How The ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ Melody Came To Represent Asia : Code Switch : NPR
This is FANTASTIC.
Yes!! I found this story so interesting this morning. I did a project in film music class in college on Aladdin, and it was pretty notable that Aladdin the character was given themes clearly marked out as Western—and how many of the minor characters, particularly those marked as bad guys, were given the kind of Arab shorthand equivalent of the “Kung Fu Fighting” music. While Disney was being called out for explicit racism in the lyrics, most people weren’t bothering to comment on the much more subtle game they were playing with the score—one that was likely just upholding old prejudiced musical cues that developed in a similar way to this “Asian” theme.
Also I just tried to listen to the Aladdin soundtrack and heard Robin Williams and had to turn it off before I started crying in public.
The use of musical shorthand to signify entire cultures goes back to the classical era. Different cultures over time have been the “go-to” foreign sound. In Mozart’s era it was “Turkish” music and a vague, undefined east that was used - see for example his famous “rondo a la turk” and the Opera “The Escape from the Saraglio.”
In the late nineteenth century the new fashion was “Orientalism” which you saw in many extremely popular Operas of the day with varying success - such a Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” and Puccini “Madame Butterfly.” Both these opera were set in Japan, but either had western protagonists as well or were a send up of European culture.
Puccini china-set final Opera “Turandot” is a perfect example of a western composer integrating what he thought was “asian” sounds into his music and using specific musical short hard to do it.
To understand this, you have to know that most western music is based on what’s a scale with seven notes in it (do re mi fa so la ti). Most eratern music is not and is instead based on a Pentatonic scale (do re so la ti). You can play one easily yourself by just playing the black keys on a piano.
In Turandot, Puccini used Penatonic scales all over the place, and the result is beautiful and still not so overly “oriental” that it becomes an offensive pastiche.
Composers all over use short hand in the forms of certain scales, keys, chords and intervals to communicate certain cultures - but it often requires the listener to recognize the “code.” For instance, the opening lines of “Blue Skies” by Irving Berlin were written in a way that was meant to sound “Jewish” (Given that Irving Berlin was a Russian Jew, this is understandable) and the listeners back in the 1920s would have known and heard that.
All in all a fascinating subject!
I’ve been wondering where the Native American version of this comes from — the musical shorthand you hear in old western soundtracks when the Apaches come over the hill, or that godawful chant Braves and Florida State fans do — but I can’t find much information. Like, who decided that this type of musical cue represented Native Americans? Where did that particular Braves/FSU chant come from? It sounds like a western soundtrack, but I don’t know if it actually comes from a specific one.
I don’t need to ask why the same type of cue is used for all Native Americans, though, because that one’s pretty obvious.