There's not a lot of deep, hidden symbolism in The Sound of Music. What you see is pretty much what you get.
One symbol is definitely explicit, though—edelweiss.
Edelweiss is a small white flower that's common in the Austrian mountains; it's almost considered the national flower. That strong association with the country is important to the captain. He sings a folksong about it, and one of the lyrics is "Bless my homeland forever."
In this film, edelweiss is really about home. The song makes its first appearance as the first song the captain sings in his own in front of the children, and it marks a hugely important transition in his relationship with them. He's gone from being totally shut down emotionally to agreeing to sing a sentimental for them. It's a transformative moment for everyone. The kids can't believe it.
(And, uh, neither can we.)
The captain sings it again during another important transition: when he's about to leave Austria to escape having to join the Nazi naval forces and live under the new regime. He gets the entire crowd at the Salzburg Festival singing along. It ends up being a small moment of resistance to the German occupation and affirmation of Austrian nationalism.
Way to stick it to the Nazis under the guise of just singing a pretty song for the audience.
Don't know if you got the memo, but "the hiiiiiiiiillls are aliiiiiiiiive with the sound of muuuuuuuuuusic."
The Salzburg tourist industry knows these mountains were made famous by the film and puts the mountains and the movie front and center on its tourism website.
The mountains are where Maria goes to sing and commune with nature, to the detriment of her duties at the abbey. When the Reverend Mother worries that she could get lost up there after dark, Maria insists that she grew up in those hills, so she could never be lost there. Basically, the hills are a place where she goes to recharge.
The mountains are versatile actors: they also play the opposite role, representing anything but comfort and safety. Mountains are where you're tested, and where you face challenges that might seem insurmountable It's no coincidence that when Maria is really struggling to find her life's path, Reverend Mother launches into "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" to encourage her not to hide from her problems, but face them head on until she figures out her purpose.
Mountains also present very literal—and huge—challenges toward the end of the film, when Maria and the rest of the von Trapps realize that they're going to have to flee over the Alps to escape the Nazis. The last images of the film show the von Trapps slowly but surely making their way through the mountains into Switzerland. It's the end of a story that began with that opening musical sequence with Maria singing in the Austrian mountains.
The mountains are the same, but Maria's life has changed dramatically. Whereas Maria's girly life at the beginning was all about frolicking in the hills, her adult life with Georg is fraught with huge challenges and dangers—that is, with metaphorical mountains. It seems fitting that the movie ends with her climbing the Alps.
She's definitely learned to face life challenges, and the film's mountain motif illustrates that perfectly.
The "Music" in The Sound of Music isn't just there for sing-alongs. It's really a symbol of all that's good and joyful in the world. Which means "lack of music" is code for sadness and despair.
We learn almost immediately that Maria has an irrepressible zest for life, and it comes bursting out in the form of music. She's singing when we meet her, unable to contain her joy at being outdoors on that beautiful day…and that's pretty much the case throughout the film.
The captain, in contrast, starts out being all about rules and keeping his distance from the people around him—and this includes a strict "no singing" rule for the kids (and himself, too). It appears that when his wife died, he walled himself off from love and joy, and music went out the window with them.
When Maria gets her happy little hands on the kids, that changes big time. The captain realizes that he should let both love and music back into his life. His first real moment of connection with the kids in the film occurs when he hears them singing to the baroness He dramatically joins in, shocking them with his awesome pipes—and warmth. They hug after the song, signaling that the captain's relationship with his kids is undergoing a major thaw.
When the captain later thanks Maria for bringing music back into the house, he's also thanking her for bringing love back into his life. Music is a huge vehicle for conveying emotions and forging connections to other characters, so it's a lot more than just song and dance.
And does Herr Zeller ever sing? Case closed.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
When the movie opens, Maria's a flighty young girl who's studying to be a nun. She's extremely likeable and sweet, but she's not very good at adhering to the rules and traditions of the abbey.
