A Cappella is the New Half-Step Modulation

I’ve now seen Disney’s Frozen several times with my family, and we’ve all enjoyed their re-telling of Andersen’s The Ice Princess with wonderful animation, songs, and comedy. But I was struck by one moment in particular that speaks to our current a cappella cultural phenomenon.

The film opens, before any action, with the wonderful Norwegian choir Cantus singing Vuelie, a contemporary a cappella choral interpretation of Norwegian folk singing. It was quite literally the first thing you heard, before any action appeared on screen. That, in itself, was pretty extraordinary: a cappella? Most films seem to start either with a pop song or with a big orchestral “overture” (or big band, or rock song). The piece was a great choice, bringing the viewers immediately into a culture and mindset foreign to our own.
But the big moment for me was the climactic scene of the film. (Spoiler alert) When the cursed Elsa discovers that her powers can be controlled through the power of love, she is free to release the countryside from an everlasting winter. After a score comprised of traditional orchestral underscoring and Disney/Broadway-style melodies, the orchestration is neither. As Elsa uses her powers to bring summer back to Arendelle, the accompanying music is once again the a cappella Vuelie from the opening credits.
The piece is exciting, rhythmic, and incredibly uplifting. It fits perfectly with the mood of the movie and accentuates that scene. But I think the reason for its use is its freshness. Our ears are TIRED of pop tunes, soaring violins, and so much orchestral mood music. These things don’t stimulate us because we’re so acclimated to them. A cappella, the oldest of all instrumentations, is suddenly fresh!
I didn’t need to look hard for another example. My three-year-old has been listening repeatedly to the pop marshmallow “Roar” by Katy Perry. At the peak moment of this Pro-Toolsed, beat-doctored, pitch-corrected piece, all the guitars, drums, and synths drop out for two seconds of exquisite overdubbed a cappella homophony (listen here. The break is at 3:14). Freed from the grounding tracks, Perry’s voice momentarily soars and reaches the pinnacle of the piece. In that moment, it became clear that its freshness gives a cappella new power. Indeed, ironically more power than a full band.
Barry Manilow has (fairly or unfairly) lent his name to the half-step modulation, as a trick to goose the emotions of listeners when they’ve gotten bored with a repeated melody. It works, and has worked for hundreds of songs besides Manilow’s.
The A Cappella Goose works too. Perhaps we should call it the “Deke“.