Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star Part I: The ultimate guide to this tune in our culture [Printables]

How much do you think you know about Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star?

Maybe you have a good ear and have figured out that other children’s songs share the same tune, like Baa, Baa Black Sheep, the Alphabet Song and perhaps even a German children’s song about ducks not as well known in the English-speaking world.

Maybe you’ve heard the Mozart variations (and know the French title). If you’re familiar with other classical music, maybe you’ve suspected something fishy was going on with Smetana’s The Moldau?

Or, if you’re more into popular music, maybe you’ve heard Twinkle’s star appearance in Gotye’s Somebody that I Used to Know, or even sleuthed it out in What a Wonderful World (if not, think “I see trees of green…” to Louis Armstrong’s voice and you’ll hear it).

As I started working on this post, nothing prepared me for how deep and wide my search for this tune would go. It’s led me with bread crumbs on a 600-year quest along a winding path through countries, over continents, languages and musical styles. It surprised me how completely this tune has permeated the very fabric of western music.

This plays into a pet theory of mine: that there are only a handful of seed melodies in the world and that most music is somehow based on one of them. It makes you wonder about lawsuits between creative people trying to control the intellectual property of a melody, trying to tame down the infectious spread of something you can’t immunize yourself against: a tune.

What if every tune in existence is a variation of some kind?

Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. For comparison, all music samples are written with a G tonic.

Imagine the children’s game of Telephone, in which players whisper a phrase from ear to ear, down a long chain of people. What’s said in the beginning usually changes by the end. That’s the story of the Twinkle, Twinkle tune. In fact, when you hear the original you may or may not hear the similarity.

16th Century

Italy: La Mantovana, adapted by Biado (1500s)

Our quest for the Twinkle tune continues in Renaissance Italy sometime in the 1500s with a tune attributed to Italian tenor, Giuseppino del Biado (1550-1616). Some of the earliest written records of this wandering tune appear in Italy.

Originally set to the text Fuggi, fuggi, fuggi da questo cielo (Flee, flee, flee from this sky), it appeared in print in Biado’s book of madrigals in the year 1600.

Ballo di Mantua (Mantua Dance) was published by Giovan Battista Ferrini in 1644.

La Mantovana was published on page 122 of Gasparo Zanetti’s Il Scolaro in 1645.

The tune was used by Biagio Marini in his Trio Sonata, op. 22: Sonata sopra fuggi, from “Diversi generi di sonate, da chiesa, e da camera”, published in 1655.

La Mantovana (Il Ballo di Mantova), a madrigal first published in 1600.

Features of the Italian iterations that will define the Twinkle tune over the next hundred years are:

  • It’s in a minor key signature with features of the Dorian mode (the Dorian raised 6th degree of the scale hearkens back to Medieval music.)
  • AABA form. The first tune is stated then repeats, there follows contrasting material in the middle, and finally, the first tune returns once more.
  • The main tune begins with five quick ascending notes, then follows the familiar “Twinkle” shape back down.
  • The second melody (B) begins by stepping down four notes. This resembles the eventual Twinkle folk tune (it’s even made of the same intervals as Twinkle’s: whole tone, semitone, whole tone). However, instead of starting at the fifth degree of the scale as Twinkle’s B section does, it begins up an octave on the upper key note then descends in the Dorian mode with four notes. This unique sound remains a feature of all variants until the end of the 17th Century.
  • There are two measures of connecting material at the end of the B section, before the return of the main tune (a couplet).

Note: Even though Biado’s madrigals were compiled and published in the year 1600, it’s possible that La Mantovana was created earlier. The music reflects at least the Renaissance style and may be based on a much earlier unknown tune.

17th Century

England: An Italian Rant, John Playford (1651)

La Mantovana spread widely over Europe.

In 1651, it was published in John Playford’s first edition of The English Dancing Master with the title An Italian Rant. The title indicates that at this point in the music’s spread across Europe, the English who played, published and danced to it had learned it from an Italian, or from an Italian-trained musician.

Here it is recorded on authentic Renaissance instruments.

An Italian Rant from John Playford’s The English Dancing Master, published in 1651 (tune begins at 0:30).

An Italian Rant carries forward many of La Mantovana’s features: the minor key signature and the five ascending notes at the opening.

The B section begins on the upper octave note and descends with the raised “Dorian” note.

And this version keeps the couplet extension before the A melody returns.

Belgium: Ik zag Cecilia komen, Anonymous (1661-1693)

The Flemish version of the Twinkle tune, Ik zag Cecilia komen, is translated “I Saw Cecilia Coming.” It first appeared in the Ghent Carillon Book, written down between 1661 and 1693.

The Ghent Carillon Book was a compilation of sacred and popular tunes, signifying that Ik zag Cecilia komen was already widely known at the time the music was arranged for the volume.

Ik zag Cecilia komen from the Ghent Carillon Book, compiled from 1661-1693.

This setting gives the music a long-short lilt, in 12/8 compound meter (basically, four beats per measure, but with three inner pulses per beat). The slower tempo matched with the minor key imbue the music with a tender and melancholic sound. Notice that it begins on an upbeat.

The A tune includes the jump to the upper octave and the raised Dorian note. It does not repeat, but goes straight into the B section.

Like all known 17th Century versions of La Mantovana, Ik zag Cecilia komen retains the two-measure connecting material between the B section and the return of A. However, this is the first time we hear the four-note descending pattern on the pitches that will eventually become the B section we know in Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star (though still in the minor).

