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Music's Referential Potential

In Disney & the Moral Imagination, following his chapter with D. J. Culp Jr. on the Moral Magic of a Disney Musical, Jeremy E. Scarbrough pivots toward an investigation of music’s referential potential—pressing into the significant role that music may play in the moral imagination and drawing out Disney’s ability to exploit such power. I first argue that the aesthetic nature of musical reference is far more significant than that for which it tends to receive credit. I then contend that the aesthetic and moral realms of experience are connected, and I suggest that the profundity of musical reference is intimately intertwined with the moral significance of value convictions. This profound relationship includes two paradigms—imaginative references and theologically intuitive references. Concerning the latter, I suggest that, on a deeply subliminal level, it may actually be our desire for justice, in the most robust sense (i.e., just-ness; the conviction of a way-it-ought-to-be), which moves us when music is experienced and embodied.

The view that music’s greatest value lies beyond form and experience per se and within extra-musical symbolism was largely ignored in mainstream twentieth-century analytic thought. Yet it survived in the twentieth-century film industry.... [and] Disney capitalized on the power and potential of musical reference. Valuing artistic imagination over trained interpretation, Fantasia showed that even absolute music provokes the imagination, and that musical and visual references can enhance one another. Referential symbolism can be simple or complex, and it is applied in a number of ways in programmatic music. It may involve intra-musical, diegetic motifs (music within the narrative, heard by the characters), such as the festival music which moves Rapunzel to dance in Tangled, or Naveen’s cover of Dippermouth Blues which catches Louis’s attention in The Princess and the Frog . Or it may involve inter-musical ideas (referencing extant ideas, or motifs). For example, there is a musical reference to “Dies Irae” [a reference to Final Judgment] in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as Frollo condemns a Gypsy. Though it is a lyrical reference, and not the iconic musical motif, the Dies Irae chant, meaning “day of wrath,” has a long history of musical significance. (A reference to the iconic musical motif can be heard in “King of Pride Rock” from The Lion King score, as the long-awaited return of the rightful king is also a day of judgment for those who brought injustice to the Pride Lands). Another example can be seen at the beginning of The Three Caballeros, when there is a musical reference to the theme song from its preceding film, “Saludos Amigos.” Finally, program music is especially known for its extra-musical symbolism. This may include leitmotifs, imitating sounds of nature, word painting; or musically significant cultural representations—whether foreign or nationalistic. When Mary Poppins sings “the medicine go down” for the second time, in each chorus, her pitch slides downward. In this case, the word painting is clear. In other cases, it may be more suggestive. At the end of “Let It Go,” when Elsa belts, “Let the storm rage on!” we notice that her vibrato has built increasingly throughout the song and she is now “letting it go”—that is, the fullness of her voice. Indeed, now it seems to be “raging like a storm,” as she continues to sustain that powerful note.
....While examples abound, Frozen II offers the best insight. In this film, the fifth spirit has its own leitmotif, as does the river.... The greatest moment of symbolism occurs in the song “Show Yourself,” with the coming together of leitmotifs (since the river is key to the spirit’s location) and within the growing statement of power (both orchestral and vocal) at the song’s climactic ending, as Elsa embraces a newfound truth concerning her connection to the fifth spirit. Until this point, the gentle call always presented itself (in another’s voice) with minimal vibrato, but now, as Elsa accepts the fullness of her power and purpose, we hear this motif transformed by the fullness of her own unmistakable timbre and vibrato.
Disney films illustrate well music’s referential power in general, but there is still a deeper potential for reference which I believe many Disney musicals exemplify—a reference to our own convictions of and desire for moral order....

This post is meant simply to offer a glimpse into our Disney & Apologetics project. Excerpts alone, however, cannot stand for an entire chapter, nor can they stand as representative for all the other ideas to be explored and arguments to be made in this 500-pp, two-volume work. There is much more to ponder within these pages! If you want to think more carefully about morality, about using the formative artifacts of pop-culture to approach Christian apologetics, and about the connections between imagination, aesthetics, and theology, buy this book! You can see what others say about it here and here.


Jeremy E. Scarbrough holds a PhD in music (emphasis in philosophy, namely concerning the intersection of aesthetics, ethics, and education) from the University of Mississippi, an MA in Christian Apologetics, an MA in Theological Studies, an MME in Music Education, and a BA in Music (Vocal Performance). He has taught music and philosophy at the high school and college levels. He currently serves as Associate Professor of Philosophy for Pasco-Hernando State College, just north of Tampa, FL. He has contributed a chapter on heavy metal in Music, Theology, and Justice (Lexington Books, 2017) and a chapter on Marvel Comics’ Venom in Theology and the Marvel Universe (Lexington Books, 2019). His teleological philosophy of music (and its connection to our deep-seated convictions of justice) has been published (2022) in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, an international journal of interdisciplinary and interfaith dialogue.

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