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The Musicology of “Let It Go”

The Musicology of "Let It Go"

If you live with a child under the age of eight, especially though not exclusively if that child is female, you are already an expert on the subject of “Frozen,” whether you like it or not. (At this point, I can quote it at a length once reserved for “Miller’s Crossing” and “Raising Arizona.”) That goes especially for its songs, which I’ve been listening to several breakfasts a week for the last six months. 

Even if you love “Frozen’s” songs, or have at least given in to them, the repetition can be numbing. So it’s a relief to find, via Dorian Lynskey’s essay on the movie’s Oscar-winning ballad, “Let It Go,” this analytical dissection by Williams College musicologist W. Anthony Sheppard. (Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who wrote “Frozen’s” lyrics, is class of ’94.) In addition to breaking down the way the song moves from minor-key desperation to major-chord triumph, he looks at how the songwriters use a circular melodic phrase to subtly embody Elsa’s “swirling storm inside,” and how the prevalence of negative words in the lyrics — “five ‘don’t’s, four ‘never’s and three ‘no’s” — underlines that Elsa’s liberation is rooted in rejection: She’s only free as long as she’s alone. (Although I’ve only got a few abandoned instruments and a couple half-remembered semesters of music theory under my belt, I’m fairly certain that pattern holds for the film as a whole: Elsa’s cheery, upbeat sister, Anna, sings in free-flowing major-key melodies, while Elsa counters with gloomy, minor-key responses.)

Sheppard throws in some cinematic analysis for free as well, noting, for example, how as Elsa trudges up the mountainside the the snow blows from left to right but the camera swoops from right to left, the only pushing against her progress, the other pulling her more forcefully ahead. 

“Frozen” isn’t going away anytime soon: A friend recently returned from Disneyworld, where the gift shop had a strict limit of five “Frozen”-related items to a customer, and was sold out anyway. So if we’re going to keep listening — and we most certainly are — we might as well pick up a few pointers along the way. 

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