Scotland: My Mistress is Prettie, Mouton (late 1600s)

The Balcarres Lute Book, which is a late-17th century Scottish manuscript, gives us My Mistress is Prettie, movement IV in the The French Suite by Mr. Mouton.

According to the notes on a current print edition, “…the Balcarres Lute Book is the largest and most important post-1640 British source of lute music. It contains…settings of native Scots airs and of English popular tunes, and French baroque lute music by mid and later 17th-c masters.”

It is interesting to note that the Scottish manuscript ascribed to the tune a French origin through the French lute master, Mr. Mouton. The fact that the music was borrowed into a French Suite at the end of the 17th century suggests that by then the music was already widely popular in France. It is unknown whether the tune’s Italian origins were still known in France, but by the time the music reached Scotland, only the French connection was apparent.

My Mistress is Prettie, movement IV, French Suite, Mouton, from the Balcarres Lute Book, late 1600s.

Of all of the European versions of Twinkle, the Scottish tune is the most compelling. Like Ik zag Cecilia komen, it begins on an upbeat.

It shares many features with Ik zag Cecilia komen. For example, in the second phrase, it retains the octave leap to the upper key note as well as the descent in the Dorian mode.

The use of neighbouring tones and ornaments are very characteristic of Baroque music.

It had gained wide popularity in Italy as a madrigal and was likely performed by well-trained lay musicians and professional musicians, who were then responsible for spreading it far afield. Musicians at this time moved great distances for training and employment, and as they came and went from Italy, were the most likely carriers of this generation of the tune across Europe.

More to explore!

This is the first instalment of a series of blog posts on this seemingly universal melody. Join me as I continue through time and across the European continent (and beyond) in search of more versions and variations.

This melody’s scope of influence cannot be underestimated. It would be difficult to find a child or adult from a western country (or even a country that is influenced by western music) who has not heard, sung or played this tune.

If you’d like to compare the four melodies mentioned in this post, La Mantovana, An Italian Rant, Ik zag Cecilia komen and My Mistress is Prettie, you’ll find the music in my printables section in the section called Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.

Watch for more!

We embark on this multi-part series with an overview that launches the entire body of research. Did you know that the first version of Twinkle was minor? Here is a bird’s-eye view of the full Twinkle journey. We begin at the beginning. Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star Part I: The ultimate guide to this tune in our culture

Discover the early-Baroque Italian versions of one of the world’s most-loved melodies, with music samples from 17th century Italy. Here’s the next chapter of the story as we know it. Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star Part II: Then there was a madrigal in Italy [Printables]

Musicians carried the Italian variant far afield when they travelled Europe for employment. Here is a collection of next generation variants from 17th century Europe. These early international adopters launched a cascade effect of countless iterations of the tune throughout Europe for centuries to come. Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star Part III: Next generation spread throughout 17th-c Europe [Printables]

As the original tune began to transform in folk circles, which features were kept and which were lost? And where in Europe did the original minor tune first become major and begin its transformation into the Twinkle tune we all know? It’s all explored in this post! Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star Part IV: From minor it branches into the major key [Printables]

Discover the transformation from the original florid melody to the simple tune of France’s Ah! vous dirai-je, maman and composers’ variations on it, beginning with Mozart. Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star Part V: Mozart, a French folk song and beyond [Printables]

In several countries this tune was adopted as a national theme. Compare the versions that emerged. Which features of the original music were retained and how did the music change as it travelled? Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star Part VI: Twinkle as 19th-c national songs in countries far and wide [Printables]

Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star became a source of inspiration of master composers, who borrowed it into their major works. Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns, Dohnányi and more all fell under its spell. Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star Part VII: Twinkle is borrowed by master composers [Printables] Coming soon!

In time, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star emerged from earlier folk settings and continued to be borrowed into beloved children’s songs in an ever-expanding tradition of folk music. Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star Part VIII: A folk tune becomes children’s songs in many languages [Printables] Coming soon!

Even popular musicians have come under the influence of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and have woven its tune into their melodies. Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star Part IX: Twinkle is borrowed into popular songs [Printables] Coming soon!

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I appreciate shares, comments and likes. Happy teaching! ❤

Rebekah Maxner, composer, blogger, piano teacher. Follow my blog for great tips!

Video of the Week

North Star. (Intermediate piano, Level 4) Based on Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, North Star (eSheet) features fifths, rhythmic patterns with sixteenth notes, legato pedal and lots of moments for developing long, expressive phrases. North Star is available as an eSheet!

Listen to North Star on YouTube!
Listen to a sound sample of Yellow Boots!

12 thoughts on “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star Part I: The ultimate guide to this tune in our culture [Printables]

Add yours

  1. Thank you for sharing this fascinating history. I am looking forward to your future “Twinkle” posts!


  2. Hi! Thank you so much for this wonderful series on Twinkle Twinkle Little Star!! I’m not finding a link (that is correct) that leads to Part II or III? Is it just me? Thank you again!


    1. Megan, You’re welcome! I’m having so much fun with this. You are correct that there are no current links to parts II and III, but there will be. Based on new music I’ve uncovered this winter, I’ve decided to expand the beginning of the series. Based on common belief, I’d written that the Italian Fuggi, fuggi, fuggi was the first appearance of this tune, but that is no longer my thinking. It’s a huge job to update old posts to the level of accuracy I require. For now, the original Part I has some of the analysis that is going to be split into parts II and III with my newest findings. This music is much, much older than 500 years. I can’t wait to post the newest information!


      1. Ok! Thanks so much for your response and your great articles. I look forward to the new articles!


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