What Makes Music Great?


Hello, I’m Leah G. Alfonso. I write so that I may speak.

I had a difficult time coming up with ideas of how to end Music Month. I almost did a list of honorable mentions because there were so many songs that I didn’t get to talk about, or else completely forgot about when working on the lists. But for some reason, it didn’t seem right to end April on that note (no pun intended). Then I considered doing a list of worst songs since there are certainly pieces that don’t work. Again, though, it didn’t feel like the right way to end Music Month. That and I could only think of a handful of songs that made me cringe just thinking about them.

And then it finally hit me—why not dissect music as a general art? After all, whether we study it or not, we still talk about it, and we all have a favorite song or two. Music always affects us in one way or another. But how exactly does it do that? What is it that makes music worth studying? What works as a good song and what doesn’t?

Well, we might as well ask that about books, movies, and paintings too. Good music—like any other form of good art—has a lasting impression on the consumer. Sometimes it can be good background music for getting work done, or having a conversation. When I perform at jazz concerts with my school’s jazz band, we often get comments that our music provides a good study atmosphere. At other times, we dance to it. I’m not a big fan of pop music, but I will admit that they come in handy for school dances. There are even songs that allow us to look back on fond memories when they pop up in our heads. For me, “Down in the River to Pray” is the song that brings back good memories.

Emotional music, as the adjective insinuates, conveys emotions when it’s meant to do so. Songs like Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” or Emily Osment’s “Drift” express emotions and summarize some of our thoughts in ways that we can’t. And in cases like Andrew Boysen’s “Song for Lyndsay,” the music doesn’t need any words to capture the emotions just right. Sometimes we also have music that tells stories, like the background music one would find in the soundtrack of movies. Studies are beginning to show that music also has a psychological effect on listeners.

With all of that in mind, it seems like music can do a lot. But what’s the number one action it should perform to be considered good music? In her blog post on good music, Susan Scheid listed four questions that she asks when listening to music:


1) Can I find something in the piece that communicates to me or at least piques my curiosity on a first or second hearing?

2) Does the piece demonstrate both a wealth of musical ideas at work and the ability to take from those ideas to create a satisfying whole?

3) Does the piece communicate something I experience as profound?

4) Does the piece reward many re-hearings, and does it do so over time?


And…yeah, that’s a pretty good way to summarize it. Now, we all have different tastes in music. There’s such a wide variety of music that we can all agree or disagree to like, and that’s true of any art. But Scheid’s questions produce the best foundation to start from when looking for something good to listen to. No matter why we like the song, it needs to create an experience that makes us hungry for more.

Well, that concludes Music Month. If you have songs that differ from my lists that you’d like to talk about, please leave a comment below. And as always, until next time, this is Leah G. Alfonso saying “So long.”

Sources used: http://prufrocksdilemma.wordpress.com/2013/05/08/what-makes-music-great/  

Photo source: http://musicpsychology.co.uk/music-for-pain-reduction/


Top 12 Intense Songs


Hello, I’m Leah G. Alfonso. I write so that I may speak.

This is the week that I’ve been looking forward to since I started this series. Today, I’ll be finishing the month by counting down the top 12 most spine-tingling songs written. These are usually villain songs, songs used in an epic battle scene, and more.

#12: Once and for All from Newsies


In the movie, this is the first song where you don’t see any of the actors singing; they’re working on spreading the word about the upcoming protest for the Newsies’ strike. You can’t help but feel the gravity of the situation. These kids are declaring war on Pulitzer, and they’re putting everything on the line because they know how much their success would mean to the rest of the city.

#11: Brand New Day from Dr. Horrible


This is a hard song to sing—especially the two verses—but when you sing the chorus to your problems, I find it gives you quite a confidence boost. And then, of course, there’s Neil Patrick Harris. Just look at that smile he gives at the beginning of the video. I love the faces he makes when he’s about to do something so devious, so unthinkable, so disgustingly evil. Additionally, I love how the third chorus starts soft, almost like a lullaby, before the camera zooms out to show him as Godzilla. That’s actually a common trait of villain songs; they start out quiet before raising the level of intensity and making your bones tingle.

