About the Song "Chopsticks"

by Siobhan Egan

"Chopsticks" is a popular tune you can play as a duet.

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"Chopsticks" is one of the first tunes beginning pianists learn to play. Because it is such a simple melody, repeats itself and has a limited range of notes with an easy-to-understand progression, it is easy to learn and memorize. A blessing and a curse, it is just slightly less irritating than nails on a chalkboard to hear a child playing it all day long, over and over again.

Teenage English Songwriter

The full title of the song “Chopsticks” is “The Celebrated Chopsticks Waltz, Arranged as a Duet and Solo for the Pianoforte.” A 16-year-old English girl, Euphemia Allen, composed the song and published it in 1877, under the pseudonym Arthur De Lulu. This was likely the only song Allen wrote. “Chopsticks” first appeared in London and Glasgow; a second edition was published in 1880, with variations that Franz Liszt contributed.

It's Not About Asian Food

Many people think the title “Chopsticks” must have something to do with the implements used to eat Asian food, but that’s not the case. The name has to do with the way the song’s composer prescribed how to play the primo part – the higher notes in the duet – or, the right hand, in the case of a soloist. Trivia Library states that Allen’s original sheet music instructed the primo part should be played “with both hands turned sideways, the little fingers lowest, so that the movements of the hands imitate the chopping from which this waltz gets its name."

Musical Structure

The song is a progression of two alternating chords, G7 and C major. The right hand repeats two notes on each down beat in 3/4 time, while the left hand plays the corresponding chords in broken form. Contrary to the way many people play the song, the composition calls for a soft touch at the beginning, with a “p,” or “piano” dynamics notation, which means to play softly. At the 16th stanza, the composition calls for “f,” or “forte,” which means to play loudly. Many people who learn the song by heart learn only the first part and repeat this section over and over. The composition includes this second forte section, however, with a distinct melody line that includes quarter rests throughout.

Popular Culture

“Chopsticks” can be played as a solo or a duet and is often one of the first duets young pianists learn. It was featured on the popular children’s show, “Sesame Street,” performed as a duet by the two-headed monster puppet. Additionally, composers and musicians such as Liberace have adapted the song, adding flourishes and their own styling to their performance. The song was featured in a popular scene from the movie “Big.” Actor Tom Hanks' character played the tune in a duet by jumping from note to note on a floor-sized piano keyboard in the New York toy store FAO Schwarz.

About the Author

Siobhan Egan has edited newspapers and news websites at the Jersey Shore since 1999 and been an attorney since 1994. Her writing has won five statewide awards from the New Jersey Press Association. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish from Bucknell University and a Juris Doctor from Temple University.

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