Since Maria isn't really fitting in at the abbey, the Reverend Mother decides that she needs to do something to help Maria find her path. Seems that God's will, at least temporarily, is to send her to help out a widower named Captain von Trapp, who needs help with his seven children.
At first, Maria isn't too keen on the idea of leaving the abbey—or going to care for seven kids—so she argues with the Reverend Mother. But you can't fight City Hall or God's will, so she ultimately agrees. As she travels to the von Trapp house, she tries to convince herself that she can handle this new challenge.
The Reverend Mother is really Maria's most important mentor, since she consistently pushes Maria to face challenges rather than avoid them. That's exactly what she's doing in sending Maria to the von Trapps.
Once Maria has arrived at her new post, we'd say that the children end up mentoring her regarding the ways of the house—and, in particular, their father. They clue her into the fact that their father doesn't like for them to sing, which of course encourages Maria to change his mind.
With Captain von Trapp off in Vienna, Maria gets right to work making big changes in the household. She makes play clothes for the kids out of her old curtains (they've only been wearing uniforms), and she teaches them how to sing. They have a ball running around Salzburg singing, dancing, climbing trees, and boating.
The party's over when the captain comes home and finds his kids dressed in old curtains and behaving (in his view) wildly. He's particularly honked off because he's brought his classy girlfriend the baroness with him to meet the kids. He and Maria argue, and she gets canned.
Wouldn't you know, though. Right after the captain fires Maria, he hears his children singing one of the songs Maria taught them to welcome the baroness. He almost goes into a trance, realizing that he's been keeping his kids at a distance and sucking all the joy out of their lives and his own.
He begs Maria to stay, and from that point on there's a lot more music, fun, and laughter in the house. Maria's role in the household has become really important, as Max acknowledges when he says he'll have to use Maria's sway with the captain to convince Georg to let the kids sing in public. You could think of Maria's relationship with the captain as the Inmost Cave, where the mystery and challenge of love dwells.
The baroness sees Maria and Georg's connection and realizes they're in love, even if they don't know it yet. She seems to assume that if she draws Maria attention to Georg's feelings, the girl will be mortified and remove herself from the family—and of course, that's exactly what happens. Maria runs back to the abbey, which devastates the kids (and Maria, too).
Wise mentor that she is, the Reverend Mother doesn't let Maria hide from her problems. Once she finds out Maria's reasoning for leaving the von Trapps, she insists that she go back and figure out whether she and the captain really have feelings for each other.
When she goes back, she discovers that the captain and the baroness are engaged—but the baroness quickly realizes that the captain's feelings for Maria aren't going away and skedaddles. With that barrier out of the way, Maria and the captain finally admit their feelings for each other and decide to get married.
Finally, it looks like everyone has what s/he wants and needs. The kids have a stepmother they adore, Maria has found a life of meaning with the von Trapps, and the captain's previously cold, dead heart is now alive with the sound of music.
Unfortunately, the bliss doesn't last long. The Nazis annex Austria while Maria and Georg are on their honeymoon, and the happy couple returns to find that the occupying forces have taken the liberty of hanging the Nazi flag over their front door—and that Georg has been "offered" a commission in the German naval forces. Georg has no intention of working with the Nazis, but it would also be extremely dangerous to refuse the job.
The von Trapps decide to flee that night, but their plans get (briefly) thwarted when Herr Zeller and some other Nazis show up outside their house as they're trying to sneak away. The captain manages to delay Herr Zeller's plan to take him to his new post by saying he needs to sing with his family in the folk festival that evening.
The von Trapps get to say a musical goodbye to their beloved Austria (and pump up some Austrian nationalist sentiments) while singing at the festival. While the Nazis think the von Trapps are waiting backstage to hear the prizes being awarded, the family slips out. They hide at the abbey at first before escaping into the mountains to safety and freedom.
Salzburg was home to the sound of music long before Maria von Trapp showed up. It's the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for Pete's sake. It's located right on Germany's southern border.
