I was asked by someone to get my six and seven year olds to write a song. There are some children who can do this. Most cannot. Writing a song is not as easy as you think. The way to start teaching it is to replace words to existing songs. One way of doing this is to take a song like “London Bridge is falling down” and change the material that we use to build it up. For example, “build it up with chocolate bars”, “build it up with teddy bears” etc. The children love this and with one and two syllable words they start to learn about melismas, using more than one note for one syllable.
The next stage is to replace words of an entire song to make the meaning completely different. So instead of “Going to the zoo”, we can change it to “going into space” and change the verses to things we could find in space rather than at the zoo. This stage is a lot more tricky for children because not only do they need to independently think of things in space, they have to make it into a sentence and then make the sentence fit the music. This is where most children fall to pieces. You can do a half-way activity where you give the children three sentences and they have to choose which one fits the song the best. This gives them the opportunity to sing the sentence to the music to see if it fits. To do this you need a good sense of rhythm and pulse and an understanding of how the first beat of the bar is stressed and it is not necessarily the first word of a sentence. These are incredibly difficult concepts for most children and the main reason why I don’t move onto this stage until at least Key Stage 2. This is why I believe that the main aims of Key Stage 1 music must be rhythm, pitch, aural skills and a large repertoire of known songs and pieces. It is difficult to write songs if you haven’t experience of how songs are structured. The more songs children know, the better their understanding of song structure will be.
The next stage should be left to Key Stage 3 for most children. This is to create their own music for their song. In order to do this you need to understand melody and probably harmony. Some children can make up an independent melody for their words but what normally happens is they sing it to an existing song but don’t realise that is what they are doing. If you want truly original work, the best thing to do is to make a simple chord sequence and then a melody can be sung over the top which fits. This is why a basic knowledge of chord progressions and harmony is important to be able to write good songs and why you can’t really start it until you have started learning harmony.
And this is ultimately why asking seven year old children to write a song is not only a difficult thing to do but actually an unfair thing to do, as we are asking young children to do something they are simply not prepared for. There are exceptions, there are some children who can write a song with little to no help. But because of these exceptional children, we think all children should be able to do this when I have just shown how difficult an activity it really is. If you really want to teach children songwriting, the best things to do are to learn an instrument like a ukulele, guitar or keyboard and learn how to construct simple chord sequences. I would not be bringing in proper songwriting with original melodies and harmonies until Year 9. There is nothing to stop younger children having a go and writing their own songs but it should not be an expectation for children to be able to do this until they have a good knowledge of melody and harmony.