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

Andrea was in the all-state choir in high school. She was in a band that was never famous. She has studied music theory & history.

History of Disney Music

One of the fascinating things when you look at Disney movies across time is how music standards have changed. What was in vogue for music in the 1930s was categorically different from the music that’s in movies today.

The following article will examine how music has changed in animated Disney movies from its earliest days with Snow White to the blockbuster hit Frozen.

The article will spend more time focusing on the earlier decades of Disney movies. The earliest movies laid down a foundation that would create standards that are still used today.

How It All Began: Steamboat Willie, 1928

Walt Disney was inspired to create a sound cartoon after watching The Jazz Singer, the first film to have sound. Disney 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 cartoon to have sound; the animation set the path for Snow White.

The First Animated Feature Film: Snow White, 1937

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. Walt Disney wanted his film so bad that he mortgaged his house to help finance the film’s production, which cost $1,488,422.74. This was an ungodly sum back in 1937. An impressive 500 people tested as voice actors for the film, which was eventually broken down into tweleve speaking parts (the seven dwarves excluding Dopey, Snow White, the Queen, the Magic Mirror, Prince Charming, the hunter, and a raven.)

In animated pictures, sounds are often recorded before visual elements are created. The sounds are later synchronized with movements. Every visual action and sound effect must be timed accordingly. Each beat of music is timed by an electrical metronome.

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 Disney voice with a speedy vibrato and 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 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 as Snow White. Judy Garland’s role as Dorothy is still considered iconic. Early Hollywood had a deep understanding of the musical genre. It was understood that to get the audience’s attention you needed to give a leading lady a grand solo, whether that was “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or “Someday My Prince Will Come”.

Disney Piano Book

Making More Animated Features; Pinocchio, 1940

After Snow White, Walt 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 in 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 most recognizable songs in the corporation's history.


The original Fantasia consisted of eight animated segments set to classical music. 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 Pyotr 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.

Disney wanted his animations to be high art. His works were often combined with classical music. He wanted to go beyond the slapstick of his Silly Symphonies series and allow for shorts that were a place where fantasy unfolds.

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. British conductor Leopold Stokowski offered to conduct for no cost.

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A rough version of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was also shown that day. According to one attendee, it 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 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. They used multiple audio channels, allowing them 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. 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.

During the recording sessions, 36 microphones were placed around the orchestra to capture 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, basses, violins, brass, violas, 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 42 days of recording, 483,000 feet of film were used.

Disney paid all the expenses which included the musician’s wages, stage personnel, a music librarian, and the orchestra’s manager, which 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.

First Ten Animated Films

MovieRelease Date

1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves

Feb 4, 1938

2. Pinocchio

Feb 7, 1940

3. Fantasia

November 13, 1940

4. Dumbo

October 23, 1941

5. Bambi

August 13, 1942

6. Saludos Amigos

February 6, 1943

7. Three Caballeros

February 3, 1945

8. Make Mine Music

August 15, 1946

9. Fun and Fancy Free

September 27, 1946

10. Melody Time

May 27, 1948

Bambi, 1942

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.

Vocals swell in the intro. There is a mythical feel to the more simplistic audio-recorded sounds. “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 scores of Disney’s animated films, Bambi's was innovative, different, and otherworldly.

Film critics were not big fans of Bambi when it first came out because they did not like the realism of the film. Today critics appreciate the skilled nuances of the animation.

FYI: Disney movies were 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 “Little April Showers”.

Cinderella, 1950

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’s history — a princess-driven movie would restore the status quo.

For the first time, Walt Disney turned to Tin Pan Alley songwriters 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. She had no idea she was auditioning for the part until Disney contacted her; she initially made the recordings, but her friends were the ones who sent them to Disney (and 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”. This was done before this technique had been used by artists in studio recordings — such as the Beatles. When Ilene Woods had completed the day's 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, 1951

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. The movie had chaotic creative construction as compared to the deliberate classical presentation of 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 was alive. The Alice in Wonderland songs are not near as popularized as some of its predecessors or the songs to come from later movies.

Lady and the Tramp, 1955

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. Jazz comes into the foray. If you haven’t noticed with other films in the ‘50s from Disney — jazz is a dominant force. Peggy Lee as a songwriter helped to create the soundtrack. The songs have a more pop rhythmic feel to them. Of course, there are ballad-like songs such as the one that accompanies the famous spaghetti dinner scene.

