How much can a melody tell us about a character?
Have you ever heard a song that made you feel like whoever was singing the song was angry? When Rob Thomas sings “This Is How a Heart Breaks”, he sounds angry.
Have you ever heard a tune that made you feel like the person singing it was being kind of silly for a moment? I remember feeling that about The Aquabats when they sang “Super Rad”.
Have you ever heard a tune that told you exactly how this character normally acts? There’s a great moment in Wicked when everybody’s singing this tune with really small intervals:
Dear Galinda, you are just too good!
How do you stand it? I don’t think I could!
She’s a terror! She’s a tartar!
We don’t mean to show a bias
But Galinda you’re a martyr!
And then Galinda sings “these things are sent to try us!” and we get to feel that this girl is really over the top.
Because Broadway musical are almost built to show us who characters are through their melodies. So let’s take a look at one of the most subtle but powerful examples I’ve ever seen of a melody telling us who a character is: Alan Menken’s work on Newsies.
Welcome to Song Appeal, where we dive into your favorite songs to answer the question “Why do we like the music we like?” I’m your host, Hunter Farris, and on today’s episode, let’s take a look at how melody tells us about the characters in “Carryin’ the Banner” from Disney’s musical, Newsies.
By popular request, I’ll be using the movie version, but these ideas are just as true in the stage version.
[Music: “It’s a fine life, carryin’ the banner through it all.”]
This episode will be spoiler-free.
The opening number of a musical is a tricky song. It needs to introduce us to the world, the characters, the premise, how the characters interact with each other. As an opening number, “Carryin’ the Banner” does a pretty good job introducing us to how the characters interact through the lyrics, as characters range from give each other advice, to accusing each other of theft, to celebrating their fine life, to complaining about a few aspects of their job.
But the melody does just as much, or maybe more, to get us to know how these characters interact with each other. How? The melody uses constant parallel modulation to give us the feeling that the characters really aren’t experienced and really aren’t united.
If you’re wondering “What’s parallel modulation?”, you’re in luck. Let’s get into that right now.
Modulation is a big, fancy word for changing keys. When the Ducktales theme changes changes from F major (“d-d-d-danger lurks behind you/There’s a stranger, out to find you!”) to G major (“What to do? Just grab on to some Duck Tales. Woo-hoo!”), that’s an example of modulation.
Now normally, modulation changes the key up or down, but parallel modulation (or direct modulation) is a very specific type of changing keys. Instead of changing to a higher key or a lower key, parallel modulation changes to a key that’s just as high or low as the last key, but uses different notes, like when “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” by Justin Timberlake switched from C major (“Room on lock, the way we rock it, so don’t stop”) to C minor:
And under the lights when everything goes
Nowhere to hide when I’m gettin’ you close
When we move, well, you already know
So just imagine, just imagine, just imagine
“Carryin’ The Banner” takes parallel modulation up to 11. Every measure or two, we might switch to D minor, or D major, or D Mixolydian (which is a major scale with the 7th note flattened) or D Dorian (which is a minor scale with the 6th note sharpened). And the change is so constant that it almost feels like Alan Menken is writing in one weird blend of minor, major, and Dorian for the entire song, because in “Carryin’ the Banner”, the parallel modulation is constant.
So how does the constant parallel modulation change the way we think of the characters?
It makes us think these characters are inexperienced. We get to feel that they’re poor orphans and runaways who don’t listen to phonographs that often, and can’t afford to go to a concert. They have little-to-no musical experience and have to make up their own quote-unquote “rules” to music. Every few measures, the Newsies switch from minor, to major, to Dorian, and sometimes to Mixolydian.