#10: Requiem for a Tower


I realize this is a rewritten version of “Requiem for a Dream/Lux Eterna.” But “Requiem for a Tower” is the superior of the two, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks so. They really upped the intensity in the updated version by adding the percussion and choir, making it the best choice for a song to use in a teaser trailer (like they did in Lord of the Rings: Two Towers.) Well…second best.

#9: Song used for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows teaser trailer


Okay, this is a little bit of cheating since the music from this teaser was a compilation of songs. You know what, though? This music was easily the best part of the trailer. The Pfeifer Broz Music team is responsible for music in trailers such as Fellowship of the Ring, Dead Man’s Chest, Order of the Phoenix, and of course, Deathly Hallows. As I mentioned before, most of the trailer is a blend of songs, both written by Pfeifer Broz Music. The first half features “Glacial Supremacy,” while the second half features “Absolute Anthropoid.” And of course, we have a touch of John Williams’ “Hedwig’s Theme” to add the taste of Harry Potter that all fans of the book series know and love today.

#8: Defying Gravity/No Good Deed from Wicked



Idina Menzel, who played Elphaba in Broadway’s popular musical Wicked, sings both of these songs. “Defying Gravity” centers on Elphaba’s decision to fly solo and fight against the injustice going on in Oz. While singing “No Good Deed,” Elphaba ponders her decisions since “Defying Gravity” and decides that if the rest of the world is determined to make her evil, then evil she must be. There’s a lot of power in Menzel’s voice, and it shows in these two songs. On top of that, the music is intense as well, which is a common feature in songs about complicated villainy.

#7: Battle with the Forces of Evil from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty


The battle against Maleficent is easily one of Disney’s finest cinematic moments. And a lot of this is courtesy of the music that played in the background, written by George Bruns. It’s split into three parts: escape from Maleficent’s fortress, race to the castle, and the infamous battle with the dragon. Altogether, this musical masterpiece has the right amount of intensity to create a nail-biting climax.

#6: Be Prepared and My Lullaby from Disney’s The Lion King series



Scar and Zira are interesting villains. They’re quite similar to Lord Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange from Harry Potter; the male wants to be in power and murder on the side, while the female wants to murder and be in power on the side (and she has a slight obsession with her male counterpart). And nowhere is this demonstrated best than in their song numbers. Scar’s song “Be Prepared” has been described in the past as a song that takes a group of hyenas and turns them into an army of Nazis. And…yeah, I don’t know how else to label it. On the other hand, Zira’s song “My Lullaby” is the national anthem of serial killers, talking about how nothing is sweeter than murder and anguish.

#5: Cell Block Tango from Chicago


What do you get when you mix 20s jazz music with a jail full of angry murderesses who want to sing a villain song? This, of course! Like the best of villain songs, they build the passion with each story they tell and each chorus they sing, making for delicious bone tingling moments. And that last chorus is by far the ultimate climax of villain songs. It sticks in your memory even when the show’s over.

#4: Let it Go from Frozen


Sung by Elphaba—I mean, Elsa—I mean, Elphaba—I mean, Idina Menzel—“Let it Go” is the song from Frozen that everyone remembers the most. Before that, you had a few songs that were okay. But when the piano started playing in the background and Menzel started to let ‘er rip, that was when we started to enjoy the movie. The lyrics, the music, the vocals, the animation during this scene, it was beautiful. I also like how it didn’t even end on a loud note; it ends with Elsa looking coolly at the audience and bragging about how the cold is her domain.

#3: Café 512 by Ryan George


This has to be one of the most underrated songs on the face of the planet. There’s no version of it on iTunes, nor is there a good version of it anywhere on YouTube. Heck, I’m not even satisfied with the link I’m using. The only reason I know it exists is because my band played it at our Christmas concert. And believe me, when you get it just right, it sounds like doing the tango in a volcano. And it’s every bit as fun to play as it is to listen to. People, we have to get this song on iTunes, because everyone deserves the chance to listen to it in all its glory.

