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Disney Songs in the Curriculum: The Bare Necessities

By Keith Mason, Ph.D. and Jason DeHart, Ph.D.

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Disney songs are new songs written for a Disney project, such as a feature or short film, a Broadway musical, a TV special or show, a direct to video production,  record, or a theme park.

Disney songs generally fall within a few musical genres: classical, Tin Pan Alley standards (show tunes), traditional folk songs, and popular songs. The subtitle of this article derives from a song from The Jungle Book. This article explains ways that music educators can use Disney songs in their classes, lessons and performance venues.

The Disney Song Encyclopedia (Hischak and Robinson, 2009) is a compendium of 940 songs in entries that outline songwriters, original singers, the source of the song and other venues where the song may have appeared. The entries most importantly feature a song description and what makes each memorable.

Songs have the potential to help students develop in a number of literacy needs. In early grades, simply listening to and performing songs can help students develop phonological awareness, the knowledge of sounds in language. Students can practice with stories and poems to develop fluency in later years. Still later, students can participate in literary analysis to build comprehension skills when they examine song lyrics.

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Ask a reading teacher at any level and they can tell you that some students resist opportunities to read. Children develop a sense of “reader identity” and “writer identity” very early, and one of the ways that teachers can work to continue building connections to students is to reach outside of the school curriculum and pull in popular culture and media texts that appeal to young learners. One example of such texts that we explore in this article is the power of the Disney song. As Walt Disney suggested, “There’s a terrific power to music. You can run any of these pictures and they’d be dragging and boring, but the minute you put music behind them, they have life and vitality they don’t get any other way” (cited in Hischak and Robinson, 2009, p. vii).

These authors went on to emphasize the powerful role that musicals have exhibited as part of American culture, even suggesting that many of Disney lyrics have entered a “special place in our collective consciousness” (Hischak & Robinson, 2009, p. vii). What we offer in this article is a brief exploration of possible directions that elementary, middle and high school teachers can take when addressing continuing themes in literature. In this case, these themes are made evident in the rhyme and magic of Disney music.

Hischak & Robinson (2009, p. vii) highlighted that “Songs written for Disney productions over the decades have become a potent part of American popular culture. Since most Americans first discover these songs in their youth, they hold a special place in our collective consciousness.”

They also observed that Disney songs are famous for their “craftsmanship, ambitious goals, and generally optimistic view of life.” They convey a positive and hopeful outlook that affirms life (Hischak & Robinson, 2009, vi-viii).

The power of Disney songs in various forms “is a small musical affirmation of what makes life worth living” according to Hischak & Robinson, 2009, p. viii). The positive messages and reflections contained in these songs, which might be called lyrical texts, point out some of the broadest themes of life, including acceptance, friendship, and perservance. Many is the time even an older reader struggles to identify the theme of a given text – Disney songs expose these themes in memoral ways.

Furthermore, Hischak and Robinson (2009, p. xvii) explain that because of home video, Disney songs are made universally accessible. The have suggested that “The music heard in these productions has become a part of our everyday culture.” Just a film has shaped our society since the 1930s, so too does the musical film and presence of song shape thinking. One need only walk into an elementary classroom for a few moments to observe the powerful phonemic and literary work that is done through song, from establishing daily routines for accomplishing tasks to reinforcing positive social norms. Hischak and Robinson (2009) conclude “To have the Disney experience is to have a musical one” (p. xvii). We would add that a classroom that incorporates such music is its own kind of literacy-based experience.

In educational terms, Disney songs are ideal for teaching about characters, themes, powerful messages, social-emotional learning and Habits of Mind. Consider the following suggested lessons keeping in mind that these are only a mere fraction of the possibilities because there are more than 1000 songs within the Disney canon.

Now that we have rationalized the use of Disney songs, we will establish some practical steps for incorporating these texts.

Lesson Guidelines

It is essential that teachers decide how they will use a Disney song in instruction, as with any text. Without planning and forethought, the purpose of a text can be lost and students may be left to pick up the fragments of a piecemeal plan.

When using Disney songs, teachers can consider the following routines and concepts:

Songs as poetry

Because many songs have rhyme, song lyrics can easily be analyzed similar to poetry. We have experienced this kind of work in the classroom as the very same students who are reluctant to engage with a traditional poetic text readily embrace work with a song – and, moreover, this is work in the most positive sense.

Consider these songs:

  • “Friend Like Me” from Aladdin. This song is laden with poetic devices, humor, and allusions to classic works.
  • “Be Prepared” from The Lion King. This song begins with an engaging simile, as well as puns and other figures of speech. The tone is decidedly different from “Friend Like Me.”
  • “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” from Cinderella. This song draws on the powerful metaphor that is constructed in its title.

Songs as singalong/playalongs

Because the lyrics and melodies found in Disney songs are powerful and catchy, they invite singalongs and playalongs.

Try these songs:

  • “The Bare Necessities” from The Jungle Book is playful conversation that revolves around building a positive outlook on life. For a similar example, consider “Hakuna Matata” from The Lion King.
  • “Love is an Open Door” from Frozen is not only fun to sing in the car, it is engaging as a lyrical dialogue among pairs of students (and teachers too).

