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Frère Jacques | Are You Sleeping? | the story, lyrics and music

Lisa Ruping Cheng

Frère Jacques is a very familiar folk song well loved by children. It originates from France. My earliest memory about this tune goes back to my kindergarten days. I learned this song in Mandarin Chinese, not in English, and the meanings in the Chinese lyrics were entirely different from the English version. Let’s take a look at the different versions of lyrics.

The French lyrics

The earliest print of the song can trace back to the late 19th century.

The original song Frère Jacques, is about a monk who sleeps in in the midnight when he is supposed to wake up to ring the bell for an early morning prayer. He is therefore urged to get up to ring the bell. The lyrics are as follows:

Frère Jacques
Frère Jacques
Dormez vous?
Dormez vous?
Sonnez les matines
Sonnez les matines
Ding ding dong
Ding ding dong

English lyrics

When this tune evolved into English version, the original meaning had been modified. The “urging to ring the bell” was changed to “the bells are ringing.” As a result the story has been completely altered: it has become a lovely, intimate nursery rhyme making us visualize a little boy sleeping in in the morning and may be late for school. The lyrics are as follows:

Are you sleeping
Are you sleeping?
Brother John?
Brother John?
Morning bells are ringing
Morning bells are ringing
Ding ding dong
Ding ding dong

It is intriguing to see how folk songs evolve over time across different cultures and how adaptable they can be: the nature of the simplicity in lyrics, harmony and meaning makes them easy to spread, variate and communicate.

Sing it as a Round

Since the opening melody repeats itself and the hormony follows the simple Tonic-Dominant-Tonic rule, this tune is easy to perform as a round. That is, to perform it in a canon form with multiple voices. What is a round? It refers to a musical form where three or more parts sing the same melody in unison, each part beginning at different times.

As an experiment, let’s take a listen to a recording of three voices singing one after another and examine if the result is viable in harmony.

By lining up the lyrics, we can see what it will look like in the first four bars.

The round works well harmonically becuase throughout the song it follows the same pattern of Tonic-Dominant-Tonic-Dominant-Tonic.

Versatile in making arrangement

I have written a four-hand piano duet for the tune in F major. Let’s take a listen to it too. ( Please visit WowoSpot Kids Podcast to listen to the same name episode!)

In the duet I add accompaniment elements to fill some spaces, thus making the texture thicker and richer. The duet is a fun piece for a prime level young pianist to play with another as a team. Not only it serves as an excellent material for establishing good ears (to differentiate and identify different voices), also it is entertaining to play in a recital.

The Chinese version: Two Tigers

The chinese version of the song I have learned as a kid is about two tigers:

兩隻老虎 兩隻老虎 (Two tigers, two tigers)

跑得快 跑得快 (Run fast, run fast)

一隻沒有耳朵 (One has no ears)

一隻沒有尾巴 (One has no tail)

真奇怪 真奇怪 (Very strange, very strange.)

It is unknown who wrote the lyrics of the Two Tigers. What I am certain is the lyrics have done a good job to stimulate young kids’ imagination. One can easily replace the word “ears” or “tail” into something similar, such as lips, or eyes, as long as the new words have the same numbers of syllables as the original.

To listen to the podcast of this blog post please look for the same title WowoSpot Kids Podcast episode. The episode will be released on Monday, August 30th!)