#2: Deliver Us/Plagues of Egypt from Prince of Egypt



“Deliver us” is one of the best introductions to an animated movie. The first twenty seconds or so sound like the symphonic way of saying “long ago, in the land of Egypt…” and then BOOM! Suddenly we’re introduced to the Hebrews suffering in slavery as the movie begins the story of Moses.  And then there’s the music that plays as we get a glimpse of the plagues of Egypt. The build-up, the choir, the music, it’s a perfect addition to the amazing Prince of Egypt soundtrack.

#1: Hellfire from Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame and Savages from Disney’s Pocahontas



Great artistry aside, “Hellfire” and “Savages” both have one feature that sets them apart from other villain songs. In Hunchback, Frollo sings about how his spontaneous lust for the gypsy Esmeralda is driving him mad, and the only way to fix it is by either destroying her or taking her as his own. There’s no doubt that he’s truly the villain of the movie, but in this song sequence, his lust for power and for Esmeralda drive him from hypocritical bigot to savage madman. In Pocahontas, both the Native Americans and the Englishmen sing about the hate they have for the other side, hate born from fear of the unknown. Again, Governor Ratcliff is regarded as the villain of the movie. But as cliché as the song is, “Savages” is a reminder that prejudice and fear of the unknown can turn to hate, and hate can turn even the best of people into monsters. The psychological twists in both of these songs make them all the more intense, as well as my pick for the two best villain songs written.

One more week of Music Month to go! Until next time, this is Leah G. Alfonso saying “So long.”

Top 12 Fun Songs


Hello, I’m Leah G. Alfonso. I write so that I may speak.

Seeing as this is still the Month of Music, I’m continuing by counting down the top 12 fun songs. These songs are fun to sing, fun to listen to, all that jazz.

#12: King of New York from Newsies


I haven’t seen the Broadway musical yet, so I’m using the version from the movie. In this sequence, the Newsies celebrate getting mentioned in the local newspaper. It’s catchy, it’s fun, and the dancing is cool too…even if it wasn’t featured in the right medium.

#11: Step in Time from Mary Poppins


This number is a ton of fun to watch, and Dick Van Dyke showcases his dancing with perfection. The best way I can describe “Step in Time” is like an entire chorus of dancing chimney sweeps reaching Nirvana. I also like how it fades out in the end, like we were dancing along the whole time and it’s giving us a few moments to catch our breath before progressing into the next scene.

#10: Mahna Mahna from The Muppet Show


I haven’t met a Muppet fan yet who wouldn’t finish the song upon hearing the title. It’s so catchy that it’s right on par with “It’s a Small World” without being irritating. I also love how the…lead singer?…is trying to add verses after each chorus, and his two backups are like “what the heck is he doing?” Plus, the end with the phone call cracks me up every time I watch it.

#9: In Summer from Frozen


When I saw Frozen for the first time, I expected Olaf to be nothing short of 100% annoying. Thankfully, he was only 15% annoying. Olaf had a lot of funny moments, and “In Summer” was one of them. I’m a sucker for irony, and the lyrics are filled to the brim with levels upon levels of it. I also love how at the end we see Anna and Kristoff just watching him fantasize about summer. On top of that, it’s a catchy little tune that might get stuck in your head…until you hear the next number on the list.

#8: Phantom of the Opera from Phantom of the Opera


While I don’t think that Gerard Butler was the right choice for the phantom in the 2005 movie, his singing is impressive. The same goes for Emmy Rossum. In addition to the vocals, the instrumentals are good too, adding to the creepy atmosphere of the scene.

#7: In Constant Sorrow from O Brother Where Art Thou?


