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How Disney Film Music Has Evolved Over the Decades: From Snow White to Frozen

Updated on May 27, 2014
SerenityHalo profile image

Andrea loves to write on the zodiac, Myers Briggs, and texting. She is an expert on romance and relationships. She also has two cats.

After all the acclaim for Disney's Frozen and the mega hit Let It Go, I decided it was time to do a history lesson on how Disney music has changed over the seasons, what we may have forgotten, and how Disney redefined animated film with musical numbers in as early of days as Snow White and Fantasia.

Snow White was the first full length animated film. It was also the first film to release a soundtrack album. The songs were composed by Frank Churchill and Larry Morey. Disney wanted this film so bad that he had to mortgage his house to help finance the film's production, which eventually ran up a total cost of $1,488,422.74, in 1937. This was an ungodly sum back then. Five hundred voices were tested for the film which was eventually broken down into nine parts (the seven dwarves, the Queen, and Snow herself.)

"In cartoons, all sounds are recorded before the cameras begin to turn. These sounds are later synchronized with movements and charted on the basis of units of time. Since twenty-four “frames,” of separate pictures run through the projector every second, action and sound effects must be timed accordingly. Each beat of music is timed by an electrical metronome, and everything else is related to these beats." (The Making of Snow White)

Adriana Caselotti is the hauntingly familiar voice of Snow White. Disney didn't want her voice to be used anywhere else so as not to lose the magic. This is the only voice with the speedy vibrato, jazzy operatic voice. It has a certain texture that none of the other princesses would repeat, most Disney princesses are lyric sopranos. Snow White was an A coloratura soprano.

Musicals were prominent in the 30s and a big part of the cinema market. Wizard of Oz was released the same year, and Judy Garland is still praised for that role several decades later. Hollywood understood the musical genre and most of the industry workers did too. They knew the leading lady needed a grand solo, because that's what happened in a musical.

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After Snow White, Disney realized the power of the voice and sought for famous voices to bring in the big bucks for his movies. Since the dawn of Disney animated films, the animators have sought to make the characters in likeness to their voice actors. This way they can match the facial gestures to their caricatures with ease. For Pinocchio, Disney's 2nd animated feature, Cliff Edwards otherwise known as "Ukulele Ike" became the famous voice behind Jiminy Cricket. He was a jazz novelty and popular for the 1930s and 1940s. Disney rejected the idea of casting Pinocchio as an adult so they cast a real boy, no pun intended. The soundtrack for Pinocchio won an academy award. As well, "When You Wish Upon a Star" became one of the biggest legendary songs for the whole of the franchise.


Walt Disney was inspired to create a sound cartoon after watching The Jazz Singer, the first film to have sound. Disney had intended for Mickey Mouse to be the new star character to replace Oswald the Lucky Rabbit after he lost the rights to the character. Steamboat Willie in 1928 was his first to have sound, which later set the path for Snow White.

An even greater feat came with Fantasia in 1940, where the original film consisted of eight animated segments set to classical music as conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Seven of these arrangements were performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra. The eight original pieces included:

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach

Nutcracker Suite by Pyoty Ilyich Tchaikovsky

The Sorcerer's Apprentice by Paul Dukas

Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky

Intermission / Meet the Soundtrack

The Pastoral Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven

Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli

Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky and Ave Maria by Franz Schubert.

Just in reading the titles, it is evident that Disney wanted his animations to be of high art with sophisticated classical music. He wanted to go beyond the slapstick of "Silly Symphonies" and allow for shorts that instead are a place where "sheer fantasy unfolds." Stokowski recalled that he did "like the music"; was happy to collaborate on the project, and offered to conduct the piece at no cost. On September 29, 1938, around sixty of Disney's artists gathered for a two-and-a-half hour piano concert while he provided a running commentary about the new musical feature. A rough version of The Sorcerer's Apprentice was also shown that, according to one attendee, had the crowd applauding and cheering "until their hands were red." From the beginning of its development, Disney expressed the greater importance of music in Fantasia compared to his past work: "In our ordinary stuff, our music is always under action, but on this ... we're supposed to be picturing this music—not the music fitting our story." Disney had hoped that the film would bring classical music to people that, including himself, had "walked out on this kind of stuff."

Disney wanted to experiment with more sophisticated sound recording and reproduction sound techniques for Fantasia. "Music emerging from one speaker behind the screen sounds thin, tinkly and strainy. We wanted to reproduce such beautiful masterpieces ... so that audiences would feel as though they were standing at the podium with Stokowski." For the recording of The Sorcerer's Apprentice in January 1938, engineers at Disney collaborated with RCA Corporation or using multiple audio channels which allowed any desired dynamic balance to be achieved upon playback. The stage was altered acoustically with double plywood semi-circular partitions that separated the orchestra into five sections to increase reverberation. Though as the production of Fantasia developed, the setup used for The Sorcerer's Apprentice was abandoned for different multi-channel recording arrangements.

