The Music of "When You Believe"
One of the most powerful songs I ever have heard comes from “The Prince of Egypt”. It has brought me to tears on far more than one occasion (such as now, oops), and no matter how often I listen to it, the song maintains an incredible force that makes it, to my eyes as a working music composer myself, one of the greatest songs throughout animation.
The strength of this song comes from the combination of well-written lyrics plus the musical choices accompanying those lyrics. The composers (Stephen Schwartz and Hans Zimmer) very intentionally, very successfully aligned the deep emotions of the words with equally powerful music. By exploiting the effects of instrumentation, the shape of the melody line, musical key, and the lyrics, listeners are taken through a deep, emotion-wrought narrative of the Hebrews beginning the Exodus.
The start of “When You Believe” is very dark, moaning deep in the cellos and other low voices of the orchestra. For indeed, while Moses has just learned the Hebrews have been freed of their slavery from Egypt, it comes at an enormous price: the death of many Egyptians including his nephew, as well as a break in the bond between himself and his brother. There thus is a darkness to the music and the animation on the screen to match that dark event which is occurring in Moses’ life.
But even when Miriam begins to sing, the cityscape is still dark and the music retains its rich, dark ambiance. The instrumentation is mostly strings, especially the lower to mid-range. All is thick and solemn. On top of that, the melody is within the minor mode, a musical scale that is known for sounding more somber and sad than the major scale. This use of minor adds a weight and sadness to her words, continuing on that sense of darkness.
There’s a symbolic reason to cast that sense of aural shadow. Miriam’s words in the first verse sing of a darkness, too, within the Hebrews’ lives. “Many nights we prayed, with no proof anyone could hear,” she begins. There is a sense of hopelessness and darkness in her words, and the music likewise provides the sense that the lives of the slaves were cast in psychological powerlessness. The melody even drifts downward over the first line of the verse, the pitches descending with the line, metaphorically depicting downcast spirits.
If the music had been brighter and more upbeat, it would have emphasized the fact the Hebrews prayed vigilantly; however, with the deep strings and minor descending melody, audiences understand the oppressive hopelessness that crushed the peoples’ existence.
There are only slight hints of hope in the within the first verse, especially at the start. The first twinkle of hope within the darkness comes in the second line, “In our hearts a hopeful song we barely understood."
Notice that the music rises before sinking downward again. The words peak on the word "hopeful,” in fact, with a dramatic leap up to the final syllable. There’s a sound of a song in that peaking interval (a fourth) which is associated with many types of folk musics from around the world, and that jump upward is a notable spark of hope to the ears. The song might still be cast in a dark minor melody, and that “hopeful song” might fall again to lower musical pitches in the rest of the musical line, but that little spark nonetheless is very aurally noticeable and depicts that little spark the Hebrews clung to themselves.
There is an increasing brightness as the verse continues. It aligns with the growing hope in the lyrics as well as the brightening colors animated on the screen. The third line of the melody is the same as the first, but it’s orchestrated differently. The clarinet and the flute enter, warming up the texture of the music in the accompaniment, corresponding to the much more optimistic lyric, “Now we are not afraid.” This time, when the pitches fall at the end of the line, “even though there’s much to fear,” it gives a sense of determination rather than hopelessness.
And then the fourth and final line of the verse pulls forward an even greater transformation.
We have another symbolic rise - through a technique called “text painting” - in which the word “mountains” is musically described through the upward jump of pitches. The word “mountains” is a peak in the musical line, just as a mountain is a peak in the landscape. Corresponding visually, the viewers see pyramids and other grand Egyptian structures. These might not be mountains, but the enormity of those monuments is indeed something incredible to move. Suddenly, then, the Hebrews’ lives of slavery are not just torment and despair, but a demonstration of the strength of the people.
And look above at that final note in the verse. It moves upward, leading to the chorus, and showing an enormous growth of hope.
There Can be Miracles
Suddenly, there is sunrise. And Miriam is smiling. And people are coming together. And hope blossoms. And the music in the chorus sings it all: “There can be miracles when you believe. Though hope is frail, it’s hard to kill. Who knows what miracles you can achieve? When you believe, somehow you will. You will when you believe.”
The song changes keys to equate that shift in mood. The verse is in e minor, a very dark key orchestrationally that makes the music sound incredibly weighty and somber and allows composers to frequently use some of the lowest pitches the instruments can play. But then this song shifts to G major in the chorus. This is one of the brightest keys an orchestra can play (There are lots of “open strings” in this key, meaning that the strings in the violins, violas, cellos, and basses reverberate a lot more and sound very bright and rich). G major and e minor all use the same pitches, but to very different effects. In the same way, there is a shift from the content of the verse to the chorus, even though the material Miriam discusses is similar. It is a shift from unactualized hope to the experience of a miracle. And thus a shift from darkness to lightness occurs both within her words, within the sunrise of the animation, and within the change of mood in the music.