There’s not much I can say about it because the song speaks for itself. In fact, I’m surprised that you wouldn’t hear cafés playing it in the background. It has a great beat, the instrumentals are simple yet brilliant, and I bet it’s as fun to sing as it is to listen to. Whether you like country music or not, you can’t deny that this song earned a spot on the list.

#6: Tall Ships by Ron Goodwin


A taste of adventures fill the air as you listen to this classical song. Doesn’t it make you feel like you’re sailing on the high seas, looking for adventure? Every time I hear the opening sequence, I keep imagining a pirate captain standing on the bow of his ship, anticipating the upcoming shenanigans of his crew. The song tells a story on its own, and that’s what great classical music does.

#5: Friends on the Other Side from Disney’s Princess and the Frog


I think Randy Newman’s music is boring. There, I said it. We have the Toy Story theme, but aside from that, I don’t remember anything else he’s written. So when I heard this song for the first time, I was a little surprised to hear that Randy Newman wrote it, because—like any other song on this list—it’s fun to listen to. It’s catchy, Keith David provides the right vocals, the animation is creative, and it tells the next part of the story, which is what music numbers in a movie are supposed to do. I’ll admit, I thought it was a big risk for Disney to include voodoo magic in one of its animated movies. I didn’t think “Friends on the Other Side” went too far with it, though. There’s always a catch when you strike a deal with the devil, so be careful in how you pursue what you want. That’s a rare message, and I thought this song demonstrated it perfectly.

#4: This is Halloween from Nightmare Before Christmas


Easily the most memorable song in the whole movie. I especially love the first few seconds before the vocals kick in. It’s like the symphonic way of saying “You are in the wrong place at the wrong time. As punishment, allow me to introduce you to your worst nightmare.” On top of that, the rest of the song has the same creepy environment that you would expect Halloween to have. It’s a creative way to introduce the story as well as the characters.

#3: Popular from Wicked


In addition to busting a few dozen guts, it’s also a song that shows Glinda’s character the best. She’s clueless and ditzy, but she is caring and she tries to be helpful. On top of that, I love how Elphaba is watching Glinda, both bewildered beyond belief and trying not to laugh. The whole soundtrack from Wicked is great, but if I had to pick a song that’s the most fun to listen to, it’d be this one.

#2: Pirates of the Caribbean Theme from Pirates of the Caribbean


It’s almost pointless to talk about this movie theme because it’s so well known. Though the franchise has many flaws, I think we can all agree that the music isn’t one of them. If it doesn’t make you want to do acrobatics, it gets you excited for pirates and swashbuckling adventures. And again, I think the music speaks for itself.

#1: Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin


The first time I heard this song was when I saw Fantasia 2000, so every time I hear it, I think of the cartoon from the film (before you ask, I couldn’t find a link to the cartoon). “Rhapsody in Blue” provides the perfect ambiance for a day in the big city. As far as Fantasia 2000 goes, it has everything a kid wants in the story. It has touching moments, funny moments, all that jazz…no pun intended. My favorite part is about eight minutes into the song, when the music swells in and out and sends chills down the spine. I also had the opportunity to play an excerpt of it with my band class at our last band concert, and the experience was incredible. It’s fun to listen to, it’s fun to talk about, and it fills you with everything that’s good, hence the number one placement on this list.

So that’s my top 12 fun music. Until next time, this is Leah G. Alfonso saying “So long.”

Top 12 Somber Songs


Hello, I’m Leah G. Alfonso. I write so that I may speak.

I love reading and writing, and I find philosophy fascinating. But if I had to pick a hobby completely unrelated to my major or minor, then that would definitely be music. I love playing it. I love listening to it. I love talking about it. In movies, music is used to set the tone and change the atmosphere according to the effect that the movie directors want you to feel. It can be fun, it can be dark, it can be emotional, it can be anything. And as this is my last full month as a band geek, I figured it would be appropriate to dedicate the next few weeks to the Month of Music. This week, I’m going to explore the soft side of music and count down the top 12 soft, whimsical, and/or emotional songs ever written.

