From Brainstorming to Creating a New Song

In my last blog piece, I talked about getting the creative process going with children through brainstorming – essentially making lists of ideas.  Brainstorming is the time for broad-brushing and “all over the map” thinking.  But how do all those the brainstorm ideas become a song?

The short answer is not all of them do.  Your big list gets narrowed down; you and the students choose what’s most compelling and interesting.  Some ideas get left behind, but that’s not a bad thing.

My own process varies from classroom to classroom.  Sometimes, a list of ideas may turn into the chorus or verse of the song.  This happened in one of my first-grade classes at the Condon School in South Boston, where the students were working on a song about animals that live in the local area.  Here’s the first verse:

Pigeons, butterflies and frogs

Rabbits, skunks, raccoons and dogs

Seagulls, hawks, mice and rats

Caterpillars, bees and cats.

Pretty simple – a list! I got the “list” idea from Jessica Anne Baron, founder and executive director of Guitars in the Classroom.  This program provides basic instruction in guitar for classroom teachers, so they can use it in their teaching practice. Great teaching technique: write songs with students!

Jessica says that making lists can be a wonderful basis for a class-created song that delivers information students need to learn. The teacher doesn’t even need to make up the tune – just use one from the public domain, such as “The Wheels on the Bus” or “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” These are both two-chord songs, very easy to play on guitar, ukulele or autoharp. Imagine a list of mammals to the tune of “Whole World.”  Or vegetables, or amphibians.  Modes of transportation can be put to “Wheels on the Bus.”

I almost always write original tunes with my classes, although often they sound a lot like other tunes. But that’s true generally – many songs sound a little bit or even a lot like something else; it’s happened throughout the history of music.

A songwriting teacher can use various processes for making up tunes. You can ask a brave student to stand up and sing the lyrics you’ve just written, and hope the tune will stick.  You can bring a recording device and record all the ideas, then put together the best ones.

I’ve also used a melody-shape method suggested by composer Nick Page in his book Music as a Way of Knowing. Page writes, “You have to know that all melodies have shapes. Some are ascending lines, some are descending … When students understand the concept, begin creating shapes.” I tried this once with some kindergarteners in writing my song “Nihao, Jambo, Hola.” The students drew wavy lines that went up or down at the end and we sang them. The song ends on a high note because that’s how a student drew the line!

There’s no one right or wrong way to do any of these things. You can do it one way, then change it for a different age group or a different class dynamic. Do what’s most comfortable. It might fall apart; that’s okay. If the song’s a total mess at the end of class, take it home and do repair work. The end product will still reflect the students’ ideas, and they’ll still have fun singing it – 99 percent guaranteed.

This piece first appeared in a slightly different version on the blog of The Children’s Music Network. 

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