I’m a classically trained musician. It’s been a long time since I’ve played, but I played viola in grade school. I’ve taken a year of college music theory. I know at least the basics of how to play half a dozen instruments. I have friends who know a lot more about music than I do—one of my Facebook friends is a music teacher, after all, and another is a professional violinist—but I know far more than average about music. And, yeah, it does kind of boil down to “Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom.”
We are in the classroom of Professor Owl (Bill Thompson). He is teaching his class of birdbrains about music, starting with the very basics. All of music, he tells them—and us—stems from four basic concepts. “Toot” is your basic horn. It develops from a cow horn to things as varied as a trombone, a trumpet, and a French horn. “Whistle” is, well, a whistle—which becomes a flute, a bassoon, a saxophone. “Plunk” is a bow, which becomes a harp, a guitar, a viola, and generally anything else with strings. “Boom” starts here as just slapping your own belly, but it has developed into drums of all sorts.
There’s some crossover, of course—the piano, where you hit strings with hammers, for example. And the saxophone is assumed to be a Toot instrument by many, but it has a reed and varies sound by the covering of holes. But so far as I know, very instrument from every culture up until the development of the synthesizer fits into one of the four families. Arguably, the terms from this cartoon are better for the wind instruments, inasmuch as they don’t specify what the instrument is made of. Not all brass instruments are made of brass; not all woodwinds are made of wood.
This short has been used for educational purposes in music classrooms almost since its debut in 1953. It has, let’s be honest, some unfortunate ethnic stereotypes, especially in the “Boom” part, and it’s mostly Eurocentric—aside from some African drums and the placement of the origin of the metal horn in Egypt, I’m pretty sure you could believe that only white people made music. Still, as Disney educational shorts go, it’s pretty good.
Really, there are more truly educational Disney shorts than people realize, and I’ll have to get to a few more of them. This one was actual theatrical release—it accompanied Fantasia in a re-release for both in 1963, but I can’t find what its original pairing was—and was in fact the first cartoon made in Cinemascope and the Best Animated Short winner for 1953. It’s also a sequel to similar gimmick cartoon “Melody,” made and released in 3-D. In general, I consider the Looney Tunes to be funnier than Disney’s output, but Disney was doing more interesting stuff than people realize once you step away from Mickey and Donald.
It’s also long been interesting to me that many of these educational shorts, as well as of course “Rite of Spring” in Fantasia, take it for granted that evolution really occurs. After all, in addition to the evolution of music—surely not controversial even to creationists—this cartoon presupposes cavemen to be a thing. And now, I’m imagining Intelligent Tuning, and that’s probably a sign that my brain is going nowhere good with this. It’s also a trombone joke waiting to happen.