Thursday, September 16, 2010

Composing Snow White

Pre-Snow: Carl Stalling and the Silly Symphony:

Walt Disney knew early on that he would need his own in-house music for sound cartoons. In 1928, Carl Stalling, Walt's associate from Kansas City became the studio's composer, creating the scores for many of the early Disney shorts. Stalling's desire to raise the musical bar for his compositions led to discussions with Walt into what should come first, the orchestration or animation. From these talks were born the Silly Symphonies which allowed Stalling to compose more elaborate pieces. Sometimes the animators would match their drawings to the completed music, other times it would work in reverse.

(Right: The Skeleton Dance title plate. Copyright 1929 Disney.)

Stalling pioneered the use of the "tick system" of recording music to animation:
The thought struck me that if each member of the orchestra had a steady beat in his ear, from a telephone receiver, this would solve the problem. I had exposure sheets for the films, with the picture broken down frame by frame, sort of like a script, and twelve of the film frames went through the projector in a half second. That gave us a beat.
Carl Stalling from an interview via

After two productive years, Stalling left Disney at the same time as Ub Iwerks. Eventually he found himself at Warner Brothers in 1936 where he would work for the next 22 years writing approximately one score per week for their Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts.

Carl Stalling.


The Big Bad Wolf: Frank Churchill:

Filling Stalling's shoes at Disney was Frank Churchill. A pre-med student at UCLA, Churchill dropped out of school to pursue a career in music and took jobs at radio stations and at RKO-Radio Pictures. It was 1930 when he was hired by Walt to be a composer on the Silly Symphonies. He scored nearly 65 animated shorts over his career, but it only took Churchill three years to strike gold. In 1933, he composed Disney's first smash hit, "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" for the Three Little Pigs. It changed the way music was thought of at the studio. Creating original memorable songs would now become a integral part of the filmmaking process.

Frank Churchill (right) with Walt Disney and Wilfred Jackson. 
Image from the  Filmguide’s Handbook to Cartoon Production by Harold Turney, copyright 1940.

The success of 'Big Bad Wolf' landed Churchill the dream job of composing the music for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. But he would not do it alone.


The Songs: Larry Morey:

Larry Morey came to the Disney studio in 1933. He's credited as a Sequence Director on Snow White, but his name is remembered more for his authoring of the lyrics to all of the songs in the movie. Working with Frank Churchill's music, the two of them are credited with the creation of 25 tunes from which eight were chosen for inclusion in the final film. It's important to note that not all the song ideas originated from Morey and Churchill. Others at the studio, like Pinto Colvig, helped in the development of such numbers as the Dwarfs' Yodel Song. More on this in a later post.

Image copyright Disney.

Walt made it clear to the composers that he wanted the songs integrated into the story. "Dialogue and music work together...use the dialogue to lead into songs naturally."[p.40, Walt Disney and Europe by Robin Allan]. He wanted the musical numbers to spring accordingly from the characters rather than causing abrupt interruptions in the flow of the story. Churchill and Morey rose to the task swimmingly.

The original eight recorded songs (vocal artists in parentheses): 

1-I'm Wishing 
    (Adriana Caselotti)
2-One Song
   (Harry Stockwell)
3-With A Smile and A Song 
   (Adriana Caselotti)
4-Whistle While You Work 
   (Adriana Caselotti)
5-Heigh Ho
  (Roy Atwell, Pinto Colvig, Billy Gilbert, Otis Harlan, Scotty Mattraw )
6-Bluddle-Uddle-Um Dum or The Dwarfs' Washing Song 
   (Roy Atwell, Pinto Colvig, Billy Gilbert, Otis Harlan, Scotty Mattraw)
7-Dwarfs' Yodel Song or The Silly Song 
   (Roy Atwell, Pinto Colvig, Billy Gilbert, Otis Harlan, Scotty Mattraw, with yodeling by James MacDonald )
8-Someday My Prince Will Come 
  (Adriana Caselotti)

Two additional recorded songs were cut from the final film. The first was dropped when the soup-eating scene was pulled by Walt. The second was replaced by the "Dwarfs' Yodel Song".

A-Music in Your Soup
  (Roy Atwell, Pinto Colvig, Billy Gilbert, Otis Harlan, Scotty Mattraw )
B-You're Never Too Old to Be Young 
   (Roy Atwell, Pinto Colvig, Billy Gilbert, Otis Harlan, Scotty Mattraw )

"Heigh-Ho" Sheet Music from the Snow White Souvenir Album. Copyright 1938 Bourne Co.


Oscar Nominated Score: Leigh Harline and Paul Smith:

In addition to writing the songs, Frank Churchill co-composed the instrumental score with Leigh Harline and Paul Smith. Harline joined the Disney team in 1932; Smith arrived two years later. Inspired by concept art and storyboard illustrations, they worked and weaved the different musical segments of the film together. From the "Overture"opening and the dark forest escape to the climatic witch chase and final choral reprise, the trio of young composers created a dramatic score the likes of which had never been heard before at the Disney Studios.

Leigh Harline. Image copyright Disney.

Paul Smith. Images copyright Disney.


The Disney Orchestra:

Image from the  Filmguide’s Handbook to Cartoon Production by Harold Turney, copyright 1940.

Frank Churchill arranged and conducted the Disney orchestra during the the earlier recording sessions. Yet, due to personal problems, he took a leave of absence before all the compositions were complete. In the RKO behind-the-scenes film, A Trip Through the Walt Disney Studios, Leigh Harline is also shown conducting.

For their efforts, Churchill, Harline and Smith earned an Academy Award nomination for "Best Music, Score" in 1938. Their orchestration, along with Larry Morey's lyrics, became the first ever commercially-released movie soundtrack...and it sold like crazy.


  1. Great research, as usual. Letting Carl Stalling get away was one of the biggest mistakes they ever made at Disney, IMO. He was, and still remains, the best music man that the art of animation has ever seen (or heard, I suppose we should say). No one else has ever even come close.

  2. Great post! I love know about the story of Walt Disney's movie and cartoon, especially in the beggining

  3. I love the music of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs it is a splendid score , beautifully realised , and a great leap forward in sophistication from the music of the Silly Symphonies.

    I was very disappointed indeed , when Disney failed to produce a new soundtrack CD for/to coincide with the 2009 release of Snow White on Blu Ray! Perhaps this will be righted with a 75th Anniversary Edition in 2012?

  4. Great post indeed!
    Speaking of the soundtrack:
    Is there any reason why the witch chase-part has never been included?
    Which is too bad because it is so dynamic and great to listen to.

    Another question:
    I´m curious about the remaining songs out of the 25 which didn´t made the final cut.
    Who was supposed to sing about what etc.?

    Love your blog btw, thanks for all the great and rare facts about my favourite Disney classic!

  5. HBG2- Stalling was brilliant. My first exposure to "classical music" was through his Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies.

    Camille- Thanks so much. I sure enjoy researching Disney animation.

    Muir- Let's keep our fingers crossed for something great in 2012. The 75th anniversary only comes around once!

    DonDuck- Thanks for the nice comments. I have a number of more posts coming up in the next few days on the music and soundtrack but not much info on the witch chase or the remaining 15 songs. I will keep researching though.