On January 18, 1939, Stokowski signed an eighteen-month contract with Disney to conduct the remaining pieces with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Recording began that April and lasted for seven weeks at the Academy of Music, the orchestra's home which was chosen for its excellent acoustics. In the recording sessions, thirty-three microphones were placed around the orchestra that captured the music onto eight optical sound recording machines placed in the hall's basement. Each one represented an audio channel that focused on a different section of instruments: cellos and basses, violins, brass, violas, and woodwinds and tympani. The seventh channel was a combination of the first six while the eighth provided an overall sound of the orchestra at a distance. A ninth was later added to provide a click track function for the animators to time their drawings to the music. In the forty-two days of recording 483,000 feet of film was used. Disney paid all the expenses which included the musician's wages, stage personnel, a music librarian, and the orchestra's manager that cost almost $18,000. When the finished recordings arrived at the studio, a meeting was held on July 14, 1939 to allow the artists working on each segment to listen to Stokowski's arrangements, and suggest alterations in the sound to work more effectively with their designs. (Recording Fantasia).

Bambi, the most realistic Disney film at the time, focused on naturalistic settings. The animation was glorified for its natural qualities. To this day it's one of the sharpest animations, but little is said, generally, of the soundtrack. In order to accompany the characters in their settings, the music played heavily on leitmotifs, common musical lines to help address emotion, change, and character. Choir anthems greet the intro, and it all has a mythical feel to it in its more mono audio recorded days. Little April Showers plays off the idea of echo and reverb, a mix of human voice and wind to set the mood of Bambi's world. Compared to the previous music of the films, this was innovative, different, and otherworldly. Critics were not super fans of Bambi when it first came out because they did not like the realism of the film; however, there are definitely moments that now in the present we can see as having clearly imaginative quality. The insanity really is that Disney was known for timing music so well with animation that the term "Mickey Mousing" came to mean just that, the synching up of animation to sound. Consider the amazing complexity of timing all the raindrops, the emotional movements of Bambi, and everything else in this little orchestra ditty.

After over a decade, Disney studios returned to the princess driven story in hopes of reviving themselves from near bankruptcy, this would occur several other times in Disney history when a princess driven movie would restore the status quo.

For the first time, Walt turned to Tin Pan Allley song writers to write songs. The music of Tin Pan Alley would later become a recurring theme in Disney animation. Cinderella was the first Disney film to have its songs published and copyrighted by the newly created Walt Disney Music Company. Before movie soundtracks became marketable, movie songs had little residual value to the film studio that owned them. They were often sold off to established music companies for sheet music publication.

"Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" became a hit single four times, with notable versions by Perry Como and the Fontane Sisters. Ilene Woods beat exactly 309 girls for the part of Cinderella. Demo recordings of her singing a few of the film's songs, meant only for her friends, were presented to Walt Disney. She had no idea she was auditioning for the part until Disney contacted her; she initially made the recordings, her friends had sent them to Disney without her knowledge. Reportedly, Disney thought Woods had the right "fairy tale" tone to her voice.

During production, Walt Disney pioneered the use of double tracked vocals for the song "Sing Sweet Nightingale", before it had been used by artists in studio recordings such as the Beatles. When Ilene Woods had completed the days recording of "Sing Sweet Nightingale", Walt listened and asked her if she could sing harmony with herself. She was apprehensive about the idea as it was unheard of; though she ended up singing the double recording, including second and third part harmonies.

Alice in Wonderland used a number of directors to make different sequences for the film. Due to the highly surreal nature of the film, Disney commissioned several of the 1950s more famous songwriters to do songs; of course, many of them were not used. Alice in Wonderland boasts as having the most songs of any Disney film, except many of these songs only last a number of seconds. Such an odd switch in creative construction as compared to the deliberate classical presentation with Fantasia. Alice in Wonderland was not a big hit at the time of its premiere. It was a touch too ahead of its time. During the 60s and 70s, the film became associated with drug culture, and this brought in a new interpretation of looking at the film... which made it more successful than when Disney himself was living. The Alice in Wonderland songs are not near as popularized as some of its predecessors or the ones to come after.

