Q&A Tuesday: Why Do These Two Songs Sound Alike?

Q&A with The Big Milkshake

For our inaugural Q&A Tuesday, we are honored to be able to present and wrestle with a question posed by the ever witty and insightful Maricone.  Thanks Maricone!

Maricone asked,

“Why do The Alphabet Song and Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star have the same tune?… Stop singing.”

Well, that is quite a question, and indeed I did start to sing.  I was shocked, although given the question I guess not surprised, to discover that they indeed have the same tune.  So if you are singing now, to quote Maricone, you can “stop singing.”

In response to the question, my initial thought was, “I have no idea.”  But I did the necessary work, and now I know why.

But before diving in, a little background.

Mozart is generally credited for writing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, although others are mentioned every so often.  He wrote it in what is known as Variations on a Theme, a collection of pieces, each which is a variation on the core Twinkle theme.

The only thing I wonder about this though is if the piece is collection of variations as the title suggests, then where is the actual theme, and who wrote it?  In fact, I think the first variation is actually not a variation but simply the theme, and so Mozart wrote it.  But if this is the case, then is not the song incorrectly titled?  Instead of “Variations on a Theme,” should it not be “Theme, and Variations on Said Theme?”

Next, I felt compelled to investigate if  the creators of the Alphabet song violated Mozart’s copyright in his song by copying his song.  If they did, there really was no point in going any further.  Indeed, one thing I know, even though it isn’t relevant, is that one of our camp songs when I was 10-years old had the same tune as the Notre Dame University football’s team then and now fight song.

In any event, not to worry.  Given how long ago Mozart wrote his song (latter part of the 18th Century), it has long been in the public domain so The Alphabet Song and future generations of children who sing it are in the clear.

All the background work completed, I consulted with my Adviser, Emily.  Her response: “The alphabet song and twinkle twinkle little star have the same tune because it was so nice, they did it twice.”

I think that a good answer and a nice rhyme.  Another possible, and related answer, indeed one for which I have found some supporting evidence, is that the creators of The Alphabet Song were simply too lazy to come up with their own tune, heard the Twinkle song one day, and just went with it.  After all, it’s also not like they stretched themselves when they wrote the lyrics– “abcdefghijklmnopqustuvwxyz, now I know my ABC’s…”  Seems to me like they put about as much work into the tune as they did the lyrics.

However, and sorry Emily, here’s the actual answer.

The creators of the alphabet song knew that there is no way that I could learn a new song and the alphabet at once.  Too much multitasking.  But they knew I could sing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Song, so they decided to use the tune for The Alphabet Song just so I could indeed learn the alphabet.  In other words, the songs are the same for me.

And since we’re on the topic of the alphabet song…


If you would like to submit a question for consideration, you can do so in the comment section below or here.*  Questions already submitted from visitors of the Site which we look forward to answering in future weeks include, “Why are Yawns contagious?” and (to be addressed next week) “You know that little indestructible called the black box that is used on planes? Why can’t they make the whole plane out of the same substance?”

(* We cannot commit to answering any or all submitted questions.)