As a children’s musician I have the wonderful opportunity to share music with kids and their families. We sing, dance, laugh and have a great time making music together. The songs we sing are songs I wrote and before these songs see the light of day, I run them though a 10-point kid-tested checklist and do rewrites accordingly. The 10-point check list came from studying the music of wonderful children’s artists who came before such as Shari Lewis and Buffalo Bob Smith. Also from listening to and attending shows of today’s great children’s artists including Bob McGrath of Sesame-Street fame, Steve Songs, Ralph’s World, Dan Zanes, Vanessa Trien, and many others. The items in this 10-point checklist fall into two main categories: Child Development Considerations and also Music and Production Considerations.
10-Point Kid-tested Checklist
1. Vocal Range and Melodic Intervals
3. Age-appropriate Skills
6. Active Participation
7. Song Quality
8. Recording Quality
10. Diversity in Style
Child Development Considerations
1. Vocal Range and Melodic Intervals: When writing music for children it’s important to remember that a natural, comfortable range for a young child’s voice is from middle C to G (a perfect fifth above). This range can be extended by a few notes on either end as a child goes from preschool into the primary grades.
In addition to the vocal range, the melodic intervals should be appropriate for the target audience. Does the melody move largely by step or by leap? Are the intervals natural for children to sing—such as the minor third—or unnatural such as a tritone. Of course, a tritone may have its place in a song, but it’s important to be mindful of the challenge and make the rest of the melodic intervals accessible whenever possible.
2. Tempo: A resting heartbeat for a young child is faster than that of an adult. The normal rate is 70 to 90 beats per minute in adults, and 90 to 120 in children. Therefore, songs that an adult would perceive as up tempo might feel more like medium tempo to a young child. This is an important consideration when developing music for a specific energy level.
3. Age-appropriate Skills: Five-year olds know the concept of opposites and can rhyme; two-year olds typically can’t, but they love to make the Itsy Bitsy Spider go up the waterspout with their fingers. Be sure to challenge and engage your audience with opportunities for active participation that address the appropriate skill level for the developing child. Child development publications are helpful resources for this information.
4. Language: Is the vocabulary appropriate for the age-range of the children?
5. Message: Is there a moral to the story or is it nonsensical (both have their place in children’s music). For songs with a value-based message, how will you set that up in the song and then reinforce the message?
6. Active Participation: Children’s music is all about actively engaging kids from start to finish. Are there singing and movement parts for them to do throughout the form? How will you keep them actively engaged in a meaningful way throughout each song for an entire set?
Music and Production Considerations
7. Song Quality: Kids songs should be comprised of the same high-quality standards expected from any other genre.
8. Recording Quality: Give the families who listen to your music the same production values in your recordings as you’d expect from your own favorite recording artists.
9. Arrangement: Do the song sections build? Is there an ebb and flow to the piece? Is the instrumentation interesting and appropriate? Are there hooks and surprises along the way? Where are the memorable moments in the song?
10. Diversity in Style: Stylistically, for a children’s music composer, the world is your oyster. You can write in whatever style is best suited for a given song. It’s not uncommon for a children’s CD to have pop, rock, swing, folk, show-style, and more. Experiment with style. Kids love it!
The true test, of course, is in the actual sharing of songs with children. If they don’t like it… you will know right away! Children are brutally and beautifully honest. If they do connect with your music… you’ll know that right away, too!
Rewriting is the name of the game with songwriting, especially when writing music for children. Keep refining your music to the 10-point checklist and test it out in live performance. When it’s “just right” you’ll know!