Monday, January 16, 2006

The Sound of Music (1959)
Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II
Music: Richard Rodgers
C Major, 4/4 time
16 bars

Do, a deer, a female deer
Re, a drop of golden sun
Mi, my name, I call myself
Fa, a long long way to run
So, a needle pulling thread
La, a note to follow So
Ti, a drink with jam and bread
And that brings us back to Do!

What could be more cheerful or simple than "Do-Re-Mi"? More basic than a rising scale? You guessed it--I'm going to argue that this song is sophisticated and precise in what it expresses. The rising scale is indeed the basis of the song, but a lot goes on under its cover.

Let's look at the first line. What we find is going to apply, more or less, to the first four lines:

Do, a deer, a | fe - male deer
I (tonic harmony throughout)

Starting with the first "deer," the accented syllables in the line are sung on E, and the unaccented syllables are sung on C. The relationship between E and C seems something like the relationship between figure and ground in a picture: E is the figure, the primary target of attention; C is the ground, underlying and coloring our perceptions.

But at the beginning of the line, the strongly accented "Do" falls on C rather than E. (The theme of the song requires that "Do" fall on the tonic note, as that's the note that receives the syllable "Do" in solfege!) "Do" is attention-getting linguistically because it stands alone, not part of any larger word or phrase; it's attention-getting musically because it falls on the hyperdownbeat of the two bars of music. ("Hypermeter" is large-scale meter, in which each measure's downbeat is like a single beat.) Arguably, "Do" is more emphasized than any of the syllables that are on E.

So in this line, the pitch C makes a transition from being the focus of great attention to being in the background. On the first three syllables, we rise from C through D to E; then we stay on E, with C an added presence.

This illustrates the meaning of the lyric quite strongly. We make the transition from the solfege syllable "Do", sung on C, to the mnemonic definition for it, sung on E. Yet C remains present while we hear the definition, telling us that we are still hearing about "Do". This creates an analogy, which we can pick up subconsciously:

The difference between a term and its definition
is to
the fact that it's still all about the term


Melodic motion from C to E
is to
the continued presence of C

There's one more thing to hear in this line, that actually contradicts some of what's written above. We can hear the C-to-E motions on "a fe-" and "-male deer" as miniature, compressed repetitions of the opening C-D-E motion. Heard this way, the C's aren't in the background; they are taking us, momentarily, back to the start so that we can keep engaging in the line's main melodic motion of getting from C to E.

Now here's the fifth line, which is identical to the sixth and seventh lines except for rising transpositions:

So, a nee - dle pull - ing | thread
V of IV (applied dominant) --> IV

The A that sets "thread" is, like the mnemonic defintion's E in the first line, the third degree of the harmony at the time it is heard. We move from "So", on G, to "thread," on A. But this motion is much different than the motion from C up to E in the first line! There, C remained present throughout the line, the ground to E's figure. Here, G is swept away by the harmonic change from V-of-IV to IV when we reach A. This harmonic change (an applied dominant resolving) carries a lot of momentum.

It no longer seems certain that the term "So" is the line's most accentuated syllable. Within the mnemonic definition ("a needle pulling thread"), "thread" is massively accentuated: it's central harmonically and metrically, plus it's the target of a sweeping C-D-E-F-G-A scalar motion. This motion sounds like a miniature version of the whole song so far, raising the possibility that the final A in some sense jumps the gun and arrives too early, before "La" shows up.

All this changes the relationship of the solfege term and its definition. Now the definition drags along the term, in the way that a large, exuberant dog drags its owner along on a leash. And the definition urges toward its final word, the word that completes it. The song has become a game: the sheer joy of thinking of definitons for solfege syllables has taken over from the need to carefully express how the syllables relate to their definitions. Maria von Trapp, the protagonist who introduces the song, has dropped her pedagogical impulse and is reaffirming The Sound of Music's central premise: just by being bold and loving life, we can develop into the best people we can be.

This overstates the case. "Do-Re-Mi" is a joyful song from the beginning, and the pedagogical quality remains to some degree throughout. But there is a major change in the song's tone starting in the fifth line. In the sixth line,

La, a note to fol- low | So,
A D E F# G A B

"So" is sung on a B, rather than on its correct G. This doesn't disrupt the song's theme, as "So" isn't being defined in this line, but it shows how much joyful looseness has been injected.
("So"'s appearance here is also due to the impossibility of creating any mnemonic definition for "La," let alone one that rhymes appropriately!)

Like "Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!", "Do-Re-Mi" undergoes an emotional transformation. In "Let it Snow!", the transformation (from physical coziness to love) was mostly the work of the lyrics; here, the music does more of the work.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi I'm doing a detailed analysis of this song. i have to analyse the musical aspects of this song and i can't seem to find anyone who could help me..
i have to explain what form the musical song is in (so like ABA, ABCA..)
if you could help me that would be great!

9:10 PM  

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