Because what kind of self-respecting blog would we be without an (icy-)hot take on “Into the Unknown?” (And because I have papers due this week and therefore no mental space for my usual soapboxing.)

The internet’s general opinion on “Into the Unknown” seems to range from “it’s fine but it’s no ‘Let It Go’” to “thanks, my six-year-old has now strained her vocal chords.” Let’s just say I once heard 20,000 people sing along with “Let it Go” before the Magic Kingdom fireworks show, and I’m not sure that would go so well with this one. But, as always, I have Thoughts in response to the Disney-bashing machine.

Vox criticizes the clunkiness of the lyrics and calls the song “overly packed with drama.” I’ll grant the first point—”some look for trouble, while others don’t” is a bit weak. But isn’t it pretty clear that being packed with drama is the whole point of the song? Unlike “Belle” or “Part of Your World,” this is an “I want” song from a princess—a queen—who’s already found herself. All of the confidence and self-worth she earned in the first movie doesn’t go away just because there’s something else to want and discover. Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez know exactly what they’re doing: you don’t have Idina Menzel jump an eleventh from the lowest note in the song to the highest one if you’re trying to be subtle. That jump is musical-theatre-speak for “deal with it.” Or, if you like, “let it go.”

The New York Times points out with trademark erudition that the Voice motif, sung throughout the movie by Norwegian star AURORA, is the first four notes of the Latin dies irae hymn, traditionally associated with death and judgment. 

But let’s look at what the song does with that motif. It’s the first thing we hear at the beginning, and it establishes the key of E-flat minor. We hear it repeatedly as Elsa is urged outdoors. Then Elsa belts out the motif in that shameless third “into the unknown,” trying to return the Voice’s call. But she’s not quite there—despite that crazy leap, she’s still a third lower than the Voice. It takes a full measure of Elsa holding a note before the Voice shows up again.

In the second chorus, Elsa gets closer. She’s still a third below, but the Voice comes in a full measure earlier than before, an echo from not quite so far away. And after the key change at “Can you show me?” the Voice and Elsa exchange the motif, no longer separated. Then things get even crazier—they sing it at the same time, but turned upside down so that the melodic contour rises instead of falling. The reversal of the dies irae motif parallels the [spoiler] at the end of the movie, and the parallel motion is as if the Voice has taken Elsa’s hand and is pulling her toward the titular unknown. This effect is emphasized at the end of the section, just before “where are you going,” when Elsa and the Voice briefly sing the same note before the Voice continues upward and Elsa steps back down. And in the coda, Elsa sings a rising hemiola pattern (two against three) before passing it to the Voice, who ascends higher than either has sung in the entire song. Further up and further in. It’s like—gasp—a song can be both well thought out and an Oscar-baiting money-grab.

So there, New York Times. Don’t try to be all fancy with your Latin hymn references unless you can back it up with some analysis, darn it.


  1. Debra K Rienstra

    When medievalists get feisty, watch out.

  2. Kyric Koning

    Can’t really wrap my mind around the musical technicalities, but there’s a lot of passion here, and that is praiseworthy. Noice.

  3. Alex Johnson

    I finally got around to watching this movie yesterday, and during this song all I could think was “Josh wrote a piece about the music theory of this song and I can’t remember any of his points.” I’m still not sure I understand half of what you’re saying here, but it sure makes me feel better about getting Aurora’s motif stuck in my head.

  4. GreenEyedGuide

    I am so grateful for this analysis. It’s fascinating to get this better understanding of the purpose behind the notes. Thank you!


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