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We've all heard the lullaby Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. It's madly famous. Today I noticed that the melody used in the piece is actually used in The Alphabet Song. ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ or whatever it's called. If you listen to Baa Baa Black Sheep you are also able to notice that the tune is quite close to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

Why is this one melody used in so many different lullabies?

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    Not to mention its presence in "Carnival of the Animals: Fossils" – General Nuisance Jan 3 '17 at 22:43
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The melody is from a French song, Ah! vous dirai-je, maman

The first known publishing of the melody dates from 1761, who knows how much further back it goes.

Mozart wrote some variations based on it, which probably helped popularise it a lot greatly

Nursery rhymes, sport chants, folk songs, political rally songs etc. often use existing melodies that are already well remembered, and just change the words, this happens with a lot of melodies.

This particular melody? Musically, it's simple, memorable, and easy for children and adults to sing and play because of its short range (6 notes, less than an octave). It's rhythmically repetitive and pretty much as simple as you can get: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 (8) x6 which makes it very easy to put words to, and very easy to remember. Also more subjectively, it's a lovely little melody, it's not surprising it's stuck around.

The question as to why twinkle twinkle is such a memorable and well loved melody is despite its simplicity is difficult to answer without either being too technical or too hand-wavy, but suffice to say that it packs a lot of content into it short and sweet package. It's conversational, it sort of raises a question and answers it. It has a sort of tension and release, with the middle section being reassuringly answered by the same melodic phrase that came at the beginning. The harmonic structure is perfectly resolved: I'd be hard pressed to think of a more "complete" sounding short melody.

I think it's just one of those melodies like "oh when the saints" "amazing grace" "O tannenbaum/Oh Christmas Tree/The red flag etc." - which knows exactly what it is, doesn't have any unnecessary frills: every note is pretty much there for a purpose, and it makes them pretty timeless. "Amazing Grace" and "Oh when the saints" function very differently harmonically to "Twinkle Twinkle", but the point I just made applies to them both. But if it was easy to exactly quantify what makes these melodies so timeless, then we'd all be writing them. There's an element of tradition of course, but there's more to it than that. I'm sure people have written long books about it.

  • By the way, if anyone wants to rip off whichever parts of this answer they agree with and elaborate further on parts where I could have been clearer, I certainly wouldn't mind! – Some_Guy Jan 4 '17 at 14:53
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Some of this is certainly a feedback loop: it's popular to use this melody because it's popular to use this melody. Once you start using a melody for multiple songs, it becomes more likely that that melody will be used for the next song!

That melody has a few great features:

  • Its range is only 6 notes, which means nearly everybody can sing it. Even with mixed voices, one can typically find a root pitch for which everyone can sing 6 notes.
  • It has a jump from the tonic to the fifth. That's a rather common interval for much of Western music, so there may be some value in teaching it to kids early.
  • Its middle part ends on the supertonic, almost forcing the song to move forward towards resolution.
  • It's chock full of chord progressions from IV to V to I, which are a major fundamental basis for western music.

That being said, if you want to know what song is used for too many famous songs...

  • All excellent points. I would add that the reason that I V and IV are a fundamental basis for western music is because they sound so agreeable to us (not vice versa), that is to say we gravitate towards them naturally. There's a bunch of stuff about frequency ratios and the harmonic series we could go into, but it's probably better to just summarise it that the harmony in this song sticks in the territory of our "Basic" musical intuitions. Basic in the sense of "fundamental", rather than "boring" I mean. – Some_Guy Jan 4 '17 at 15:04
  • (not trying to imply that you implied the opposite here, just thought it might be a valuable little footnote to a good answer) – Some_Guy Jan 4 '17 at 15:05
  • @Some_Guy Yeah. There's some interesting psychology involved because the harmonics of what sounds good are not universal to all humans, but are rather universal within a culture. It's quite the fascinating topic to explore! – Cort Ammon Jan 4 '17 at 16:43
  • I would love to discuss this in chat because I am very interested in this topic, and have to disagree with you quite strongly. I'm not saying that culture is irrelevant, just that there are also universals to all humans :) – Some_Guy Jan 4 '17 at 18:17
  • @Some_Guy chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/51199/… (in case you didn't see my ping from within the chatroom) – Cort Ammon Jan 4 '17 at 18:26

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