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Musical Space

Musical Space: Haven't I Heard That Song Before?


Did you ever notice that “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” has the same tune as the “Alphabet Song?” It’s also the same as Baa, Baa Black Sheep, and, slowed down, it becomes "What a Wonderful World."

A song with new lyrics given to an existing song is called a “Contrafactum.” This is a great way to express a new perspective, even if it’s just satire, like singing “Batman Smells” to the tune of “Jingle Bells.”

Our national anthem is a contrafactum; the tune was taken from a bacchanalian song for a London fraternity. American patriots also appropriated “My Country Tis of Thee” from the British national anthem, “God Save the Queen.”

George Harrison’s 1970 hit “My Sweet Lord” puts a pantheistic spin on the melody of the love song “He’s So Fine,” which was a hit for The Chiffons in 1963. When he was sued for this, Harrison said that the tune came to him subliminally.

This one also resulted in a lawsuit: here’s The Hollies’ 1974 slow-dance hit “The Air That I Breathe”

Radiohead’s 1992 debut single “Creep” gives the love song an ironic twist by juxtaposing words of self-doubt and rejection. I don’t know if a contrafactum could be any sadder.