50 Years Young: How The Music Of 'Sesame Street' Keeps Up With The Times

Jun 10, 2019

Sesame Street, the award-winning children's program turns 50 this year. As the iconic TV program has aged, it has managed to stay musically apace with its forever-young audience. It's not an easy task, but it's one that the show's creators prioritize for the sake of children's education. While Big Bird, Elmo & co. paid a visit to the Tiny Desk, Sesame Street's Senior Vice President of Curriculum and Content Rosemarie Truglio and Musical Director Bill Sherman spoke about making music for the show through the decades.

">Sesame Street classic "Sing," written for the show in 1971. "[That song] is about the importance of music in your life, and that you make music with your voice," she says. "And it's about confidence. 'Sing a song and be proud of how you're singing; don't worry about how your voice sounds.'"

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From 1969 to 2019, the music of Sesame Street has aimed to educate young audiences. Sesame Street's central educational goal has held steady over the years, but its sound has not. What Sherman describes as a vaudeville-esque sound in the earliest seasons of the 1960s and '70s shifted into genres more contemporary to the decades that followed. In recent seasons, guest stars like Nick Jonas and will.i.am have performed Sesame Street originals on the show.

"I think that's what Sesame Street has done successfully, is sort of, at least sonically, change with the times," Sherman says of the show's continuously evolving musical style. To keep educating viewers, the music of the show has to adapt to their changing taste of the audience. "I think Rosemarie would tell you that our biggest thing is about making sure, at least from a song standpoint, that the kids can remember what we're trying to teach," he says.

Dr. Rosemarie Truglio, Senior Vice President of Curriculum and Content with Sesame Street, works to make content that engages and educates young audiences.
Gil Vaknin / Courtesy of Sesame Street

Truglio does, indeed, echo this point. When she hears a proposed song for the show, she listens carefully for potential auditory appeal to children. "It's got to be appealing and engaging, because without appeal and engagement, we can't teach," she says. "So we are going to be listening for that, and making sure that it's relevant."

In the name of relevance, Sherman calls his two young daughters' taste "the best litmus test" for songs he needs to test out. "If they don't like my song within the first ten seconds, I throw it away and start again because their ears are so in-tune to that kind of music," he explains.

Sherman and Truglio take such measures of the show's ability to connect with young viewers through music very seriously. If the basic sound of the music appeals to children watching the program, then the lyrics are much more likely to impart the valuable lessons they carry.

"Our mission on Sesame Street is to create content to help kids grow smarter, stronger and kinder," Truglio says. "It's a huge responsibility because we want to make sure that we assess later and we see learning impact."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Recently we had some special guests here at NPR headquarters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MATT VOGEL: (As Count von Count) Today, in honor of "Sesame Street's" 50th birthday, we are doing a concert. Oh, I am very excited.

CORNISH: That's Count von Count from "Sesame Street." He came to our offices in D.C. to perform a Tiny Desk Concert for NPR Music along with Elmo, Grover, Big Bird and more. They did the classics, like "Sing."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SESAME STREET ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Sing. Sing a song. Make it simple to last your whole life long.

CORNISH: I wanted to learn more about what goes into writing these melodies and lessons today, so I sat down with some of the people behind the songs - Dr. Rosemarie Truglio, senior vice president of curriculum and content, and Bill Sherman, the music director at "Sesame Street." I started by asking Sherman about classic songs like "Sing."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SESAME STREET ACTORS: (As characters, vocalizing).

BILL SHERMAN: When you think of "Sesame Street," you think of "Being Green" and "People In Your Neighborhood" and "Sing" and those songs that really made the show iconic. And so at least as the current music director, you are forever trying to get as close to that as you ever possibly can.

CORNISH: And, Rosemarie, can you talk about, like, the educational component of the songs back then? I mean, they did do kind of curriculum-type work, right? They did sit down with educators. But even back then, I kind of think of a song like "Sing" or "Being Green" as just kind of, like, nice songs.

ROSEMARIE TRUGLIO: Well, but think about the lyrics in "Sing." It is about the importance of music in your life and that you make music with your voice. And it's about confidence, right?

CARMEN OSBAHR: (As Rosita, singing) Sing out strong.

TRUGLIO: So sing a song, and be proud of how you're singing. Don't worry about how your voice sounds. And that's a really important message, especially for parents because we want parents to sing to their children, talk to their children, read to their children because we want them to learn words.

CORNISH: Bill Sherman, I think when we think of that classic music, it also was in line with the period in a way, right? Like, people were listening to folk rock music on the radio.

SHERMAN: For sure.

CORNISH: And so even though we think of it as old-fashioned, that was, like, the music of the moment.

SHERMAN: And I think that's what "Sesame Street" - I like to pat myself on the back and say has done successfully is sort of, at least sonically, changed with the times. So I think, you know, we sort of defined ourselves in the early days by that what you call old-school or vaudevillian - like, that sort of oompa, oompa, oompa (ph) music of, you know, "C Is For Cookie."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "C IS FOR COOKIE")

FRANK OZ: (As Cookie Monster, singing) C is for cookie. That's good enough for me.

SHERMAN: And since then, you know, and in through the '70s and through the '80s, songs like "Pinball Number Count," you know, (singing) one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PINBALL NUMBER COUNT")

SESAME STREET ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12.

