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What makes a disney song a disney song?

Disney songs have been captivating audiences young and old for nearly a century. From Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 to Encanto in 2021, Disney music has left an indelible mark on popular culture. But what exactly makes a Disney song instantly recognizable as a Disney song?

Memorable Melodies

One of the most distinctive features of Disney songs is their strong, memorable melodies. Disney composers such as Alan Menken, the Sherman Brothers, and Lin-Manuel Miranda have crafted songs with sweeping melodies that get stuck in your head. Songs like “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid, “A Spoonful of Sugar” from Mary Poppins, and “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana have melodies that are catchy, singable, and recognizable after just one listen.

Disney melodies often use repeated phrases or motifs that allow the listener to latch onto and memorize the tune. There are also many instances of melodic sequences that gradually build in intensity and drama, drawing the listener into the emotion of the song.

Meaningful Lyrics

In addition to hummable melodies, Disney lyrics also play a huge role in cementing songs into the cultural lexicon. From “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” to “Let It Go,” Disney songs often have lyrics that are simple and easy to remember, yet carry deeper meaning and resonance with audiences.

Disney lyricists are masters of conveying big ideas and emotions through clear, concise language that can be understood by both children and adults. Songs like “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” from Toy Story and “Remember Me” from Coco pack an emotional punch because the lyrics speak to universal human experiences and feelings in a direct, poetic way.

Connection to Story and Characters

Disney songs are also inextricably linked to the stories and characters of the films they come from. In the best Disney songs, the lyrics and melodies appropriately match the personality and emotional journey of the character singing. For example, “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid perfectly captures Ariel’s longing and curiosity about the human world above.

The songs move the story forward and provide insight into the inner lives of the characters. They are used strategically to set the scene, narrate action, and allow characters to express feelings they may not otherwise be able to articulate. This connection between music and storytelling is a key ingredient that sets Disney songs apart.

Optimistic Tone

While Disney films explore serious themes and emotions, the musical numbers maintain a hopeful, optimistic perspective. There is frequently uplifting imagery in the lyrics that encourages listeners to persevere through hardship and believe in themselves.

Even slower, darker ballads like “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” from The Lion King and “When She Loved Me” from Toy Story 2 contain glimmers of light in the midst of sadness. This positive quality in Disney music acts as an emotional boost for audiences.

Use of Leitmotifs

Many Disney scores use leitmotifs – recurring musical themes or phrases associated with a particular character, location or idea. For example, in Beauty and the Beast, Belle has her own lilting leitmotif on piano that plays whenever she is on screen. The Beast has a brassy leitmotif conveying his inner torment.

These instrumental motifs return throughout the film, providing musical continuity and subtly underscoring the emotions on screen. The frequent reuse of memorable melodic leitmotifs helps create cohesion between Disney songs and enhances the cinematic storytelling.

Big Broadway Influences

Broadway musical traditions have heavily influenced the style and structure of classic Disney songs. Composers like Howard Ashman, who wrote songs for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, brought their Broadway expertise to Disney. This is evident in the use of techniques like the “I Want” song where a character sings about their hopes and dreams.

The jazz-inflected songs of composers like Randy Newman also have echoes of musical theater and vaudeville. Disney frequently partners with Broadway lyricists and composers like Tim Rice, Robert Lopez, and Kristen Anderson-Lopez to create musical movie magic.

Iconic Instrumentation

From the very first Disney cartoon shorts, music has been an integral part of the Disney magic. The Silly Symphonies series of animated musical shorts produced in the 1930s established the Disney sound with instrumental highlights like jazz clarinets, vibraphones, and marimbas.

Later films featured lush symphonic arrangements, doo-wop choruses, calypso beats, and more to create a diverse musical palette. But no matter the genre, Disney songs are marked by expert orchestration and instrumental diversity that adds color and interest to songs.

Killer Choruses

One of the most distinctive features of classic Disney songs is a booming chorus. Songs are frequently structured to build to an epic, show-stopping chorus where dozens of voices belt out layered vocal harmonies. A great examples is “The Circle of Life” from The Lion King.

The chorus provides musical power and emotional release to complement the message and energy of the lyrics. Big choruses allow groups of characters to come together in song, and also enable audiences to joyously sing along.

Animation and Visuals

It’s impossible to separate great Disney songs from the animated sequences they accompany. The lyrics, melody and visuals work together seamlessly thanks to Walt Disney’s innovative approach of storyboarding animated films to music. The paintings inspired by the music then in turn inspire the soundtrack and lyrics.

The best Disney musical sequences like “A Whole New World” from Aladdin present a breathtaking interplay between music and animation. The visuals quite literally bring the music to life in magical ways that reinforce the lyrics and melody.


Disney songs have become iconic because composer teams excel at blending components like storytelling, character, melody, lyrics, instrumentation, and visuals into timeless musical masterpieces. The songs transport listeners into wondrous animated worlds while also connecting deeply with universal human emotions. After nearly a century, Disney continues to set the standard for cinematic musical storytelling and songs that touch the heart.

Decade Notable Disney Songs
1930s “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” – Three Little Pigs
1940s “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” – Song of the South
1950s “Once Upon a Dream” – Sleeping Beauty
1960s “Chim Chim Cher-ee” – Mary Poppins
1970s “The Bare Necessities” – The Jungle Book
1980s “Under the Sea” – The Little Mermaid
1990s “A Whole New World” – Aladdin
2000s “Let It Go” – Frozen
2010s “How Far I’ll Go” – Moana