Songs as social emotional learning

While some songs are light and playful, other Disney songs often include powerful messages that invite social-emotional learning. These are titles to consider listening to with a box of tissues nearby: “When You Wish Upon a Star” from Pinocchio, “Baby Mine” from Dumbo, and “You’ll Be in My Heart” from Tarzan. Each of these songs creates a message that is woven through powerful words that can be explored for both mood and tone.

Also consider the positive messages portrayed in songs such as:

  • “I Love to Laugh” (Mary Poppins)
  • “The Place Where Lost Things Go” (Mary Poppins Returns)
  • “Reach” (Ice Princess)
  • “Supercalifragilisticexpealidocious” (Mary Poppins)
  • “With a Smile and a Song” (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves)
  • “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” (Song of the South)

Songs as plot and character development

Many songs in Disney musicals help move the story along and define characters. In Joseph Campbell’s (2008) conception of the hero’s journey in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, there must be challenges and problems, as well as mentors and guides, to bring the narrative full circle. A number of Disney songs encapsulate this complicated series of story steps with memorable lines.

Try using these songs:

  • “Part of Your World” reveals the main character’s inner-most desire in The Little Mermaid.
  • “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” captures romance and moves the story forward toward an eventual confrontation in The Lion King.
  • “Gaston” from Beauty and the Beast explores the traits, be they honest or embellished, of the film’s villain.

Also consider:

  • “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” (Mulan)
  • “My Own Home” (The Jungle Book)
  • “Out There” (The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
  • “Prince Ali” (Aladdin)
  • “Zero to Hero” (Hercules)
  • “Beauty and the Beast” (Beauty and the Beast)
  • “Bella Notte” (Lady and the Tramp)
  • “Best of Friends” (The Fox and the Hound)
  • “The Circle of Life” (The Lion King)

Disney Song List

The songs listed throughout this article derive mostly from the Disney Song Encyclopedia and cover 1937-2009. We conducted additional research to identify songs from 2010-2019 that are pedagogically useful in lessons and familiar to our younger learners. See the appendix for additional songs within various categories: I Am/Character Songs, Identity, Tributes, Self-Fulfillment, Racial and Cultural Tolerance, Nature, Love, Live and Let Live, Inspiration, Positivity and Dreams.

Summary

Disney songs can be powerful in the music curriculum. They are rich resources that can enliven learning, contain powerful messages and lessons and help engage students in an important part of popular culture. By using the Disney song ideas outlined here, teachers can account for the bare necessities.

References

Hischak, Thomas S. and Mark A. Robinson. 2009. The Disney Song Encyclopedia. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.

Piatek-Jiminez, Katrina & Christine M. Phelps. 2016. Using Disney’s Frozen to Motivate Mathematics: Bringing Fractals into the Classroom. Australian Primary Mathematics, 21, 2, 18-25.

Appendix

I Am and Character Songs

  • “Go the Distance” (Hercules)
  • “How Far I’ll Go” (Moana)
  • “One Song” (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves)
  • “Out There” (The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
  • “Part of Your World” (The Little Mermaid)
  • “Reflection” (Mulan)

Identity

  • “Know Who You Are” (Moana)

Tributes

  • “Remember Me” (Coco)

Self-Fulfillment

  • “Anything Can Happen (If You Let It)” (Mary Poppins stage musical)
  • “Zero to Hero” (Hercules)
  • Racial and Cultural Tolerance
  • “Colors of the Wind” (Pocahontas)
  • “It’s a Small World (After All)” (1964 World’s Fair theme song)

Nature

  • “Feed the Birds” (Mary Poppins)
  • “Two Worlds” (Tarzan)
  • “Under the Sea” (The Little Mermaid)

Love

  • “Beauty and the Beast” (Beauty and the Beast)
  • “I See the Light” (Tangled)
  • “Love Is an Open Door” (Frozen the Musical)
  • “Some Day My Prince Will Come” (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves)
  • “A Whole New World” (Aladdin)
  • “Written in the Stars” (Aida)

Live and Let Live

  • “Someday” (The Hunchback of Notre Dame)

Inspiration

  • “All for One” (High School Musical 2)
  • “Can You Imagine That?” (Mary Poppins Returns)
  • “A Cover Is Not the Book” (Mary Poppins Returns)
  • “Give a Little Whistle” (Pinocchio)
  • “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” (Mary Poppins)
  • “No Way to Go But Up” (Mary Poppins Returns)

Positivity

  • “Positoovity” (The Little Mermaid)
  • “A Spoonful of Sugar” (Mary Poppins)

Dreams

  • “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” (Cinderella)
  • “Let It Go” (Frozen the Musical)
  • “When You Wish Upon a Star” (Pinocchio)

Jason DeHart, Ph.D. taught middle school English for eight years and is currently a teacher educator. His research interests include using film and a variety of texts to build engagement for students.

Keith Mason, Ph.D. writes extensively about musicals in the curriculum and commemorates milestone anniversaries of musical theatre and film works.

 

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