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July 10, 2017

Dr. James Bohn fondly remembers his family’s annual trips to Florida when he was young. Sure, seeing his grandparents was fun, but the real joy of those trips was found three hours further north.

“I was at Disneyworld before it opened, as an infant,” he said.

Between those recurring trips to the giant theme park and the Disney movies his parents took him to see at the local theater, he fell in love not with just the animation of those features but the music. Seven years ago when searching for a topic for his second book, the music of Disney films seemed like a good one.

“I knew a lot of it pretty well,” Professor Bohn said. “And the topic fit that matrix – what I know about, what’s popular and what hasn’t been written about enough. Plenty has been written about Disney, but not so much about the music.”

The result of his six years of work is Music in Disney's Animated Features: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to The Jungle Book. It was published in May by University Press of Mississippi.

Dr. Bohn is a native of Wisconsin who now lives in New Bedford. He has been an instructor in the Music Department for the past 12 years. His specialty is music technology and his own compositions have been performed at festivals and institutions around the United States. His first book was based on his dissertation, a study of the work of Lejaren Hiller (the first composer to write a piece of music using a computer). His primary instrument is the Theremin.

How important was the music to Disney’s greatest animated films? The man himself once wrote: “I cannot think of the pictorial story without thinking about the complementary music which will fulfill it.” Add to Walt Disney’s own thoughts those of film historian Leonard Maltin, “Music was the foundation of Walt Disney’s success,” and it’s clear that Dr. Bohn picked a worthwhile topic to explore.

When he began his research for the new book, Professor Bohn feared the Disney Corporation might hinder him, or at least refuse to help. However, several years into the project, the company opened to him its archives and music library. He also worked remotely with archives in Idaho, Ohio, Wyoming and elsewhere to study other materials.

“The great thing about Disney is that nearly every meeting was transcribed, so you can track whose ideas were whose,” Professor Bohn said. Meanwhile, in the music library he was able to study the film scores he was writing about. Often a bit of marginalia or some recognizable handwriting helped him figure out what composter wrote what.

“Film scores are really difficult to look at because they’re written so fast that they’re hard to read,” he said. “No one signs anything and people were working to get it done as quickly as possible, so there’s never as much information as you’d like.”

The book allows Dr. Bohn to present the genesis, history, recording techniques, various “tricks,” working methods, and thoughts of composers and critics of the various scores. Under study in the book’s nine chapters are such classic Disney soundtracks as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Cinderella, Bambi, Peter Pan and others.

Through his research, Dr. Bohn was able to prove and debunk some famous claims that have been made by connoisseurs of Disney music, such as whether the composer Bert Lewis wrote the music for Steamboat Willie, (Dr. Bohn says he did). 

The book will appeal to Disney fans, scholars and researchers who study anything related to the company and its films, and general fans of film music.

Asked which Disney animated feature he favored, Dr. Bohn was quick to reply.

“This is might be a little biased to say, but I think Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is the most important first film in any genre,” he said. He added that the 1937 film not only featured a terrific and imaginative score, it also attracted an audience of all ages, and still does.

“There’s no reason that animated films have to be for kids,” Professor Bohn said. “And all that descends from Snow White.” (Story by John Winters, G ’11, University News & Media)