This is something I noticed about a year ago but didn’t really feel the need to bring it up until recently, largely because I’ve been listening more to my MLP playlist at work lately. There are a few songs in the series that have this quality to them, but the one I want to talk about is I’ll Fly from Tanks for the Memories.
To remind us of the context of the song, Rainbow Dash vows to sabotage the efforts of the other pegasi trying to bring winter to Ponyville so that her pet Tank won’t hibernate. The understanding is that Rainbow’s efforts are about as useless in changing a season as they might be in real life, but that the consequence of winter (losing her pet) is unacceptable to her. I made the connection between Don Quixote (or rather, Man of La Mancha and the famous song “The Impossible Dream”) and Flight to the Finish before, and I’ll make the connection with this episode as well – the concept of marching staunchly toward the unconquerable is one that I find extremely compelling and emotionally moving.
There are a lot of things I like about I’ll Fly that I won’t go into here, but there is one thing that I want to bring up. I’m going to throw around some music theory jargon but I’ll try to bring it together in broader language afterwards. The scale steps of the melody during the first half of the chorus (starting on the words of “and I’ll fly”, in the key of Db major) are 3-4-5-3-4-5-6-5-3-4-3-4-5-5-3-4-5-8-8-8-5-5-3-4-3-5-1-1. If you’re acquainted with counterpoint you’ll clearly recognize the tonic triad among the emphasized notes (indicated in bold) with a few passing tones between 3 and 5, yet the underlying chord progression of that section goes (again, in the key of Db major) 4-1-2-7b-4-1-2-1(6). What hits me is that Rainbow Dash is singing as if with the utmost confidence that she’s in happy Db major the whole time, but the rest of the music is actually harmonizing with several different chords, most of which (at least in western musical culture) are more often associated with sadder, more subdued emotions. Even the top of the very first ascending line (“and I’ll fly”), which ends on the triumphant fifth above Db (Ab), lands as a peculiar 9th in the chord that sounds (Gb); the fact that it’s a 9th suggests Rainbow is unaware of the incongruity between the assumed chord in her melody and the actual chord underneath, since landing on that scale step at the end of your grand ascending line is not what you would normally expect from a song about beating the odds. Moreover, the preceding chord (from the end of the verse) is the dominant of Db, which of course most strongly suggests a return to tonic, in which Rainbow’s melody would make the most sense in the context of her own emotions.
In other words, I interpret the music as realizing the same “impossible dream” motif as is found the lyrics. Rainbow presses forward with the same sort of reckless assurance in her melody as in her denial, unaware that the music around her, like the situation around her, does not/will not play out as she thinks it will. It really adds a lot to the experience when I listen to the song, same thing for The Pony I Want to Be (Reprise) and a few others.