We’ve all heard them, and they get stuck in all our heads. But why? Why is it that Disney can seemingly create earworms?
Though there’s no such thing as a Disney formula, today we’re going to get close to one. And best of all, this theory is not one that I’ve hacked together to try to show something new and inventive. Not at all.
I stumbled upon everything you’re about to read.
About two months ago, I was asked to do a medley of several popular Disney songs. I ran into a problem.
One of the keys of a good medley is variety. The more I tried to put songs together, the more I realized that these songs are similar! Though every song seemed fresh and new when I first heard it, I began to find out that they borrowed many elements!
And for the past month, I’ve then been exploring these elements to see how present they are in Disney songs. Let me tell you, many of these tropes are everywhere.
So today, we’re going to look at just a few of these elements that Disney songs have that make them so recognizable and then flip this entire idea on its head to show that their differences are precisely the reason each of these songs are memorable.
Disney songs are recognizable because of their similarities but are memorable because of their differences.
The Soaring Theme Trope
You may have noticed that stylistically there seems to be a Disney style, but we’re going much deeper than that here.
Instead, we’re going to look at a trope that happens in a lot (and I mean a lot) of songs that seam to have a melody that soars during the chorus.
Take “I Can Go the Distance”.
You’ve probably heard this song before but take a listen to this chorus one more time. Notice anything?
Halfway through the chorus, the melody, volume, and orchestration back off before it regains energy to finish the chorus. This may be little detail (and perhaps just well-suited for the song), but it appears all over the place.
Here are a few more examples.
And here’s a few more that has this gesture, though just not as dramatic.
About 2/3 through every single one of these example’s melodies, there’s a dip. Interesting, right?
In case that’s not interesting enough, here’s the Disney intro music. Notice a familiar pattern?
The Villain Song Trope
In screenwriting, it’s often said that the hero is only as strong as their villain.
And somehow, Disney can consistently create villain songs that perfectly suit their character.
But in each of them, there’s a common theme, the minor key. Now this is a standard trope, but Disney uses it consistently and it’s important to note for later on. Why? You’ll see. Here’s a couple of villain songs so you can hear the tone change from above.
Now there is one villain song that perfectly demonstrates, “Hellfire” from the Hunchback of Notre Dame. You see, this song almost seems to self-reference this trope.
During this scene, Judge Frollo is essentially having to choose between good and evil. And with that choice, the tone of the music shifts back and forth consistently.
The Tempo Trope
Now there are so many more tropes I can dive into, and not all songs fit these tropes, but I think those two starts to give you an idea that there are many musical threads that connect each Disney song. So here’s one last one.
When writing medleys, one of the toughest tasks is to figure out how to smoothly transition between different songs. There are often lots of different keys, orchestrations, and tempos.
However, the tempos were actually quite easy.
Because almost all Disney songs are at about the same tempo!
If you know BPM (Beats Per Minute), it can be surprising to find out that all songs hover between 80 and 120 bpm. There are very few Disney songs outside of that range. For reference, most music goes all the way from 54 bpm to 172 bpm! Disney has very little variety when it comes to tempos!
It doesn’t matter if it’s a love song, ballad, action song, or something else. Everything is within this middle ground. Even more surprising is that you’ve probably never noticed this. Let’s take two very different songs and compare the tempo of both of them: “How Far I’ll Go” and “Beauty and the Beast”.
They are exactly the same tempo!
Or how about this unlikely pair? “Never Had a Friend Like Me” and “Bibidi Bopidi Boo”.
What Makes Music Interesting?
What makes anything interesting?
But novelty alone isn’t enough.
In his book Pitch Anything, Oren Klaff gives a great summary of how our brains work that perfectly explains how to highjack someone’s brain.
Our brain has three main layers. You have the reptilian brain, the limbic brain, and the neocortex. Each layer evolved on top of the last one to develop higher order thought. Though we may feel like we think rationally about things, all the information we absorb actually goes through the reptilian brain first. And this is meant for survival. Any threats are thrown out.
Here’s how Klaff shows how we accept new information:
- If it’s not dangerous, ignore it.
- If it’s not new and exciting, ignore it.
- If it’s new, summarize it as quickly as possible—forget the details.
And if it’s very abstract and complicated, it’s a threat so ignore it
- Do not send anything up to the neocortex unless it’s a really complicated problem that needs extraordinary solutions
Therefore, the key to highjacking your brain is to stimulate the reptilian brain. This also means that new information has to be both familiar (i.e. not abstract), novel, and simple.
If it’s too abstract, it overloads your lizard brain. That means it needs to have familiar patterns. If it’s completely old, your brain isn’t stimulated and isn’t worth focusing on. And if it’s complicated, your reptilian brain can’t handle the information overload.
How Do Disney Songs Hijack the Reptilian Brain
Okay, we have three criteria:
As we’ve already shown, each Disney song follows enough tropes that make the song clearly sound like Disney. Hence, it’s not too new and it follows familiar patterns.
But how are Disney songs novel if we’ve already shown that they are all the same?
It actually comes back to the tropes we’ve already talked about. Let’s go back to “Be Prepared” from the Lion King again and compare it to perhaps the most famous song from the movie: “Circle of Life”.
There are several layers of similarity between these two and the standard tropes that when combined for a novel idea.
For instance, the instrumentation and style are almost identical between “Circle of Life” and “Be Prepared”. Perhaps the most distinctive part is the drums in each. So when we get to this villain song, we are already expecting these elements. Plus the tropes for Disney villain songs. And when you combine both tropes, you have something new. It becomes novel.
The novelty doesn’t come from the tropes, but rather how the tropes are executed.
And guess what, this creates a very simple way to be novel. It doesn’t set off the reptilian brain alarms because it’s new and simple!
Because Disney songs are always very simple in how they work, follow the tropes, and are always original, they always get stuck in your brain.