Where there is a noticeable shift in music style for Disney films, comes with Lady and the Tramp in 1955. Sure, there is still the choir like resonance featured in the older films, but there is a shift in genre. It is a soft subtle switch with jazz, which if you haven't noticed with other films in the 50s from Disney -- is a dominate force. Peggy Lee as a songwriter helped to create the soundtrack. The songs have a more pop rhythmic feel to them. Of course, there's ballad like songs such as the one that accompanies the famous spaghetti dinner scene. Considering most other Disney films relied more on high art musical compositions, symphonies, opera, and classical arrangements -- the rise of jazz in Alice in Wonderland and Lady and the Tramp shows a different zeitgeist. Disney films reflect musical tastes adopted by film cultures at the time. Granted, it makes sense for their to be a change in musical arrangement for a romantic comedy about dogs. Why bring in Bach and Debussy for a more toned down narrative? It's more playful music, and is dotted with 1950s charm. Consider the voice of Tramp and the feel good conservative culture of the '50s vs. the voice acting for Pinocchio, a time close to World War II and radio dramas. Disney imparts with sound what appears fresh, rather than sticking stubbornly to past forms. They constantly are looking to be innovative, while catering to traditions that consistently work. It's a tough balance act.

Sleeping Beauty, surprisingly, did not have the opening initial critical acclaim that Snow White and Cinderella did. This caused the company to avoid fairy tale narratives in animation till the Little Mermaid in 1989 (I suppose we could argue that Robin Hood is a fairy tale narrative). Perhaps Sleeping Beauty was too old fashioned compared to the jazz themes the previous films had established. Sleeping Beauty, of course, eventually met with money garnering success, but some of these Disney films did not hit that till later with future releases and new audiences. Some of these films honestly were ahead of their time. Sleeping Beauty mostly was the adapted version of the ballet from Tchaikovsky. The fairy tale narrative, like many of the others, comes from a number of source materials and is difficult to trace. It is featured with the Grimm Brothers and can be taken further back to Perceforest. Darker than almost any film, with a prince who looks strikingly similar to Prince Charming from Snow White and Cinderella, and a princess with the same character actress -- the film may have had one of the most sophisticated film soundtracks period. The level of voice for Aurora sounds mature, way more mature than a teenager generally will, and meets more opera than Broadway (Broadway Disney would hit about the time of Little Mermaid). Nominated for a musical score, in stereophonic (rather than mono), the score does have a beauty unmet. Of course, it has a magical quality to it that is haunting in nature -- sincerely darker than many to follow. But of course, it is attempting to adapt a ballet into an animated art, and that is a fairly impressive challenge.

To help it be better understood, Tchaikovsky was a Russian composer who lived from 1840-1893. He wrote for symphonies, operas, ballets, chamber music, and concertos. If you know anything about Russian art whether in fiction, music, film, or art -- it is usually complicated, merging together several ideas, as if in polynarratives. As for fiction, Russian novels were the kings of bridging together several plots that were on appearance quite disconnected from each other. This may seem rather tangent, but Russian art is in the background of this film. And just a fun factoid, but they are the inventors of "the montage" in film art. Russian music focused less on the idea of a focalized motion, rather the inertia of a particular idea, opening up art to a velocity generally not found or felt in the West. Tchaikovsky is less about harmony and more on counterfoiling the melody. The key is repetition; to stay focused on a pattern or a handful of notes to play while drifting toward other various complexities. Without the key note repetitions, like leitmotifs, the music would more than likely be too disparate, generally speaking, to keep the audience tuned in. The music is not intended to be a passive experience, rather works well to act as foreground music. Sleeping Beauty did not suffer from wallpaper music, essentially. The music is highly attuned to what is happening in the visual department. Take for instance the Spindle scene and how much more creepy it is with sound leading it; the forest scene with Aurora singing has musical accompaniment behind it that all works together (unlike Frozen, where I must say, the musical accompaniment to Let It Go is a mess.)

Helene Stanley, the character model for Sleeping Beauty among many others

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During the 60s, we see some intriguing transitions. The company, for one, ends up losing Walt Disney to lung cancer (he was a prolific smoker). There were three animated films, 101 Dalmatians, Sword and the Stone, and the Jungle Book. 101 Dalmatians only featured 3 songs, and what of the others? These three films are lighthearted. Why, they do feature quite a bit more sound effects along with the music and also talking. It's in a sharper sense of recording, and there's more texture to what is happening in the sound design overall. Sure, it might not have the musical centered motifs like previous installments. Overall, the songs are more upbeat. These films are trying to keep the viewers in a positive frame of mind, and jazz has definitely got a nice focal advantage such as in The Jungle Book. The songs for The Jungle Book were intended to be fun, as requested by Disney. It probably has the most nonsense language in music in any Disney film. This was a highly successful film and the last for Disney to produce before death. I consider it somewhat bittersweet that his last film ended on a rather joyous note.



The 70s and 80s were not considered a particularly strong era for Disney animated features. There are some notable favorites during this time for me, but with the advent of Disney World and the death of Walt Disney, things were changing and the direction was difficult to really garner crowds and artistic claim like in previous generations. Jazz notably still takes a stand, considering the most well known hit from Aristocats "Ev'rybody Wants to Be a Cat."

