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Lady Lullaby Blog

Lullabies for babies, grown-ups and everyone in between!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Nora and the Minor Third

There is a really cute three year old sitting in the row in back of me on the plane. She is singing enthusiastically. Surprisingly (since I was up way too late) I’m not minding at all, in fact I’m enjoying it, and I can’t help but notice that a lot of her spontaneous song uses a very special set of notes: the minor third.

The interval of a minor third is made up of two notes that are three half-steps apart (if you’re looking at a piano). We all know and have sung those notes---they are notes of the universal “Na, na, na, na, na” taunt. And “Starlight, Starbright,” “Brahm’s Lullaby,” and millions of songs in every culture. It’s even the opening of “Hey Jude.”

Zoltan Kodaly was a composer and important music educator, and he started teaching music to young children with the notes of the minor third.

Why do we love these particular notes? Researchers have found that babies can hear sound from inside the mother’s womb, and that they actually prefer certain intervals, including the minor third. I just sang this interval to my 14 week-old grandson and I swear he sang it back to me. OK, now I’m curious.

But after searching in vain for a real scientific explanation—even Wikipedia let me down—for now, I have come to my own unscientific conclusion that these notes somehow resonate with our own human frequency. Physics tells us that everything is made of vibration and frequency, and these set of notes must be “tuned” to our own nervous systems and have a good soothing effect.

I’ll keep trying to find a better answer for why we love these notes so much, but whatever the reason, if the minor third is good enough for unborn babies, for children’s songs from all over the world, for the Beatles, and for Nora, it’s good enough for me.

Listen to these opening notes, and see what other songs you can think of that start like this:

Sweet dreams,

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