Considering prior 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 what was in vogue at the time. Granted, it makes sense for there to be a change in musical arrangement for a romantic comedy about dogs — that obviously should be different from fairy tales.

Why would you bring in Bach and Debussy for a narrative about everyday life? Lady and the Tramp has 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, 1959

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 more recent films had explored. Sleeping Beauty, of course, eventually met with money garnering success, but some of these Disney films did not hit that level of acclaim till future releases with new audiences. Some of these films honestly were ahead of their time. Sleeping Beauty was an adaptation of the ballet by Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

Here are a few things you might not know:

  • Sleeping Beauty’s narrative, like many other fairy tales, comes from a number of source materials and is difficult to trace. It is featured in the Grimm Brothers tales, and it can be taken further back to Perceforest.
  • It’s one of the darkest Disney animated films with a dragon, a sword-wielding prince, and a comatose princess. Maleficent was a far more formidable foe than previous villains.
  • Prince Philip looks strikingly similar to Prince Charming from Snow White and the Prince in Cinderella, but Aurora was designed to look like her character actress.

The film has one of the most sophisticated film soundtracks of all of Disney’s animated features. Aurora has a mature voice that’s strong. The music is more like opera than Broadway (Broadway Disney would hit about the time of Little Mermaid).

The movie was nominated for best scoring of a musical feature. It lost to Porgy and Bess. The score has a magical quality to it that is haunting in nature — sincerely darker than many to follow because of its focus on fairy tales.

It was an impressive challenge to adapt a ballet into animated art. For context: 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, a true reflection of polyperspectivity.

As for fiction, Russian novels were known for bridging together several plots that were on appearance quite disconnected from each other. This may seem rather tangential, but Russian art is in the background of this film. And just a fun factoid, but early Russian filmmakers were the inventors of “the montage” in cinema.

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 about counterfoiling the melody. The key is repetition: stay focused on a pattern or a handful of notes while slowly drifting toward other various complexities and alterations.

Without the repetition of certain notes, like leitmotifs, the music would more than likely be too disparate to keep the audience tuned in. The music is not intended to be a passive experience, rather it works to act as a foreground.

Sleeping Beauty didn’t have wallpaper music. The score is highly attuned to what is happening in the visual department. Take for instance the spindle scene and how creepy it is with sound lending to it. The forest scene with Aurora singing has musical accompaniment that ties things together (unlike Frozen, where I must say, I find the musical accompaniment to “Let It Go” is a disastrous mess.)

101 Dalmations; Sword and the Stone; The Jungle Book —The 1960s

During the 60s, we see some intriguing zeitgeist shifts. 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.

The three films are lighthearted. They do feature more sound effects and talking. Recording technologies improved; there is more texture to what is happening in the sound design overall. None of the movies have the defined musical-centered motifs like their predecessors.

Overall, the songs of the ’60s movies are upbeat. These films try 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 Walt himself. The movie is a contender for having the most nonsense language in lyrics in any Disney film. This was a highly successful film and the last for Disney to produce before his death. I consider it somewhat bittersweet that his last film ended on a rather joyous note.

Trouble After Disney’s Death: 1970s-1980s

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 it was hard to find direction. Jazz notably still holds the baton, considering the most well-known hit from Aristocats is “Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat”.

Robin Hood has everything ‘70s to it. Some songs sound 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. This same kind of rock n’ roll and country music shift is also seen in Rescuers, considering the folk-like music used, especially while in the Louisiana parts. Fox and the Hound plays to the laidback rustic music of rural communities.

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 sadly the product ended up being attacked by critiques and a financial failure. I can’t even remember the film. 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 the real shift to success was taking a note from Broadway. Everything started making sense again with The Little Mermaid.

Enter: Howard Ashman

Howard Ashman was the think tank that helped Disney come back from the dead. His talents in storytelling revitalized the company. Disney in the ‘90s had an unbeatable edge. This was due to Ashman and Alan Menken initiating an era of successful features: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Lion King, Pocahontas, Mulan, Hercules, and Tarzan. These were explosive musicals, many of which became real stage musicals.

