Over the Rainbow – A Song That Goes from Generation to Generation

In order to help a person decide if taking piano lessons is right for him or her, I meet personally with the student (and parent in the case of a school age boy or girl). As part of this interview/consultation, I ask about musical interests and goals. I also show the potential student some of the piano music that would be appropriate for his or her particular age and level. Since my teaching method also includes a unique approach to playing, interpreting and arranging songs, I like to demonstrate how well this process works. The challenge is to use a familiar tune that can be presented in an assortment of musical styles. In addition, the selection needs to appeal to people with a variety of musical tastes as well as an age range from 6 to 66 and beyond.

There is one song that fits the bill, hands down, almost every single time, and that is Over the Rainbow. No wonder it works so well. It was voted Number One Song of the 20th Century in a 2001 poll conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Recording Industry Association of America. It was also voted Best Film Song of All Time by the American Film Institute in 2004. Due to this popularity and multi-generational familiarity, I enjoy demonstrating how Over the Rainbow can be played on the piano in a simple flowing style, as a harmonically sophisticated jazz ballad, with a walking bass line for an up-tempo swing, as a jazz waltz and even using a Latin rhythmic accompaniment. In every single version that I play, the song can be recognized. To me that’s the secret of a great song!

Harold Arlen, who was born Hyman Arluck (1905 – 1986), composed more than 400 songs during his career. Many of these selections, written during the 1930’s and 1940’s, have continued to be performed by a variety of artists since their original creation. Needless to say, as the hit song from the film The Wizard of Oz, Over the Rainbow, towers over the rest of Arlen’s wonderful works. Ironically, this 1938 composition came to him in a flash as he was driving to a movie with his wife Anya. Having been anxious to come up with a ballad in time to meet his production deadline, he jotted the tune down then and there. He is quoted to have said, “It was as if the Lord said, ‘Well, here it is, now stop worrying about it!'”

One of Arlen’s lyricist partners was E.Y “Yip” Harburg (1896-1981) who wrote the words to the entire score of The Wizard of Oz including Over the Rainbow.  Known as Broadway’s social conscience, Harburg created the lyrics for more than 600 songs in his collaborations with 50 American Popular Songbook composers.

What continues to amaze me about Over the Rainbow is how perfectly the melody expresses the song’s lyrics. The opening word, “Somewhere”, spans the distance of one octave. As the melodic line goes up eight notes, the element of hope enters as the lyrics continue “over the rainbow, way up high”. The marriage of melody and lyrics doesn’t get much better than this!

The listener is transported from the day to day reality to a celestial place. The alternating 3rds which characterize the melody of the bridge combine the interval associated with calling with the sense of motion as they express the words: Someday I’ll wish upon a star and wake up  where the clouds are far….Where troubles melt like lemon drops, away above the chimney tops…

Although Over the Rainbow became the signature song for Judy Garland, it is no surprise that Rhapsody Music service lists more than 1700 vocal and instrumental tracks. Needless to say, because of this tune’s popularity, you can also find several places online from which you can download Over the Rainbow as a ring tone for your cell phone. With this track record, I imagine that I will still be using Over the Rainbow as my number one choice for introducing potential students to the unique approach that we take to song playing at the Mascari Piano Studios for many years to come.

Before I close, I’d just like to mention the names of the artists who have recorded a few of my favorite versions of Over the Rainbow. These include jazz organist Richard “Groove” Holmes, bassist Sam Jones‘ Ensemble 10, the Herb Ellis/Red Mitchell Duo, as well as pianists Dave Brubeck, Cedar Walton, Oscar Peterson, Andre Previn, George Cables and Erroll Garner.

You must have your own favorite versions of Over the Rainbow.  It would be terrific if you could share your list with your fellow readers. Why not take a moment to simply put your list in the comments box at the end of this post? Then check back to see other versions that you may want to check out yourself.

If you would like to discover how many ways you can learn to play Over the Rainbow or any other song on the piano, contact the Mascari Piano Studios today to set up your free interview/ consultation. We’ll show you how piano lessons with one of our Hudson Faculty Piano Instructors will help you learn to play the music you love!


2 thoughts on “Over the Rainbow – A Song That Goes from Generation to Generation

  1. Hi Ed,

    Like you, I’ve listened to a lot of different versions of this tune; it’s one of my favorites. But still my all-time favorite version is the original, from the movie. The simplicity of that version really seems to fit the tune and the sentiment, the little girl about to leave her familiar world.

    You write about the opening interval of an octave, denoting an element of hope. It’s interesting that another great movie, from the same year as the Wizard of Oz, used the same interval at the beginning of its theme, also denoting an element of hope. That movie? “Gone With the Wind”.


  2. My current favorite version is from a new singer named Nicole Henry. She works with a great accompianist named Mike Orta. They do it as an upbeat latin number. My teenage daughter and her friends absolutely love this song. They ask for it in the car and sing along in their loudest voices. It is funny, because this is -the only- jazz tune that they will admit is good. It has truly universal appeal.

    Beautiful job on the track, Ed!

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