord Sequence – from Db major to its relative, Bb minor – is also significant. The interval of a descending minor third  is perhaps one of the most natural to the human ear. It is common in the music of many so-called “primitive,” or pre-industrial cultures and is the first interval most young children learn to sing (think Ring Around the Rosie). The three other harmonic structures used in this section (as well as the remainder of the piece) are all closely related to Db and Bb minor: Gb, Fm, Ebm and Ab. Because of the pentatonic scale used in the A section, any of these harmonies could be substituted for any of the others, and are primarily coloristic.

In the soaring and contrasting “B” section (1:16), composer Menken adds a “C” passing tone as the melody leaps up to a high Db and descends – but for the most part, he sticks to the basic pentatonic scale.  No new harmonies are introduced, because there is no need for them.

There is a short contrasting “C”  or bridge section that begins around 2:23, in which Menken’s melody and harmonies become thoroughly modern and sophisticated. When Pocahantas sings “How high does a sycamore grow,” we hear vocalist Judy Kuhn sing a high “C,” creating a Gb maj7 chord with a raised 11th:

This brief sequence comes to rest at Bbm, which is followed by a B (the bVII of Db) over the lyric “if you cut it down.” This chord has no real harmonic function – it is there to provide color and harmonic interest.

The remainder of the song returns to the simple pastoralism that characterized the beginning of the piece.

One might wonder – if this song is so simple, why does it move the listener so? My opinion is that lies in the orchestral treatment with its skillful employment of various sections and  dramatic use of dynamics  – as well as  Stephen Schwarz’ lyric (a powerful and moving message that I suppose, aside from lip service, certain powerful institutions in the world could care less about…).

The guide tone lines for this piece are incredibly easy to find. I’ll present them in the next post.

DISCLAIMER: The examples used here are for educational purposes only. No copyright infringement is intended.

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About GuideToneLines

KJ McElrath earned his Masters degree in Music Theory and Composition from Central Washington University. Composer of several works for big band, wind ensemble and orchestra, which can be heard at I perform a cabaret act with Athena McElrath as McElrath Cabaret, which you can find at
This entry was posted in alan menken, algonquian, changes, chord extensions, chord progression, color tones, disney musicals, dissonance, dissonant intervals, film scores, guide tone lines, harmonic structures, Hollywood Scores, john smith, key change, modal scales, music theory, pentatonic scale, pocahantas, powhatan indian, stephen schwarz, us history and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Colors of The Wind (The Song)

  1. Thanks to Dennis Luxion who not only actually left a genuine, intelligent comment (instead of the usual spam I’ve been getting on this blog), but was also kind enough to remind me of Paul Winter’s 1978 album and his statement about Db being the “key of the Earth.” Interested parties can read more here:

  2. Adam says:

    Thanks so much for doing my request, It is most helpful.
    Much appreciated 🙂


    • Adam says:

      Please post the follow up with the guide tones! 🙂
      Also I think I noticed a mistake, when you mentioned the descending minor sixth and ring around the rosie, I am fairly sure you meant a minor third. Thanks again

      • Thanks for keeping me honest. You’re absolutely correct – it’s a minor third (down) – which is actually the inversion of a major sixth up.

        Not sure what I was thinking that day…

  3. Adam says:

    Glad I could help, I’ve managed to get a score of this wonderful piece of orchestration today and can send it to you if it would be of help to others.

    Am I able to request the analysis of another popular tune, this one in a minor key? Would love to see your take on it, Thanks so much for your insight.

  4. Pingback: Colors of the Wind – Guide Tone Lines Revealed, Part II | Guide Tone Lines

  5. Alex says:

    Thank you so much for this analysis. I was looking all over the internet for musical analyses of Disney songs as I believe they are wonderful pieces of music, but I could not find much of anything. Whenever time allows, would you consider doing another Disney song analysis? Any of the classic songs would be great.