They used popular voices, like Robin Williams for the Genie, they had full accompaniment, and the movies had rich, colorful sounds. Steel drums in the Little Mermaid, harps in Beauty and the Beast, the Middle Eastern sounds in Aladdin — the company was revolutionized — then it 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. The focus on solos was huge in the ‘90s. Instead of just seeing music as part of the background, they were tent poles for the film’s narrative.

The Unfortunate 2000s

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 creating something new. Most of these sequels, if not all, were ugly stepchildren. Also, this was a time of tight competition against Pixar and other 3D animation companies.

Disney eventually stopped making films with traditional animation techniques and opted for computer animation. Princess and the Frog was the last traditionally animated film.

The Early 2010s, Overhyped Movies

A year later after Princess and the Frog was released, Tangled was released. Frozen ended up causing another renissance in 2013.

Now did Tangled and Frozen have the kind of allure that the ‘90s renaissance movies had or were the new movies mechanical and formulaic? What makes these newer films seem slightly lacking in comparison? I can’t quite put my finger on it. Perhaps in going digital Disney lost a little bit of its soul. Maybe it’s because films that used to have some darkness to them were repelled by conservatives who only want movies that are squeaky clean and non-offensive. I mean, compare the absolute insanity that a demon was featured in Fantasia to the feel good humor of animated films since 2010.

FYI: Chernabog is the demon in the “Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria” segment of Fantasia. The demon is based on the “God of the Night” in Slavic mythology.

Let’s think about Frozen for a moment. “Let It Go” was literally playing everywhere at one point. The vocal track is incredible, yet imperfect. The accompanying background music, however, is a competitive mess. There are piano and string parts that seem unaware of the melody Idina Menzel serves. About 45 seconds into the track there is a sloppy and sudden transition to a bridge.

In some sections, there is way too much reliance on piano and no other instrumental part. It all sounds computerized and hokey. The percussion almost sounds like it’s just a metronome. The percussion is an attempt to lock down the music.

At about 1:45, you’re getting music treatment that sounds like hold music. Seriously, take out Menzel’s voice, and it sounds like you’re on hold with your eye doctor as they scramble to figure out your insurance plan.

Actually, my least favorite part of the song starts around 2:30. There is an interlude that sounds like the wait music during a game show when a contestant is given time to come up with an answer. From here, the musical accompaniment and Menzel are in two different universes. The lyrics also don’t fit with the phrasing. It sounds like Menzel is forcing the words “frozen fractals” to fit the music, and because she is a queen, she can sort of do it.

The song keeps building and building, and by 3:00 minutes, there isn’t anymore room to build. Menzel is at her full volume, perhaps beyond it. She tries to give the song rhythm by punctuating the lyrics — and mind you, she does this rather forcefully. Then we get an out of pitch note for the highest note of the song at the end of the phrase “Let the storm rage on!” That note is obviously in an awkward register for her voice. Then we have this absolutely ridiculous ending that’s in a childish sing-song voice: “The cold never bothered me anyway.”

“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 sing, whether as an audition piece or at home. “Part of Your World”, “Reflection”, and “Colors of the Wind”, are all great songs for girls to learn and develop basic vocal skills.

How in the world is a young girl supposed to sound like Idina Menzel? Disney may have gotten lost in the dream of creating a song meant for Broadway. “Let It Go” lacks what previous songs had — a better mixdown with a symphony, lyrics that matched the rhythms, and tunes that little girls could achieve with their voices.

It’s amazing to me that Frozen became a monolith. It’s a lot of glitz and glamour, but it doesn’t have the musical prowess and finese of earlier movies. Walt Disney wasn’t at the helm to turn it into a masterpiece, and I do think he would be rolling in his grave if he heard the song. I think with more time, Frozen will be criticized heavily for its score. Hopefully, things will get better with computer animated musicals.

I mean, things are already getting better. We’re now in the Lin-Manuel Miranda era with Moana and Encanto.

© 2014 Andrea Lawrence


Andrea Lawrence (author) on September 16, 2017:

Thank you, I always appreciate the feedback.

MariaExcala from Germany on August 21, 2017:

very informative, great hub!

Andrea Lawrence (author) on May 28, 2014:

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.

LT Wright from California on May 28, 2014:

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.

Jennifer Kessner from Pennsylvania on May 28, 2014:

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. =)

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