Fifty Years of The Sound of Music

SBO Staff • ChoralNovember/December 2015UpClose • December 1, 2015

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SOMBy Keith Mason

The Sound of Music is one of the most popular musical films of all time. Released in 1965, the nearly three-hour film has appeared all over the globe in English and numerous dubbed languages. After a half century, The Sound of Music is ever so popular in U.S. and world culture and is an ideal springboard for musical analysis.


“Let’s start at the very beginning.” These lyrics from “Do Re Mi” serve to trace back to my childhood. The Sound of Music motion picture has been a very important part of my life since then. I listened to the soundtrack album constantly. When I saw the film at the Rivoli Theater in New York, I sat mesmerized for almost three hours as I saw the actors act out the songs I loved so much. As I look back fifty years ago, I invite you to see why The Sound of Music is such an excellent vehicle for students learning choral music (see the sidebar “The Sound of Music Interesting Facts”).

Vocal Music

There are two types of songs used in musicals: diegetic comment songs and book songs. A diegetic comment song is one when the performer is aware that he or she is singing. The book song is one where the performer is not aware he or she is singing. In The Sound of Music, we find many diegetic comment songs. The following chart outlines these two types of songs as found in the Sound of Music score.

Diegetic Comment Songs and Book Songs in The Sound of Music

Note that the song “The Sound of Music” serves as both a diegetic comment song and a book song. Maria is supposed to be outside, away from the abbey, singing. Thus, she knows that she is singing. Yet we also learn a lot about Maria’s thoughts and feelings through the song, typical of a book song.

The title song with its prelude is definitely worthwhile for musical analysis. “The Sound of Music” scene is one of the most well known in cinema history. The aerial shot zooms in on an Alp and focuses on Julie Andrews. When it cuts to closeup, we hear Andrews sing the first lines of the song setting the scene and establishing the importance of music using references to nature: the hills, a lark, a brook. The mention of church chimes ties to the fact that Maria is a novice nun. The song opens with the sounds of nature in a prelude. We hear simulated breezes and birds and sounds that the mountains are making the sounds of music. We hear birds and flute instrumentation that sound like birds and chirping. It actually sounds like an echo since the notes of the mountains repeat the notes of the lyrics. The song in 4/4 time uses a lot of woodwinds, especially flute and exhibits an echo or repetition of the same melody as if the hills are creating music. The vocal score describes the introduction as performed in allegretto animato and the main part of the song as tranquillo and con espressione. The focus on music in this song makes it ideal for a musical. When the children and Captain sing this same song, it creates a turning point that brings them closer together.

Other songs in the score can be analyzed for time signature, character development, poetic lyrics, and main message. Song reprises are also worth noting. Consider “Maria,” “I Have Confidence,” “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” “My Favorite Things,” “Do Re Mi,” “The Lonely Goatherd,” “Edelweiss,” “So Long, Farewell,” “Something Good,” and “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.”

Latin songs “Dixit Dominus,” “Morning Hymn,” and “Alleluia” in The Sound of Music are so important to the Roman Catholic liturgy and are perfectly suited for church, sung during Mass. The morning hymn is performed in four-part harmony in the style of Gregorian chant in 4/4 time. The chant at the beginning includes a solo with a choral response and is based on Psalm 109 or the “Dixit Dominus.” The uplifting “Alleluia” in 3/4 time emanates from the balcony of the chapel. This is an original composition although the Roman Catholic mass offers numerous versions of “Alleluia” chants with differing melodies. Later in the film after “Do Re Mi,” the Captain, Max, and the Baroness hear a male choir version of the “Alleluia” emanating from a church as they drive by. It is interesting to compare the female chorus and male chorus versions.

In summary, most songs found in the Sound of Music score have simple time signatures, 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4, in addition to 2/2 time yet they contain classic melodies and lyrics.

Diegetic Comment Songs

  • “The Sound of Music”
  • “The Sound of Music” reprises
  • “Edelweiss”
  • “Edelweiss” reprise
  • “Do Re Mi”
  • “Do Re Mi” reprise
  •  “The Lonely Goatherd”
  • “So Long, Farewell”
  • “So Long, Farewell” reprise

Book Songs

  • “The Sound of Music”
  • “Maria”
  • “I Have Confidence”
  • “Sixteen Going on Seventeen”
  • “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” reprise
  • “My Favorite Things”
  • “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”
  • “My Favorite Things” reprise

The Background Score and Incidental Music

Principal photography of The Sound of Music ended on September 1, 1964. At this time, Irwin Kostal devoted his attention to the background music for every scene. Kostal was obligated to create variations of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s original songs because Rodgers insisted on preserving the integrity of the original work. Kostal observed that “the scoring couldn’t be foreign to the general texture of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s original music” as cited in Hirsch’s book The Sound of Music: America’s Favorite Movie.

