Why ‘Over the Rainbow’ takes us to a magical, musical place

October 6, 2015 at 6:10 PM EDT
What makes the song "Over the Rainbow" an indelible classic? Jeffrey Brown talks to composer and musician Rob Kapilow, who helps explain why we love the story of a girl caught yearning for both home and adventure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: “Over the Rainbow,” the classic ballad written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, and made famous by Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of its first recording back in 1938.

And Jeffrey Brown joined composer and musician Rob Kapilow recently at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, to look at why the song endures.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Over the Rainbow,” right, one of the most — everybody knows this song, but why? What makes us know this song?

ROB KAPILOW, Composer: You know, amazingly, the answer to that starts with the very first two notes. In this famous opening idea, there’s really only two ideas. One of them, I call leap. The other one, I call circle and yearn. And it’s important.


JEFFREY BROWN: Leap and circle and yearn.

ROB KAPILOW: It’s important you learn these technical terms, Jeffrey.


ROB KAPILOW: Circle and yearn.

So, it starts off with this.

JEFFREY BROWN: I didn’t learn that with piano lessons, by the way, right?

ROB KAPILOW: It’s time.

We start off with this big leap. This is a full octave leap. That’s a big leap for a popular song. In fact, producers were worried that nobody would buy the song because it would be too hard to sing this opening leap.

Now, this leap isn’t just a big leap musically. It’s a leap between two different worlds and two parts of the voice. The first note is kind of low down there in chest voice. It’s Dorothy’s troubled reality. It’s Kansas, aridity, no flowers. It’s the black and white of the beginning of the film.

JUDY GARLAND, Actress: Someplace where there isn’t any trouble. Do you suppose there is such a place, Toto?

ROB KAPILOW: So, this is Kansas. The upper note, it is more ethereal. It’s like — it’s where she wants to escape to. It’s Oz. It’s over the rainbow.

So, these two notes, Kansas and Oz, are going to turn out to be the key to the whole song, but you won’t get their final meaning until the last notes of the song.

JUDY GARLAND (singing): Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high, there’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you’re saying through two notes?

ROB KAPILOW: Through two notes. And now watch what happens.

The only other idea is circle and yearn. So, you start on a note, you circle back to it, and then you yearn. That’s it, circle and yearn. Now, there are three…

JEFFREY BROWN: And the question is, what are we — what is she warning for? And at the end, we realize, right?

ROB KAPILOW: Yes, exactly. She’s yearning for high C. She’s yearning for high C.

So, look, there’s three leaps. First one is big on “somewhere.” Next one is smaller on “way up.” Third one is lower and even smaller, “there’s a,” OK, so three leaps. Like her leaps, her world is contracting.

Now, it’s really the harmony that makes it so exquisite. You know, Yip Harburg called this song of yearning. So, here’s what she’s yearning about. He could easily have written kind of a cheery accompaniment to “way up high,” like this.

(singing): Way up high.

But listen to the yearning in the piano part here. I mean, it doesn’t get more beautiful. That’s why we’re still listening into it today, those beautiful chords. Then, it’s so subtle. He could have written this for “there’s a,” but listen to the one dark chord.

And then we finish with two circle and yearns, circle, yearn, circle and yearn.

Now, why is that so fantastic? Why does it hold together? Well, really, what we have done, remember, Kansas, Oz. He really takes it back from Oz back to Kansas in a simple scale.


ROB KAPILOW: But he does it like this. So, we yearn for Oz. We’re stuck in Kansas.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. But the circle, it occurs to me as you’re doing this, is to end up back at home.

ROB KAPILOW: To end up back at home.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, that’s — the theme of the film that we all remember is there embedded in the music.


But when she comes back the home, she understands home in a completely different way. And that’s what makes the ending of the song so magical, because, we do the second verse, we’re still stuck in Kansas, “dreams really do come true.” We have a beautiful middle. We don’t have to talk about it.

We come back and do it a third time, same music. And the song should have finished at, “Why, then, oh, then why can’t I?” But there would have been no transformation.


ROB KAPILOW: She would have been home, but she would never have gone to Oz.

In a beautiful moment — and this is a fantastic moment — Arlen decides to bring back the middle of the song, but in the orchestra. There’s a beautiful quote from Yip Harburg, who wrote the words. He said: “Words make you think thoughts, music makes you feel a feeling, but a song makes you feel a thought.”

And you can feel her thinking. Just the orchestra. Then she comes back, just like in the B section, “if happy little blue birds fly.”

JUDY GARLAND (singing): If happy little blue birds fly beyond the rainbow, why, oh, why can’t I?

ROB KAPILOW: If it had copied the middle, it would have gone like this. But, instead, he changes it, “beyond the rainbow.” She has one last rise.

Now, remember, Kansas, Oz, Kansas, Oz.


ROB KAPILOW: One last rise. “Why, oh, why,” and where does she finally get to? Oz. From low C to high C, from Kansas to Oz, from reality to fantasy, and her transformation is complete.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Over the Rainbow.”

Rob Kapilow, thank you so much.

ROB KAPILOW: A pleasure. Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I love that song. Thank you, Jeff.