Learning The Sound (and the language) of Music (by Dr Mela Sarkar)

When you sing you begin with Do-Re-Mi

Is music a language? If it is, is learning to use it like learning a spoken (or signed) language? As one Psychology Today blogger puts it, “…language is a communication system consisting of (1) a set of meaningful symbols (words) and (2) a set of rules for combining those symbols (syntax) into larger meaningful units (sentences)…. Like language, music has syntax—rules for ordering elements—such as notes, chords, and intervals—into complex structures” (Ludden, 2015).

All true. I have been speaking, or rather singing and playing, the language of music for so long that I’d forgotten what it’s like to encounter it as a neophyte. As a kid growing up in downtown Toronto I took piano lessons, under duress—my mother grew up during the Depression, when such things were unaffordable luxuries and in any case unthinkable for farm children off in the middle of Manitoba wheat-growing country, so she projected her long-frustrated desires onto her oldest. I rebelled and stopped after a while, but came back to music in high school. For four years I mangled the cello quite happily and re-learned the black squiggles scattered across five horizontal lines, page after page of them, that my piano teacher had managed to school me into understanding. In adulthood I settled into choir singing, and though my notions of solfège have never been more than rudimentary, they have gotten me through forty-plus post-high-school years as an untrained but reliable alto member of half a dozen or so singing groups at one time or another.

Ensemble Vox—musique sacrée—rehearsing for our spring 2019 concert

The challenge involved in becoming comfortable with the language of reading music was brought home to me all over again recently, in the person of the seven-year-old who has staked out a rightful claim to my Wednesday afternoons. After I pick her up from school, we wander about in pursuit of chocolatines or a good tobogganing hill—such moments are among the highlights of my week—but we also have to go to piano lesson. “Don’t forget, she has to study her music theory,” admonished her mother, my daughter. The young music student loves her piano teacher and her piano lessons, lucky her, but the book full of black squiggles and the upping-and-downing exercises she is supposed to do with the squiggles are another matter. Groans. Avoidance tactics. Chocolatines are much more interesting.

“Do you know Doe, a deer?” asked her slightly desperate grandmaternal chaperone. She didn’t. What, she’d never seen The Sound of Music? She hadn’t. I offered to do my best Julie Andrews circa 1965 imitation right then and there, but was reluctantly persuaded to let Andrews do her own singing in the fullness of time. However, the story of how this young woman who thought she wanted to be a nun—she was real, the movie was made about real children and their real second mother—the story of how she came to a house to take care of seven children whose own mother had died, and sang with them, and married their father and then they all left their country because there was a war (“what’s a war? Why did the soldiers want to hurt them?”)…now, that was good for the whole long walk home.

On the way home we reserved the library copy on DVD, because it is not on Netflix or any of the other platforms my family subscribes to—nearly fifty-five years after its original release, it’s still far too lucrative to the Hollywood owners of its copyright to be made available that cheaply. While we wait, the seven-year-old has moved on to other things. But I have fallen resoundingly into the suddenly irresistible (von) Trapp and have happily been reading my way through everything the local library can come up with. Maria von Trapp wrote her autobiography in 1949; two German films were made from it in 1956 and 1958, Die Trapp-Familie and Die Trapp-Familie in Amerika. Paramount saw the potential and brought on the famous song-writing team of Rodgers and Hammerstein (Oklahoma!, South Pacific, and a string of other Broadway hits) to write the score for the Broadway musical. It opened in 1959 with Mary Martin in the lead role and ran for over three years; 20th-Century Fox took over and proceeded to make the 1965 film, starring Julie Andrews as Maria von Trapp, Christopher Plummer as her aristocratic naval-hero husband, and the city of Salzburg and surrounding countryside as essential characters in the film—not to mention the seven children. Although the film was panned by all the most important New York critics despite its popular success, it went on, as most readers will know, to make movie history (Santopietro, 2015).