Robin Hood has a 70s feel to it, with the songs sounding like the Carpenters, or a love ballad; I mean the film literally has a song called "Love." The songs have a touch of electric guitar and old fashioned folk music. It was the 70s; it was a transitional time in music and figuring out where to put that in Disney form... could not have been easy. This is replicated somewhat in Rescuers, considering the folk like music used, especially while in the Louisiana parts. The same type of Folk is also used in Fox and the Hound.

Then we have the blackout period. The Black Cauldron in 1985 is one of the least popularized Disney films, with no major voiced song. Disney frowns upon this film because they spent a great deal of time on it, but the product ended up being attacked by critiques and a financial failure. I can't even remember the film, and it wasn't given a home video release till several years later. Disney was scared to pieces. They had Oliver and Company and The Great Mouse Detective, but what really was the shift was a focus in animation that led to a Renaissance. The jazz and folk and sweet ballad -- turned into a whole new universe, starting with The Little Mermaid.

Howard Ashman was the think tank that helped Disney come alive. His talents in storytelling revitalized the company. Disney in the 90s had an edge unlike the past few decades due to Howard Ashman and Alan Menken from The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Lion King, Pocahontas, Mulan, Hercules, and Tarzan. These were explosive musicals, many of which became musicals. They used popular voices, like Robin Williams for the Genie, they had full accompaniment, and it had a rich, colorful sound. Steel drums in the Little Mermaid, harps in Beauty and the Beast, the middle eastern sounds in Aladdin -- the company was revolutionized -- then lost that spark in the 2000s with the competitive world of 3D animation.

Howard Ashman believed that the focus should be on character. He wanted the animators to see that in Broadway, there was usually a solo piece from a female voice in her introspection -- a key part in The Little Mermaid. This solo focuses became huge in the 90s, instead of just seeing music as the background, they were tent poles for the film in where it would need to go. These became musical productions, with accompanying music.

So what happened after the 90s? A series of back to back sequels, to the groans of many. They were trying to make money off franchises rather than create something new, and most of these sequels, if not all, were like the ugly step children. Also, this was a time of competing against Pixar and other 3D animations film, and so the competition was tight in being matched up against the new forms of technology. The notable musicals didn't come till Tangled and Frozen, which again were darling films focusing on the life of a princess. Now did these two films have the kind of allure like the 90s renaissance or were they just formula? What makes these newer films seem slightly lacking in comparison? Even Let It Go, the non stop anthem taking over the Internet, doesn't quite greet me with the same touch as previous films, and may, per chance, be that even though these songs have great vocal quality -- the accompanying background music is a competitive mess. Let It Go is insane when listening to it without the vocals, and in comparison, it is not a friendly song for young girls to take on for any kind of audition, where the previous songs, Part of Your World, Reflection, Colors of the Wind, are great songs for girls to take on and learn. How in the world is a young girl to sound like Idina Menzel? They may have gotten lost in the dream of creating a song meant for Broadway, to dazzle the audience, except it is lacking in that previous songs honestly had a better mixdown with the symphony, and were more in tune to the hearts of little girls by presenting them with material that -- is far more achievable.

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    • MariaExcala profile image

      MariaExcala 46 hours ago from Germany

      very informative, great hub!

    • SerenityHalo profile image
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      Andrea Lawrence 3 years ago from Chicago

      It is a hard song, I would suggest in the future she learn some more songs because it's going to get used a lot and judges are going to tire of it fast. Some judges are going to be harder on the song for that reason, and it does shift around in being flat and sharp a tad much. The more variety she tries and lessons, the better. I got stuck on Phantom of the Opera when I was younger, which is hard but perhaps easier to control. The 90s Disney songs are honestly the best fit for young girls, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are a tad mature.

    • Learn Things Web profile image

      Learn Things Web 3 years ago from California

      My daughter just sang Let It Go for a talent show. It took a lot of time to learn and perfect. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. The song may be less accessible than other Disney songs. But putting in the time and effort to learn it has its own benefits. And it's such a loved song many girls are more than happy to make that effort.

    • Meisjunk profile image

      Jennifer Kessner 3 years ago from Pennsylvania

      This is quite frankly, just fascinating! I love where your research took you. The information I learned here will stick with me, that's for sure!

      I think I am going to disagree with you about Let It Go; it IS a song for little girls. For ALL girls. It's kind of the whole point of the song. It's sung more by people than any Disney song ever has been, all over the world.

      I agree that Idina is the epitome of the worst shoes to follow/fill! She's so perfect, right?

      But this song isn't sung just to sound good. (Hell, I've NEVER sounded good, whether singing Part of Your World, A Whole New World, or I Just Can't Wait To Be King. I just sang!)

      It's a song of empowerment! Of self-assertion! It's for every girl.

      I have to say I enjoyed reading this. Thanks for doing all the research! Voted up and interesting. =)