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:
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.