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Joel Roston Composer | Instrumentalist
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The Case for Adding Two Beats to the Alphabet Song

14 Oct 2014

You can also read this post on medium.com.

Let’s talk about the first half of the American English version of “The Alphabet Song” for a minute.

This is the iconic tune which, for many/most of us, was our first introduction to the foundational building-blocks of the English language. This song, however, has three major problems.

PROBLEMS

1. It IS “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”.

Syllabic distribution of lyrical content aside, the melody to “The Alphabet Song” is exactly the melody to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”. It’s perhaps not readily apparent to the undiscerning youngster, but when the realization finally hits, it bears the distinct sting of ultimate betrayal. Not only does it turn out that we know one fewer melody than we thought we did, but the disappointment of having to acknowledge that we weren’t the sort of compositionally precocious child that could recognize the similarities right off the bat can give us crippling self-confidence issues later in life should we decide to pursue music as a career.

2. Not until roughly age twenty or twenty-five do we learn what “elemeno” means.

Many people claim to have had this problem in their early days of learning to read and write — they thought that “elemeno” was, itself, a letter.

While I didn’t think “elemeno” was, itself, a letter, I had a separate problem which went like this: I thought that “elemeno” was an adjective that modified the letter “P.” Like, I imagined that there were different sorts of Ps for different occasions and the version of “P” that was in “The Alphabet Song” was an “elemeno” “P.” I explained this to myself by intuiting that “elemeno” was some form of “elementary,” which was a word that adults used when they were impersonating/invoking Sherlock Holmes in an attempt to illustrate how simple something was. This gave me the feeling that the “P” in “The Alphabet Song” was the most basic “P” available, which made sense because it was in a song about the most basic parts of our language.

3. The letter “W” doesn’t receive the rhythmic respect it deserves.

“W” is the only letter with a name that contains more than one syllable, but because of the whole “Elemeno”-being-sung-in-eighth-notes thing (assuming we’re in 4/4), “W,” heretofore, hasn’t been able to pop out and display its very special character.

SOLUTION

The solution to these problems, as far as I see it, is to add two beats to “The Alphabet Song”. Specifically, if we’re in 4/4, we should insert a lone measure of 2/4 in between measures four and five, assigning “L,” “M,” “N,” and “O” each to their own quarter note.

Here’s the standard version of [what some doctors might call] “the affected region”:

And here it is again with my proposed alteration:

Not only would this differentiate “The Alphabet Song” from “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” by making the former “the weird one with the two extra beats,” but it would, de-mystify “L,” “M,” “N,” and “O,” while leaving “W” to reign atop its multi-syllabic, structurally-significant throne. The word “double,” as a matter of fact, would be sung exactly at the only time the in the song that a quarter note becomes two eighth notes, which “makes good [formalistic] sense,” as one Mr. Louis Tully might point out.

The 2/4 addition would also have the added benefit of introducing meter changes to children at a super early age, making “The Alphabet Song” a potent pedagogical tool with regard to music. Imagine asking kids to stomp their feet at the beginning of every measure and then watching their faces melt off when they get to “L,” “P,” and “Q”.

Lastly, though I originally considered simply elongating the measure that starts with “L” (otherwise known as “measure four”) by two beats to make it one full measure of 6/4, I realized that the short 2/4 bar would isolate the letter “P,” which, everyone knows, is the funniest letter (urologically speaking).

To illustrate the subtle – but semantically and musically significant – difference between the standard version and my proposed version, I recorded myself singing both of them (each with its own silly/fun, pointillistic arrangement).

Here’s the version that we’ve come to know:

And here’s the version that I hope we WILL come to know:

Let’s change the world!

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