Reading Time: 2 minutes

5 min

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Mrs. Lovett with next week’s special.

Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd just reappeared on Netflix streaming, and within two days I had a reader question about it:

Q:  In Sweeney Todd, at the end of the scene where Toby sings Nothing’s Gonna Harm You to Mrs. Lovett, she sings it back to him, but the music is suddenly making my flesh crawl when she does. What the heck is going on??  – Wendy T.

Oh Wendy. I know the scene.

The music in Sweeney Todd is phenomenal and the lyrics among the most inventive Sondheim ever wrote. And that’s saying something for the guy who came up with

I like the isle of Manhattan
Smoke on your pipe and put that in

THE SCENE: Little Toby has realized Mr. Todd is up to no good, and he’s worried about Mrs. Lovett, without whom he’d be living in a Dickens novel — and not the What-day-is-it-today, delightful-boy, bring-me-that-goose-and-I’ll-give-you-a-shilling part.

Toby sings “Nothing’s gonna harm you / Not while I’m around” to a trite melody that mirrors his naiveté. We know something that Toby does not: Mrs. Lovett is a willing accessory to Sweeney Todd’s crimes, guilty right up to her meat pies.

While Sweeney has been driven to a murderous spree by a missed chance to kill the judge who ruined his life, Mrs. Lovett is only in it for the filling. So when Toby goes all Oliver Twist on her, you can see her soften a little.

Mid-scene, Toby sees something that confirms his suspicions about Mr. Todd — the coin purse of his missing and presumed-dead master — and he flips out. To calm him, Mrs. Lovett sits him down and sings the same protective song that Toby sang to her. But we know, from the music alone, that she has decided to kill the boy.

Watch the whole scene for the full effect. The skin-crawl starts at 2:48:

3:25

[arve url=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/LssWKaDF9bk” /]

What’s Going On

The music is identical to Toby’s song with one addition: a quiet violin line high above the voice. While Mrs. Lovett is singing in C major, the violin is playing an atonal melody, meaning the notes don’t really fit into any key — the musical equivalent of insanity. As a bonus, the particular notes he chose are creating strong dissonances with the melody — ninths, sevenths, tritones.

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Sondheim doesn’t need to hit you over the head — just six quiet disordered notes tell you how different Mrs. Lovett’s thoughts are from her words. If the lines were in the same octave, it would be harsh and unsubtle. By instead putting two octaves of air between them, Sondheim makes your skin crawl.

Is there a piece of music you love or hate but don’t know exactly why? A moment that makes you laugh or cry? Be like Wendy. Submit a question here!

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.