#12: My Own Home from The Jungle Book


While I don’t find Wikipedia the best source for research, I think that the page’s description of “My Own Home” put it best when listing it as a “‘siren song’ with Indian overtones.” Darleen Carr sings the haunting melody at the end of the movie, when Shere Khan’s chased off and Baloo and Mowgli resolve to stick together in the jungle. And wouldn’t you know it? They just happen to be on the outskirts of the man-village and they make that promise mere seconds before Shanti comes out to fetch water from the river. The music and the vocals combine into a calming melody that people would remember in a good way…even if the lyrics are likely to piss off feminists.

#11: Deep in the Meadow from Hunger Games


“Deep in the Meadow,” written by Suzanne Collins for the Hunger Games trilogy, appears a couple of times throughout the series. It appears in the beginning when Katniss tries to calm her sister Prim, it appears in the Games when Katniss sings to Rue as she’s dying, and it appears at the very end of Mockingjay. In the midst of violence and turmoil, the lyrics tell the listener of a picturesque sanctuary, where flowers guard you from harm and the grass lulls you to sleep. Sting performed the song for the 2012 movie, and he gave it the proper respect it deserved. It’s very soft, somber, and soothing, like a lullaby is supposed to be.

#10: Pure Imagination from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory


Imagination is a recurring theme in the 1971 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book, and “Pure Imagination” underlines it perfectly. When Gene Wilder sings it in the factory, the lyrics and whimsical atmosphere give viewers a taste of Wonka’s character. He’s intelligent, quick witted, well read, and creepy. He has the imagination of a child, and his ability to think outside the box made his business successful. But he’s also suave, mysterious, and capable of showing kindness to the people he feels deserve it most. Whenever I mention the movie to most of my friends, this song is usually the first thing that pops up in our heads, and for good reason. That’s one reason for why I prefer this film version to the Tim Burton remake in 2005. While the demented number from that movie kills brain cells every time people think about it, “Pure Imagination” reminds us of the good side of nostalgic artistry.

#9: Rainbow Connection from The Muppet Movie


If The Muppet Movie is the story of how the Muppets got started, then “Rainbow Connection” was a clever way to start it. The movie opens with Kermit playing the banjo and singing wistfully about something big waiting for him to claim it. The soundtrack as a whole to The Muppet Movie is impressive overall. But when anyone mentions the Muppets, “Rainbow Connection” is what we think of. It reappeared during the 2011 Muppets, and people started bawling in the theaters upon hearing Kermit singing it again. It’s one of the reasons for why the Muppets have stuck around so long, and I have a feeling that we’ll still be singing it in our head years from now.

#8: Jar of Hearts by Christina Perri and Drift by Emily Osment



I find these two songs very similar to each other. “Jar of Hearts” is a poignant ballad that tells a story of a girl telling her former love that she can’t take any more of his Machiavellianism, and bids him good-bye for the last time. The music video in particular is impressive, depicting the love interest as an emotional rapist who keeps taking as much as he can from women until they’re left with nothing.

And then there’s “Drift,” a song written and performed by Emily Osment for the 2011 movie Cyberbully. If you haven’t seen it yet…eh, don’t. I’ll give it credit for trying to teach viewers about how to deal with cyberbullies, but it has too many clichés and falls flat. To its credit, it did give birth to “Drift.” It feels like the symphonic way of describing depression. I like how the first two verses just have a monotone beat pulsing in the background while Osment sings. Much like “Jar of Hearts” and “Sound of Silence,” it’s simple and emotional at the same time.

#7: American Elegy by Frank Ticheli and It Is Well by Horatio Spafford



Ticheli wrote “American Elegy” as a response to the Columbine High School shootings of 1999, and Spafford wrote “It is Well” as a response to tragedies in his life. “American Elegy” tells a story of great disaster and sadness, but also finding hope in the midst of calamity. I especially like the faraway trumpet solo about halfway through the song; it sounds like sadness coming down from the sky. “It is Well,” in comparison, is a popular hymn that you might hear in church, at funerals, or in other Christian atmospheres. We like the song so much because it’s symbolic of Spafford standing tall despite the tragedies he suffered.

