How to turn a song into a lesson

Many parents are interested in including music in their child’s at-home educational enrichment program, but they often feel that they’re not qualified for the job. If you feel that way, you’re certainly not alone. The good news is, it’s easier than you might think! This article will outline simple and practical means by which any parent or caregiver can provide their child with a deep and satisfying musical experience, right within the comfort of the educational home. 

Why it works

Song is widely recognized as one of the most basic facets of culture. In fact, research has shown that it isn’t important whether or not one has a good singing voice because young children already have a special emotional connection to their parents’ or caregiver’s particular voice. In the peer-reviewed paper, Music and Early Language Acquisition, we are reminded by experts in the fields of music and neuroscience that, “Just as composers have made music out of speech, so too does every human voice.” Put simply, speech is made up of sounds. Similarly, music is merely an arrangement of sound. 

If every home educator has the potential to teach music to young children regardless of the quality of their singing voice, though, what should you use as a curriculum? The answer may surprise you: You can turn any song into a lesson. All you have to do is focus on one of these three basic themes: shape (melody), mood (harmony), or beat (tempo).

Start by choosing a song

There are so many inspiring folk songs and tunes to choose from, yet your best bet is to choose a song that you love to sing. Think outside of the box of so-called children’s songs. Try choosing a song from your favorite band that you know all of the words to, or make up your own words to a familiar tune like Baa Baa Black Sheep or The Yellow Submarine. Whatever you do, keep it simple by choosing one song per lesson. (Need some ideas? Here is a Spotify playlist of songs you and your child might enjoy!)

Choose a theme: shape, mood or beat

Especially if teaching the concept of music is new to you, it will be less overwhelming if you focus on one aspect of the song to teach to your child. Here’s a quick breakdown of the three main themes of musical education for young students.

Shape. Really, the way we sing is all about shape. Notes move upward, downward, or stay the same. Shape is the backbone of melody. Once you’ve decided on a song for your lesson, you can explore different kinds of melodic expression by singing the same song using different voice contour. Why not take a turn singing the song while pretending that you and your child are ribbons fluttering in the wind? Then, discuss the shape of the music. Was it bouncy? Zig-zaggy? Coily?

Take another turn singing the same song, but this time pretend that you’re playing with a huge beach ball as you sing. As you stretch your way through the words, reaching up high and waiting for the imaginary ball to float back down, maybe the shape of the music then becomes round. Words like long, wide, and broad may come to mind! By using familiar shape-based terms that your child is already familiar with, you can take an abstract concept and make it easier for them to grasp and understand.

Mood. A song’s overall character can be expressed as mood. In fact, certain chords can even evoke different moods or feelings. Generally speaking, chords that support the melody are called harmony. If you don’t play a chord instrument like a guitar or piano, you can listen to recorded music instead. Talk to your child about the character of the song. Does it sound sad? Happy? Bright? Dark?

If you’re sharing the joy of music with your child, yet you only have your voice as a resource, don’t fret! The human voice cannot provide chords or harmonies, but it can do a lot to express different characters. Take a turn singing the song of your choice while making different faces. How about singing with a nervous face? A confused face? What about a tired face? Your child will love using theatrics to explore the many different moods and characters of music.

Beat. Probably the most instinctive element of music is the beat. In fact, many cultures around the world feature music that is only composed of beat, totally devoid of melody and harmony. With the song of your choice, you can explore the concept of tempo, or the speed of the music. Can you sing the song with a fast beat? Contrast that with a very slow beat. Try clapping a firm beat on your knees. Then, make a soft, tip-toey beat with your fingers on top of your head! What would an elephant beat sound like? Perhaps the neighbors downstairs would prefer that you used a tiny mouse beat instead. The ideas are endless!

Remember, the important thing is that you are introducing your child to musical concepts and connecting the song to things they already know and understand. Listen to and play a variety of types of music, and encourage your child to make connections to what they’ve heard. And don’t worry if you’re not particularly musically inclined yourself—just sing!

Shahla Atlas
Shahla Atlas

Shahla Atlas is a Juilliard-trained musician and music educator from New York City, who currently resides with her husband and two daughters in Stockholm, Sweden.

Published by The Learn + Live Letter

The Learn + Live Letter is a play- and project-based homeschool curriculum for children ages 3-12.

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