The melody itself is very hopeful. Every single line of the melody, beginning with, “There can be miracles,” moves upward. The pitches always rise from start to end, showing enormous optimism.
Text painting also happens again; that is, the music shapes itself in ways to symbolically correlate to the meaning of the lyrics. The word “miracles” has an enormous rise in it, just like the words “hopeful” and “mountains."
The word "believe” similarly receives a climactic high pitch, showing its greatness and importance.
The word “frail,” by contrast, is sung with an enormous drop downward in pitch, aurally creating a sense of weakness.
Even when the syllables occur in the music is very well placed and gives a sense of optimism and determination.
There is a sense of pulse in music. Some pulses are a lot heavier than others, and these are called “downbeats.” If you look at the pictures of musical notation I have, the “downbeats” happen with the first and third black notes of every measure (a measure is a chunk of music that is separated by those vertical lines). Every time you hit a downbeat, then, there is a sense of more power. And notice what words hit the downbeats in this music. Words like “can” and “hope”. In the line, “it’s hard to kill,” both “hard” and “kill” receive the musical metrical emphasis. What does this do? It emphasizes the greatest of what happened, shows that miracles can and in fact just have happened. It brings confidence to the lyrics.
The dotted rhythms create even more confidence within the melody line.
Altogether, then, the entirety of the chorus screams hope.
Continuation of Narrative
The second verse returns to the dark minor key that audiences heard in the first verse. Zipporah is speaking of the Hebrews’ experience of slavery in the lyrical narrative, thus requiring a thicker atmosphere to the music. We hear a little bit of song again in the rise of pitch with the words “summer bird,” as well as that fall of hope when subsequently she sings “too swiftly flown away.”
Paralleling the first verse, a similar growth from dark to light again occurs with the lyrics and the music in the second verse. And thus we move from despair to cheer as she sings: “In this time of fear, when prayer so often proves in vain hope seems like the summer birds, too swiftly flown away. Yet now I’m standing here, my heart so full I can’t explain, seeking faith and speaking words I’d never thought I’d say.” When Miriam adds a duet, a further sense of hope grows, for the people are coming together to begin the Exodus, traveling to freedom.
The second chorus is even musically bigger than the first, the visuals brighter, the hope more powerful. We see the Exodus happening now. There are people leaving. The miracle is here, it is happening, and the growth of music augments that.
The Children’s Song
Children begin singing, showing such a sense of hope as can be equaled by nothing else. The Bible indeed speaks of a child’s faith being great - not to mention the association with children is very positive and bright. The music is still in happy G major, though it also uses some pitches like C natural that never have been used before, making the music sound even brighter. The melody dances, and so do the people.
It is even more powerful when you know what the kids are saying.
It is part of a poem actually in the Bible seen in Exodus 15: 1, 11, and 13. Not only are these Hebrew lyrics actually in the Bible, but they are recorded as the song that Miriam and Aaron themselves sang when they were leaving Egypt. This is the song, guys! The legitimate words they sang in this event.
אָשִׁירָה לַה’ כִּי-גָאֹה גָּאָה
מִי כָמֹכָה בָּאֵלִם ה’ מִי כָּמֹכָה נֶאְדָּר בַּקֹּדֶשׁ
נָחִיתָ בְחַסְדְּךָ עַם-זוּ גָּאָלְתָּ
Ashira laadonay ki gao gaa
Ashira laadonay ki gao gaa
Mi chamocha baelim adonay
Mi kamocha needar bakodesh
Nakhita vekhasdecha am zu gaalta
Nakhita vekhasdecha am zu gaalta
Ashira ashira ashira
So that’s all well and good to see the text in another language, but what does it mean in English?
Check it out:
I will sing unto the Lord, for He is highly exalted
Who is like unto Thee, O Lord, among the mighty? who is like unto Thee, glorious in holiness
Thou in Thy love hast led the people that Thou hast redeemed
In another translation that sounds a bit less archaic:
I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted.
Who among the gods is like you, O Lord?
Who is like you - majestic in holiness?
In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed.
This song is one of being saved by God and thanking him for the miracle. And the music expands and everyone begins singing and an almost giddy happiness results when the song spins faster and faster.
The Power of Belief
The final chorus explodes in full choir. It is the voice now of the entire Hebrew people belting out faith and awe at what has happened. Not only that, but the music rises in pitch, bursting to A major. The music reaches an all-time dramatic high in terms of sheer force of musicians playing in singing, in terms of the highest pitches sung, and in terms of volume.
The music climaxes in power - to the full power of belief. To the full glory of this miracle. What has happened has just changed millions of lives. Millions of lives are free and singing praise.
It is hard to believe now that the song began in such a dark corner, sounding so futile and depressed and hopeless. But through the incredible narration of sound and lyrics, everyone by the end of the song understand - understands full well - “There can be miracles when you believe.”