That makes us feel like the Newsies don’t have the kind of experience with listening to music that you and I have. After all, you and I have probably listened to thousands of hours of music. We’re experienced listeners. We’ve immersed ourselves in music so much that even if you don’t know any music theory, you can still feel when a song uses parallel modulation. Listen to this bit from “Happy Together” by The Turtles. You can feel when the song changes from F# minor to F# major:
If I should call you up, invest a dime
And you say you belong to me and ease my mind
Imagine how the world could be, so very fine
So happy together
I can’t see me lovin’ nobody but you
For all my life
When you’re with me, baby the skies’ll be blue
For all my life
Most people can feel that “Carryin’ the Banner” feels a little different from your average, everyday song. That’s what makes it stand out. And the reason it stands out is because the characters use parallel modulation so much that it feels they don’t have much experience with listening to music everyone else listens to.
Now, if just one character were singing “Carryin’ the Banner”, we’d get this subtle feeling that he’s not experienced in listening to music. He’s just singing what he thinks sounds good instead of singing tune based on what he’s heard. But since a lot of different people sing “Carryin’ the Banner”, we get this subtle feeling that the characters really aren’t united.
For the first two verses, every time a new character starts singing, they’re singing differently than the last character was. One character starts out the song in Dorian (“That’s my cigar”). Someone replies in major (“You’ll steal another”). Another character responds in Dorian (“Hey bummers, we’ve got work to do). Then another in Mixolydian (“Since when did you become me mother?”), and someone finishes off the verse in Dorian (“Aw, stop your bawlin!” “Hey! Who asked you?”).
And the same idea happens later on right after the nuns sing, when Patrick’s mother is singing in D major at the same time as the Newsies are singing. And every time a different Newsy sings, they change between D minor and D Dorian while Patrick’s mother is singing in D major. Take a listen:
Patrick? (Just gimme half a cup)
Darling? (Something to wake me up)
Since you left (I gotta find an angle me) I am undone (I gotta sell more papes)
Mother (Papers is all I got) (Wish I could catch a breeze) loves (Sure hope the headline’s hot) you, (All I can catch is fleas)…
When every character is singing in a different key than the last character was, and sometimes in a different key than a character who’s still singing, the melody gives us the feeling that these characters really aren’t united.
We sometimes forget that songs are sung by people.
Sometimes, someone sings exactly what they feel or exactly what’s going on in their life, and that song is sung by a real person.
Sometimes, someone puts on a character when they sing songs. Even though Johnny Cash says he did, we don’t really believe that he shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. But the character in the song did. And songs like that are still sung by a person. A fictional person, but still a person, with biases, emotions, values, and character traits. Songs are rarely sung by an omniscient narrator who coldly and impartially presents the facts.
And if it’s used well, the melody can tell us just as much about a character as the lyrics do.
Now, you might be wondering “Did Alan Menken write about the Newsies, or did he write himself into the music?” Obviously Alan Menken is experienced in music. You don’t write the songs for Little Shop of Horrors, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, and Hercules without knowing anything. And obviously, he is united with his co-workers or he wouldn’t have got to do any of those shows.
That’s why the music for Newsies amazes me so much. Alan Menken wrote melodies that perfectly showed us who his characters are without writing his own biases, emotions, values, and character traits into the tunes, from “Carryin’ the Banner’s” almost obsessive amount of parallel modulation, to “King of New York” switching between major and minor, to “Santa Fe” switching between F minor and Bb major.
What’s even more impressive is how Alan Menken shows us these characters changing through just the melodies. Through most of the start of the movie, these characters aren’t united at all, but every time the Newsies become more determined to work together, they sing songs that don’t have any parallel modulation, like “The World Will Know” and “Seize the Day”. Then they show their unity by singing as a literal choir. [“Seize the Day (Chorale)”]
But that unity wouldn’t have meant anything if Alan Menken hadn’t opened the show with “Carryin’ the Banner”, which shows us over and over again that these characters aren’t united, and they aren’t experienced, and we can feel that because of the song’s constant parallel modulation. And Alan Menken shows us that much about his characters just through the melody
[Music: “Carryin’ the banner, it’s a fine life, carryin’ the banner, it’s a – go!”]
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