#6: God Help the Outcasts from Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame


“God Help the Outcasts” is a sweet melody sung by the gypsy Esmeralda. Aside from sounding good, it underlines the theme of Victor Hugo’s novel and touches on faith and prayer. At one point in the song, we have a group of rich, well-off Christians asking God for wealth, fame, and love. Esmeralda, a penniless gypsy who confessed that she didn’t know if God was there, prays for her people and asks that they be shown mercy and love. I also love how Esmeralda points out that Jesus was also an outcast when he walked on this Earth, and that we’re all children of God no matter who we are or what we’ve done.

#5: I Dreamed a Dream from Les Misérables


By far the most remembered ballad from the musical based on Victor Hugo’s magnum opus. The song is a lament sung by Fantine after she loses her job. It carries levels of passion and emotion. My favorite version is Anne Hathaway’s performance from the 2012 movie. Not only was the different placement of the song a clever choice, but Hathaway also uses these four minutes as a chance to show what she’s capable of as a singer and as an actress. The raw emotion cuts through, it’s all filmed in one shot, and Hathaway knocks it out of the ballpark in her performance.         

#4: Beauty and the Beast from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast



The ballad from the film of the same name that won three awards in 1992, “Beauty and the Beast” has my vote for the best love song written…well, except for one, but I’ll get to that in a bit. In this memorable number, Belle and the Beast have their first date as Angela Lansbury sings about the relationship they’ve had thus far. This is the first Disney love story that can’t be summed up in the “love at first sight” cliché, and it shows. The lyrics sing about how two people couldn’t mesh together well until one extends a hand of friendship. I also like how the song is sung from an outsider’s point of view, an outsider who understands what love is like and sees it being played out. The instrumental is also breathtaking. I included the instrumental alone in the links provided because that alto saxophone sings so beautifully.

#3: Song for Lyndsay by Andrew Boysen, Jr.


This is a different kind of love ballad. Andrew Boysen Jr. wrote this for his wife, Lyndsay, and unlike other love songs, he lets the music speak for itself. The instrumentation of this song is brilliant; it originally started as a song for the piano, with wind instruments worked into the score. Additionally, Boysen chose two instruments to represent him and his wife: the French horn for him and the flute for her. The music tells the story all on its own, and that’s why I think it’s better than “Beauty and the Beast.”

#2: Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel


Written in response to the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, “Sound of Silence” is one of the few popular songs from the 60s that have survived the test of time. Accompanied only by a guitar and a percussion set, Simon shares a dream he had about the emptiness of life and the oppression of humanity. The first two lines of lyrics really set the tone for the rest of the song. “Hello, darkness, my old friend/I’ve come to talk with you again.” Doesn’t it sound like someone having a conversation with his own depression? I love its artistic edge, I love its relevance to its audiences, I love the simplicity of the music, I love the lyrics, I love it all.

#1: Feed the Birds from Disney’s Mary Poppins



Everyone who loves the Mary Poppins movie remembers this sweet melody. “Feed the Birds” is a haunting lullaby about an old woman who sits on the steps of a cathedral every day urging passersby to find the good in their hearts and spend a few coins to feed birds. It seems like such a simple song, but there’s so much depth to it. I especially love how the song appears again at the end of the movie when Mr. Banks is about to lose his job. There are no lyrics, no dancing, no flashbacks, nothing else. The music sings for itself as Mr. Banks takes a symbolic walk in the darkness. It’s one of the best cinematic moments ever, which was why I included it in the links provided. I just love how that music swells during that segment and speaks what words can’t express. And that’s why I can easily give this song the number one spot on this list.

And that’s my countdown for music expressing whimsy, romance, sadness, and other somber emotions you can think of. I hope you enjoyed the music provided and that you’ll stay tuned for more. Until next time, this is Leah G. Alfonso saying “So long.”