SHERMAN: ...Was around during the Pointer Sisters era.

CORNISH: I love that song, so I just dated myself.

SHERMAN: (Laughter) It's OK. We all, when we talk about "Sesame Street," date ourselves at one point or another. So yeah.

And then when I took over the job some 10 years ago, I wanted to keep doing that and keep pushing it further. I play all the songs that I write for my children, and they are two girls aged 6 and 8, Maya (ph) and Luna (ph). And Maya and Luna are the best litmus tests for what is pop music and what is cool today because they, whenever they're driving anywhere, are listening to the, you know, the Top 40 stations. And so if they don't like my song within the first 10 seconds, I throw it away and start again...

CORNISH: Wow.

SHERMAN: ...Because their ears are so in-tune to that kind of music. And I think Rosemarie would tell you that our biggest thing is about making sure, at least from the song standpoint, that the kids can remember what we're trying to teach.

CORNISH: I want to walk through the process of writing one of these modern songs. And we're going to do it with a song called "Check That Shape."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHECK THAT SHAPE")

NICK JONAS: (Singing) There on the floor is a shape moving towards me. What is the shape? Tell me, please. Oh, what can it be?

CORNISH: Can you talk about the season's educational goal? So the year you were writing this, like, what was kind of the educational component you were going for?

TRUGLIO: In this particular case, we're calling out shapes, which are geometric forms. And so a shape gets a shape based on its attributes. So the song is going to call out the number of sides and the number of angles.

CORNISH: All right. So we are going to hear this song performed by pop star Nick Jonas.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHECK THAT SHAPE")

JONAS: (Singing) One, two, three, four and five sides you can count on. A five-sided shape - well, you know, it's a pentagon. Pentagon, pentagon - yeah. Pentagon, pentagon. Oh.

CORNISH: Pentagon.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: So first of all, this song was kind of sexy in a way that worried me. Can you talk about how the music team picks it up from the educational part, right? How do you then sit down and say, OK, let's figure this out?

SHERMAN: So Rosemarie and her team of highly qualified educators send me lyrics that have been, you know, vetted and approved and thought through. If you can imagine what this is like on a piece of paper, it says, you know, pentagon, pentagon, pentagon, a five-sided shape. Well, you know, it's a pentagon.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

SHERMAN: So I was like, OK. And then at that point, we had booked Nick Jonas. And his voice is so specific, and he's so smooth. And all of his songs are sort of about relationships. And so I made it - like, what you call sexy to me is just, like, he's enamored with the shapes. He loves the shapes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHECK THAT SHAPE")

JONAS: (Singing) Check those shapes.

CORNISH: Rosemarie, can you suggest a song that you love, one that you just thought, oh, wow, you guys nailed it?

TRUGLIO: "Count Me In."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COUNT ME IN")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Count me in. Count me in.

CORNISH: Can you tell me about it?

TRUGLIO: It's about diversity, and it's about inclusivity. It's about showing that we're all unique, but yet, we're all the same. And I think that's where the beauty comes in in that song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COUNT ME IN")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Count me in. There is light and dark and freckled, lots of different kinds of skin. Some folks like to sit real quiet. Others like to dance and spin.

TRUGLIO: And that's something that is really important on "Sesame Street" because we want all children to see themselves on "Sesame Street."

CORNISH: And, Bill Sherman, for you, what is a favorite?

SHERMAN: The first song I ever wrote for "Sesame Street" was called "What I Am." It was just, like, this song that we wrote with Will.i.am.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT I AM")

WILL.I.AM: (Singing) There's only one me, I am it. Have a dream, I'll follow it. It's up to me to try.

SHERMAN: And it was about, you know, I'm special, I'm this, I'm that. And it was just - it's one of the songs that people ask me about most of all, and I'm pretty proud of that. So that's cool.

CORNISH: "What I Am" - nice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT I AM")

WILL.I.AM: (Singing) And what I am is thoughtful. And what I am is musical. And what I am is smart. And what I am is brave. And what I am...

CORNISH: At the end of the day, you guys are joining a long legacy, right? What's it like to have that responsibility? I mean, some of the things you inject into little minds - right? - can stay with them for a very long time.

TRUGLIO: It's a big responsibility because we take it very seriously. Our mission on "Sesame Street" is to create content to help kids grow smarter, stronger and kinder. So it's a huge responsibility because we want to make sure that we then assess later and we see learning impact.

CORNISH: And, Bill, for you?

SHERMAN: I personally think what we're doing is unbelievably important, and we all know that. So it's an honor to be part of it, and, you know, maybe for 50 more years.

CORNISH: Well, Bill Sherman and Rosemarie Truglio, thank you so much for explaining this all to us. This was great.

SHERMAN: No problem.

TRUGLIO: Great. Thank you.

SHERMAN: Thank you.

ERIC JACOBSON: (As Grover) Music maestro.

CORNISH: And you can see the full Tiny Desk Concert at npr.org.

LESLIE CARRARA-RUDOLPH: (As Abby Cadabby, singing) If what I am is what's in me, then I'll stay strong. That's who I'll be.

PETER LINZ: (As Ernie, singing) And I will always be the best me that I can be. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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