The Other Notebook
by David Helwig
I love to sing, or at least I did until my voice deteriorated. My mother was known to say that I sang before I could talk. Though she was not given to hyperbole, I could never quite imagine that. I liked the idea, but I couldn’t quite picture it. I can now, thanks in part to new technologies. I’ll tell you the story.
When my partner Judy and I got together a couple of decades ago, we both already had children. She has three daughters, I have two. A couple of years ago, her middle daughter Caitlin, who was living with her husband in San Francisco, decided to start a family. The next thing she knew she was being told that she was carrying triplets.
Last summer, those triplets, two boys and one girl, about a year and a half old, visited the Island. It was already clear that the girl, Ellie, was going to talk before the two identical boys, and she has since piled up vocabulary at great speed. The boys are quieter. Though identical, the two of them have differing personalities, Will the more outgoing, Luke inclined to be shy, though he was very brave on a slide in the park at Tea Hill.
News of the triplets regularly drifts in from California, and one day came the announcement that Luke, though he was not yet speaking, could sing. I was, of course, curious about just how he learned to do it. Soon enough, thanks to the internet, there appeared on the screen a few seconds of a video recording, Luke standing close to the camera, his expression inward, concentrated, as he began to intone “Twinkle, twinkle, little star,” humming the notes to himself with remarkable accuracy.
Simple as that, a child humming, a slight smile on his face as his memory brought back what he had heard his mother sing. So my mother’s story was less mysterious than I had found it. A child who has not yet learned to form words can obviously have an instinct to sound out notes by vibrating the vocal cords. Luke’s mother is musical, has sung in a number of good choirs, and she sang to the triplets, and one day Luke, in a moment of inspiration, discovered that he could make the same pleasing sounds.
The notes of “Twinkle, Twinkle” are elements of the diatonic scale (doh, re, mi, etc), the tune beginning with the crucial long interval of the fifth and working back down the scale to the tonic where it began. Students of linguistics have developed theories about patterns inherent in the brain that have some sort of axiomatic function in the learning of language, and presumably there is also a rulebook somewhere in the brain for music.
Though not all cultures use the so-called diatonic scale; in some cultures the basis of music is the pentatonic (five note) scale. Presumably some Chinese child was listening to his mother sing a pentatonic tune while Luke was hearing “Twinkle, twinkle”—and also hearing the diatonic scale from whatever music was played on radio, record or cell phone.
Somehow or other he heard enough of this music that the tonal intervals established themselves in his memory. One more marvel.
So will Luke be musical all his life? One would guess so, but it’s possible that singing is a specialized form of music. The great Canadian pianist Anton Kuerti once told me that his parents apparently didn’t think he was musical—presumably because he didn’t (couldn’t?) sing—so he had to go to his nursery school teacher and explain that he liked music and wanted piano lessons. In his case the child was hearing music, understanding it, wanting to participate in it, but not ready to reproduce it vocally.
Music is a miracle. No, that’s perhaps not the way to put it. Music is any number of miracles. Luke’s little humming tune is one of them.