When The Sound of Music opened in the spring of 1965, I was exactly the age my granddaughter is now. My long-suffering Bengali immigrant father sat through the film several times—he grew up in a different, ruthlessly rigorous classical musical tradition, had accomplished sitar and surbahar players in his close family in India, and hated the unsubtle sentimentality of Hollywood musicals with a passion. But I bonded with Julie Andrews and the seven children (especially Marta and Brigitta who were near me in age) as only a young child can. Those songs and landscapes are imprinted on me. And not only on me! The enduring popularity of the original Sound of Music, the many offshoots and amateur productions, the sheer universality of the phenomenon—are there any other Hollywood films of which the whole or parts have been known to such a huge proportion of the world’s population, so consistently, since the film was made?—and this despite the negative reception by critics at the time, should tell us that there is something going on worthy of our understanding.

Reading through Maria von Trapp’s autobiography (Trapp, 1949) and her stepdaughter Agathe von Trapp’s much later memoirs (von Trapp, 2004), and doing a bit of reading between the lines as well, has been a fascinating digression into the later years of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Maria was born in 1905; Agathe, born in 1913, was only eight years younger than her stepmother. The Captain, Georg von Trapp, was 25 years older than his second wife; his naval hero persona is in no way a Hollywood fiction, but completely faithful to von Trapp’s naval career during the First World War. Austria had a coastline then—it hadn’t even occurred to me to wonder how an Austrian could have been a ship’s captain, since it doesn’t have a coastline now.

The real-life story of the von Trapps, the derived cinematic fiction we all know from The Sound of Music, and the story of how the success of the film interacted with the post-1965 lives of the real family (as well as with the lives—never again to be the same—of the actors who played them); all these interlocking threads of song and story make up a complex tapestry of belonging, identity, and of language as well. The von Trapps were of course a German-speaking family, but Agathe and her older brother Rupert—the two oldest of the seven motherless children (the family grew to ten after Maria’s three children were born, as followers of the Trapp Family Singers will know)—spent their early years as German-English bilinguals in the home of their maternal grandmother, Agathe Breuner Whitehead, the granddaughter of the English inventor of the torpedo (von Trapp, 2004).

From wealthy aristocratic antecedents, very much as depicted in the film, the family lost everything after their decision to flee Austria after the Anschluss in 1938 (Santopietro, 2015). Georg von Trapp did indeed refuse to fly the flag of the Third Reich, or to allow the family to sing for Hitler. Maria herself spoke no English, but on the boat that took them to New York for their first concert tour she diligently started learning from her fellow passengers, and started a notebook that included, in the German orthography that was what she had to work with, words like Neiff, Spuhn, Dschuss, and—the word that was so soon to describe their new condition—Refjudschie (Trapp, 1949, p. 130).

If you want to know more about what happened to the von Trapps after they emigrated to America and started touring to make their living through song, your local library can probably help you. You may perhaps be tempted to make a pilgrimage to the family lodge in Vermont that the von Trapps built on the property they bought in 1942, and where they eventually settled after they stopped touring in 1956 (Saffle, 2004)—the Green Mountains reminded them of their native Austria. I’m very tempted myself. The snowshoeing is probably wonderful at this time of year. Georg and Maria’s grandson Sam now manages the family business, which includes, among other lucrative activities, a microbrewery.

Trapp Family Lodge in winter

And the original Do-Re-Mi sequence from the film—Salzburg over an entire summer, compressed into nine glorious Technicolor minutes—is still one of the best ways to learn about notes and octaves and the Western diatonic scale ever to have been invented. Go ahead, try it. Start at the very beginning—a very good place to start.

“Tea, a drink with jam and bread….”


Ludden, David. (2015, July 31). Is music a universal language? Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/talking-apes/201507/is-music-universal-language . Accessed 18 February 2020.

Saffle, Michael. (2004). Family values: The Trapp Family Singers in North America, 1938-1956. Canadian University Music Review, 2(2), 62-79.

Santopietro, Tom. (2015). The Sound of Music story.  

Trapp, Maria Augusta. (1949). The story of the Trapp Family Singers. New York, NY : Harper Collins.

von Trapp, Agathe. (2004). Memories before and after The Sound of Music. New York, NY : Harper Collins.

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