The role of music in the Walt Disney classic Beauty and the Beast is one of communication and emphasis. Drawing inspiration from a variety of different styles, the soundtrack attempts to inspire a plethora of emotions from its listener, be it plaintive circumstances to joyful happenings. Each piece serves some purpose, and ,whether to highlight the grandiosity of a character’s ideals or the absurdity of a situation, the score is intended to advance the narrative of the story at a brisk and entertaining pace all the while signifying especially important moments within it.
Though notably less sinister and distressing than the original French film, La Belle et la bête, music is employed much more effectively in the Disney rendition. Subsequently, the music certainly benefits from the exaggerated character animations and use of color that serves to draw the audience in. Disney, with the technological advantage, is capable of this captivation by creating more of a sensory experience than the original, which generally used music only to create dramatic tension. This discrepancy is immediately noticeable from the 1991 rendition’s explosive opening number “Belle.” Coincidentally, “Belle” is a song that is inspired by French and classical music while incorporating elements from Broadway that are apparent in its relatively energetic scene. The texture of the song is very light, and similar to an operetta in some respects.
The song itself is played in D major, a key that is very warm in its sound. It is indicative of Belle’s life prior to the events of the movie. Belle is a safe, if not somewhat sheltered, young woman who adamantly defies the anti-intellectualism that is pervasive in her village. She proudly expresses her desire to learn, to grow, and to adventure, despite the ridicule that she faces. To the village, Belle’s only acknowledgeable quality is her stunning beauty. The audience is also introduced to Gaston. Gaston is the film’s primary antagonist who is a caricature of chauvinistic masculinity who desires Belle’s hand in marriage because of her beauty. In addition, the village idolizes and respects him despite his insufferable narcissism.
“Belle” is exemplary because it encapsulates the role of music in Beauty and the Beast so eloquently, and the music communicates the primary conflict that Belle experiences with rare breaks for normal dialogue supported by the melody. In what feels like a blazingly brief five minutes, the audience is made privy to the troubles within Belle’s life, her characterization, and her longing to escape the mundane expectations of her village. In this instance, the music is absolutely progressing the narrative of the story in an engaging way and yet not missing a beat in regards to explaining why Belle feels the way she does and why the audience should feel the same way. All of this is communicated to the audience within the context of the song with rare spoken interjection.
Following “Belle” is, fittingly, “Gaston”. Having seen the world from Belle’s perspective, the audience is then introduced to Gaston more intimately, and the song is immediately representative of Gaston’s character. His world is figuratively himself. Still stinging from the recent rejection of his proposal to Belle, “Gaston” is a galvanizing song that is as boisterous as its namesake, whereas “Belle” is expressive of so much more and namely her hopes and dreams, rather than her supposed superiority to virtually everyone else. The audience can never learn anything more about the shockingly shallow Gaston. Hence, the song’s repetition within itself reiterates that no one is as good as Gaston for nearly three minutes. Essentially, the role of music is visible when contrasting these two pieces: the songs are more or less lyrical and melodic manifestations of the characters, which is apparent from simply looking at the titles.
The music surely serves more purpose than fleshing out a character and detailing their motivations. Once Belle travels to the Beast’s castle in place of her father, she encounters an assortment of enchanted objects that stage an elaborate production of dinner. “Be Our Guest” is a vehicle for explaining the destitution and loneliness of the castle’s inhabitants and its master and their own longing for companionship and usage. Beyond that, the staff-turned-objects want Belle to feel welcome in the ominous and foreboding palace because she, in her tremendous courage, is their last hope of ever having their humanity restored and the Beast’s only chance at both redemption and freedom from his curse. In tandem with the film’s imagery, the music is able to convincingly display the staff’s despondency with specific melodic phrases within the piece. As a whole, the piece fluctuates from a consistent line in order to demonstrate this shift in tone, both musically and in the actual animation.
Despite all of the information that is given in the aforementioned songs, the eponymous “Beauty and the Beast” is the culmination of nearly everything in Belle and the Beast’s developing relationship. It is a touching ballad that reveals both Belle and the Beast have overcome the initial hardships of the circumstances of their meeting, “Beauty and the Beast” is a song that would require no visual aid to discern its meaning and indeed hardly any of the scores within the film; however, “Beauty and the Beast” especially invokes the growing love between the two characters and the unexpected situation that they have suddenly found themselves in. It is a very straightforward melody with relatively simple lyrics, and it highlights that their relationship is, ultimately, meant to be.
The majority of the important pieces in the film involve lyrics, and this is not to suggest that the scores lacking lyrics bear no importance on the film, but instead they provide less concrete insight into the narrative and, while capable of inspiring a specific feeling, would most likely require the animation to be contextualized. Much like the original film, the pieces in these scenes such as “Battle on the Tower” or “The Beast Lets Belle Go” seek to foster dramatic tension. Nevertheless, without the visual element, it would be questionable as to what specifically they intend to communicate to the audience rather than a vague feeling of stress or disappointment with a character’s actions. Notably, “Belle” and “Beauty and the Beast” are the most integral musical pieces of the film, and, because of the two main characters’ development, the audience’s attention is essentially captivated. The information in these two songs especially reflect the growth and tribulations that both characters experience and will go on to struggle against. This tension culminates particularly in the film’s climaxing musical number “The Mob Song” wherein the Beast faces off against Gaston and later denouement of “Human Again” as the Beast is released from his curse.
Beauty and the Beast incorporates music in a fashion that is hardly unique though incredibly effective. It can take on a life of its own beyond the screen and invoke similar feelings regardless of the context in which one hears it. The animation certainly lends the necessary specificity to fully comprehend the meaning behind instrumental pieces while further developing pieces with lyrics, though it is hardly a prerequisite to understanding the majority of the film. To this end, the role of music in Beauty and the Beast, and its propensity for conveyance, is monumentally successful. Ultimately, each piece signifies an emotion or a mood for the scene and allows the viewer to be fully absorbed in the film’s world as it permits them to experience the gamut of emotions as the characters do, if only from outside of the screen.
Beauty and the Beast. Dir. Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. By Linda Woolverton, Paige O'Hara, and Robby Benson. Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, Inc., 1991. DVD.