Kostal used the action of the picture to guide his use of note sequences, tempo, and phrasing. The term “incidental music” is often used to describe the match between what is happening in the scene, whether it is a stage musical or a film musical, and the music that the audience hears. 

Consider the escape music with a dark rendition of “So Long Farewell,” the “wisps of wind” in the prelude before “The Sound of Music,” the underscore before “Something Good,” and the captain’s apology from the end of the first “Sound of Music” reprise up to “The Lonely Goatherd.” We hear “The Sound of Music” melody as well as “My Favorite Things” and “Edelweiss” melodies.

Activities and Learning Scenarios 

The Sound of Music offers so much for the music and performing arts curriculum, both vocally and instrumentally. The classic score and background score can enrich student learning. Traditional and technological lessons can be utilized. For example, students might perform songs from the score vocally or instrumentally. Consider the following learning scenarios.

The Score Students can work with the classic song lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II focusing on main messages, character development, historical references, and comparisons to poetry. Students can also identify the melodies they hear in the overture.

Diegetic Comment Songs versus Book Songs Scott Miller’s distinction between diagetic comment songs and book songs can easily be illustrated using the Sound of Music score. For example, for both performances of “Edelweiss,” the characters know that they are singing. On the other hand, “Climb Every Mountain” is a book song because the singer is not aware that she is singing. Students can explore one or more musicals to see the presence of the two song types.

“The Sound of Music” The title song sets the theme for the musical, making it essential to the score. Students can analyze the lyrics identifying references to nature, what music means in Maria’s life, and the counterpoint notes that represent the hills being alive with the sound of music.

Do Re Mi and the Musical Scale Students can explore the origins of the musical scale including the Italian monk Guido D’Arezzo who developed one musical scale in Italy.

Rodgers and Hammerstein Students can learn about the eleven works of Rodgers and Hammerstein including their last musical The Sound of Music. Possible options include assigning or having students select one work. Within a class, all eleven musicals could potentially be treated for main plot, songs, characters, setting, and time period.

Feature Film Students can view the entire film or select scenes, especially musical scenes. Teachers can have students complete activities or projects as outlined in this article.

Singalong Sound of Music/Karaoke Students can find singalong Sound of Music on YouTube. Students can then be assigned or choose one song from the score and perform the song to a karaoke track on youtube or on the DVD isolated score.

Holocaust/World War II The Sound of Music takes place when the Nazis take over Austria. Students can learn about the Holocaust and World War II. How did these events affect the von Trapp’s future life?

Austria and Alpine Life The setting for The Sound of Music is Austria. Students can explore the history and culture of Austria including musicians from Austria (e.g., Mozart, Haydn, Schubert). The song “Edelweiss” is dedicated to the mountain flower that is difficult to find but means much to the one who receives it.


The Sound of Music provides an abundance of music for both vocal and instrumental music students to analyze and enjoy. The classic and background scores collectively help make the film the phenomenon that it is. The film also offers many opportunities for interdisciplinary learning and can be used at all levels of instruction. For students and teachers, it is a very good place to start.

The Sound of Music Interesting Facts   

• The Sound of Music film directed by Robert Wise won five Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Score (Adaptation), and Best Sound; the film also received five nominations including Best Actress for Julie Andrews. The film received Golden Globes for Julie Andrews as Best Actress and Best Film.

•  After Mary Poppins was released in 1964, and then The Sound of Music in 1965, Julie Andrews became one of the most revered stars of musical films.

•  The glorious opening featuring aerial shots has made The Sound of Music known worldwide; the aerial shot of Julie Andrews crossing the meadow was filmed by cameraman Paul Beeson strapped outside a helicopter and pilot Gilbert Chomat and nine takes were filmed.

•  The soundtrack album of The Sound of Music entered the Grammy Award Hall of Fame in 2007; the combined sales of the film soundtrack and the Broadway cast album have made it one of the most popular scores in the world.

•  Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the original Broadway musical The Sound of Music in 1959 over a six-month period, their last of eleven collaborations.

•  The Sound of Music is based on the life of Maria von Trapp who performed as part of a singing group The Trapp Family Singers. Her book about her singing family inspired The Sound of Music.

Keith Mason, Ph.D. teaches world languages and cultures at New Providence High School. He received eight Rising Star Awards from the Paper Mill Playhouse for Outstanding Educational Impact. He has authored numerous articles about using musicals in the curriculum. 

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