The Children's Chant
For once the ontogenetic law is fully confirmed: the individual sum-
marizes the evolution of mankind.
The best place to reconstruct the evolution of melody is the nursery. As long ago as 1917, a Viennese psychologist by the name of Heinz Werner made a systematic study of infant song, using the recently invented technology of sound recording.2 Curt Sachs summarizes his findings as follows:
The earliest attempts of children less than three years old resulted in one-tone litanies and in melodies of two notes a narrow minor third apart, the lower of which was stressed and frequently repeated. At the age of three, children produced melodies of two notes a second apart, and even three-tone melodies. Children three and a half years old sang in descending tetrachords. Continual repetition was the only form.3
In other words, the child's first musical discovery is the note of fixed pitch ('onetone litanies'), which we may call i. Then comes the hierarchic structure of two notes a 'narrow minor third' apart; later, this pattern is refined to a definite ii–i. Finally, this major second is combined with the minor third i–vi – to form the 'descending tetrachord' ii–i–vi.–4 An important point, not specifically mentioned by Sachs, is that the minor third has now become the main interval and the initial ii a mere upbeat. The whole evolutionary process is summarized in Ex. 3.1.
Ex. 3.1. The evolution of the children's chant
1The Rise of Music in the Ancient World,43.
2 His findings are recorded in the paper 'Die melodische Erfindung im frühen Kindesalter' ('Melodic
Invention in Early Childhood').
3The Rise of Music in the Ancient World,43.
4 It may seem puzzling that this three-note pattern is called a 'tetrachord', from the Greek for four
strings'. The reason is that in ancient Greece it would have been performed on four adjacent strings of the
lyre—that is, skipping over the second-to-bottom string. Like many musical terms, it is a useful misnomer.