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Remember 12-year-old Grace VanderWaal on America’s Got Talent? Sure you do.


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Give me a minute. I’m a sucker for that kind of thing.


I’m not the only one. A friend of mine said she cries at 2:03, every time, and she wanted to know why. First the obvious: Adorable munchkin who has apparently seen Juno 20 times sings about not knowing who she is, then suddenly belts out, “I now know my name!” Dead. I’m dead.

But as usual, it’s not just the words. In the hands of a good songwriter, the music intensifies the meaning of the words. Yeah, the tempo picks up and she sings louder at that spot, but there’s something else there. Over the course of the short song, she creates a kind of pitch “ceiling” — then breaks through it at the perfect time.

Listen to the A-flats (in red below). She keeps hitting that note over and over and doesn’t go above it for most of the song:

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The repetition creates a really tangible boundary. Listen:

16 sec

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…then her breakthrough in the lyrics is mirrored with a breakthrough in the music, and the crowd responds instantly:

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Breaking the ceiling

That moment was the difference between polite applause and the audience leaping to its feet.

Simon Cowell’s “you’re the next Taylor Swift” comment was a bit much. But if Grace does happen to make it big, she’ll be able to trace her success back to a single well-placed D-flat.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.