The movie wastes no time showing off the gorgeousness of Salzburg and its mountains. Director Robert Wise devotes a lot of time to aerial shots of mountains, clouds, and trees during the opening sequence, all of which lead up to that famous shot of Maria spinning on the hilltop. Then, a few minutes later when the credits begin, we move from natural to architectural scenery, with shots of the buildings and cityscapes of Salzburg.
Anyway, by beginning the movie with this emphasis on the characters' surroundings, Wise clues us into the fact that the film's setting is probably going to be pretty important. Sure enough, once we get into the actual story, we learn that one of the major plotlines revolves around Austria's struggle to resist the German occupation in World War II. Captain von Trapp absolutely refuses to play ball with the Germans when his homeland is annexed, and has to flee when the Nazis force him to take a commission in their navy.
The movie also uses song to highlight the importance of setting, as in the song "Edelweiss." As we discuss in our "Symbols" section, "Edelweiss" is most definitely a love song to Austria, and so it's pretty bittersweet that the captain sings it on the very night he knows he's leaving Austria, possibly never to return.
Salzburg loves The Sound of Music, even if most Austrians don't. It's been a tourist gold mine for the city.
The film doesn't take too many risks with the whole genre of the musical or with storytelling. There's the single plot line following Maria's journey from young nun to stepmother of seven, with the whole specter of World War II and the rise of the Nazis lurking in the background. The only things that interrupt the narrative are the musical numbers, and they mostly tend to propel the story right along.
The Sound of Music. No-brainer—it's a movie musical, adapted from a Broadway musical. Where would the world be if Maria hadn't taught the kids their musical notes via "Do-Re-Mi"?
We don't even want to think about it.
The film's musical numbers comment on the action and push the story forward. Some of the musical numbers are traditional musical film "bursting into song out of the blue" moments, and others are meant to be actual performances that the characters present.
There's drama here, too. Even in the midst of the movie's aggressive buoyancy and beautiful music, there's trouble brewing. The Nazis are about to march into Austria and make it disappear into Germany. The von Trapp family is faced with the decision of remaining and serving the new regime vs. getting out while they can. That's conflict, and conflict is the beating heart of drama.
We'd say the movie is still pretty solidly a lighthearted musical romp, but the dramatic storyline gives The Sound of Music some heft that many classic musicals don't have—and Shmoop likes it that way.
Talk about a no-brainer.
Our protagonist uses music to transform the von Trapp household, so it seems right that the sound of music would take top billing in the title. It's also very meta, since the film is a musical and it's about a family who became a musical performing bunch.
BTW, the original working title of the stage musical was Love Song. Rodgers and Hammerstein's lawyers begged them to change it because of copyright problems with the 300+ other musical compositions with the same title (source). We're so glad they did.
Refusing to sacrifice his principles, the captain knows he can't remain in Austria and serve in the navy under the German occupation. The film ends with the von Trapp family traipsing through the Alps to Switzerland, secretly escaping from Herr Zeller and his Nazi minions.
The scene also refers back to climbing those metaphorical mountains that the Reverend Mother sang about; it completes the story's circle. It's an anxious scene, but full of hope and courage. It leaves the family's fate up in the air, but we have faith in the captain to lead everyone to safety. Plus, we know that the real von Trapps got out of Austria.
Then again, maybe we didn't know that when we were seven.
Especially since that's not really how the von Trapps got out of Austria (they actually took a train to Italy and told people where they were going), many critics saw the ending as overly sentimental and melodramatic.
We don't care. We love it anyway.
The Sound of Music is the ultimate family-friendly movie. There's no cussing, no violence, and aside from some brief kissing (between the captain/Maria and Liesl/Rolfe), no hanky-panky. It's really all pretty G-rated…that is, until you get to the Nazi stuff.
The movie doesn't focus too intently on the Nazis and what they're about, but as an audience, we're very aware that World War II is about to erupt and Austria is gonna get trampled under Nazi boots. Guns are pointed, threats are made. That's definitely the kind of stuff you'd want a parent around to contextualize, so we'll bump it up to PG on that basis even though MPAA gave it an unadulterated G.