Composer Talks About the Impact Music Has on Beloved Animated Favorites

July 24, 2017

Since he was a little kid in the small town of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, James Bohn has loved music.

“I was the kind of kid who played a lot of instruments — piano, cello, trombone, baritone, bass — and as a result, I didn’t play any of them particularly well,” Bohn said. “In my teen years, I gradually moved to wanting to write music instead.”

After earning his bachelors in composition from the University of Wisconsin in 1992, and his masters in composition from the University of Illinois in 1997, Bohn began working as a lecturer at UMass-Dartmouth in 1999.

He moved to New Bedford 15 years ago, he said, and has worked as a composer, independent researcher, instructor at Bristol Community College and Rhode Island College, and currently teaches at both Stonehill College and Bridgewater State University.

After more than six years of research, his academic book, “Music in Disney’s Animated Features: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to The Jungle Book” has been released.

I caught up with Bohn recently to talk Disney.

Daley: How important is music to a Disney film’s success?

BohnMusic is essential to Disney’s animated films, particularly the early ones. These movies often feature nearly continuous music. In films before “Cinderella” ... the music was planned in advance of any animation. The songs are central to the establishment of character, as well as to the relating of plot.

Daley: As a composer, what are a few of your favorite Disney songs?

Bohn: In “Pinocchio,” “When You Wish Upon a Star” is interesting because there is some melodic dissonance that doesn’t fully resolve until the final version of the song in the movie, and in that sense, it mirrors the idea of a wish becoming true.

“Sing Sweet Nightingale” is lyrically one of the least interesting songs you’ll ever hear, but the way the song is used in “Cinderella” establishes the title character as a person who survives a somewhat brutal existence by having a rich interior life, through her imagination.

“My Own Home,” in “The Jungle Book,” is one of the most depressing songs in any Disney film. The greatest dream of the girl who sings it is that someday she’ll grow up to have a daughter so she can make her daughter fetch water, just as she has to now. It is a sobering story about a society where people, women in particular, have few options to aspire to a better life.

Daley: I grew up in “The Little Mermaid”/“Aladdin”/“Lion King” generation — we had the movies, and the sound tracks on CD... What were your favorite Disney movies as a kid?

BohnWhen I was a kid, there was no such thing as VHS. The only time you’d see Disney films was in the theater, or more rarely on television...

My family went to see “Pete’s Dragon”on New Year’s Eve, 1977. We immediately saw it a second time, and it quickly became a family favorite. We bought the soundtrack, which was the closest thing you could get to VHS in those days, and listened to it over and over.

Daley: What’s your favorite Disney movie now?

BohnI’d pick the film that started it all: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” I don’t think there’s any single narrative film that so artfully combines music and animation.

Daley: Has Disney music has changed since the Walt era?

BohnCertainly, but it changed even during Walt’s time —“101 Dalmatians” was released 19 years after Bambi, and there’s a tremendous difference between those two scores.

Daley: What do you make of the music in “Moana” or “Frozen”?

BohnI still haven’t seen “Moana,” though I hope to soon, but I think “Frozen” is a wonderful movie...

While the music for Frozen is very different from anything from Walt’s lifetime, the score indicates just how important songs and songwriting still are to Disney’s animated films. The songs in “Frozen” help establish character and relate the narrative as well as those in any Disney film from Walt’s lifetime.