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composing for children in Kindergarten through fifth grade


  • Melodic Elements:

    • Lower elementary (kindergarten through 3rd grade) range: place melody between C4 and D5, ideally. Full range (including harmonies for older students): Bb3 to F5.

    • Upper elementary (4th and 5th grade) range: place melody between Bb4 and E5, ideally. Full range (including harmonies for older students): A3 to G5.

    • Include key phrases and measures that students can read at their level of notational literacy (Appendix Item 1). For example, having a key phrase composed of only two note values (eighth, quarter, or half notes) would provide students with the opportunity to put their rhythm reading into practice for the purpose of performance (Appendix Item 2). Pentatonic, step- and skip-wise phrases and ostinato patterns would benefit those following methods such as Kodaly and Orff (Appendix Item 3).

  • Voicing: unison or two-part. Include part-split options for the educator so that the piece can be adaptable to individual groups.

  • Range: engage head voice to encourage its healthy use (e.g. tall vowel words in higher register).

  • Harmony:

    • In unison pieces, include moments of two-part writing as an option. This could be very minimal, for example a do/mi split at end of a phrase, to provide younger students beginning experience with part-singing.

    • Contrary motion is much preferred over parallel, similar, or oblique motion.

    • Include ostinato, descant, and/or canon, and add root singing in upper elementary (Appendix Item 4).

    • Move within the tonic chord, scaffolding up to more advanced harmonies.

  • Form:

    • Provide clear structure in a simple form. Songs with A and B sections are a great starting point for teaching form, building up to more complex structures.

  • Text and Content:

    • Connect musical elements to text.

    • Observe correct syllabic stress and phrasing when writing pitches and rhythms.

    • Foreign languages are completely accessible to children, but avoid overwhelming them with verbose lyrics.

    • Be sure to respect cultural authenticity (Appendix Item 6).

Compositional Example 1 - One Part

  • Melodic Elements:

    • Melody is placed in a good range for accessing children’s head voice.

    • Students at any level of notational literacy can begin to read the rhythm. If they are not familiar with quarter and eighth notes, a “short/long” approach can create an opportunity for success.

    • The repeating sol-mi interval and I-V-I chord structure are accessible to students of this general level.

  • Voicing: This unison piece provides moments for students to experience part-singing and develop towards two-part music.

  • Form: Students can clearly see and hear the form of the song. Educators can extend a lesson on form to higher-order thinking activities with relative ease.

  • Text and Content: Syllabic stress is observed in the strong beats. The word “sweetly” provides a good opportunity to discuss syllabification as the pitches ascend but place the stressed syllable on a strong beat.

  • Adaptability - creative choir directors could:

    • Change the adverbs and adjectives (and alter rhythms, if necessary) to affect the dynamics, tone, timbre, or mood of the singing. Examples: "she sings loudly," "softly," "sadly," "nasally," "breathily," "angrily," etc. or "big bird," "tiny bird," etc.

    • Have students sing solos wherein they explain what they do in the morning and at night.

    • Add motions, body percussion, or ostinato patterns to engage the singers and their audience.

Compositional Example 2 - Two Parts

  • Range: Descant lies within a good head voice range while floating atop the melody.

  • Rhythm: Students can easily keep track of counting to four, two, two and repeat.

  • Phrasing: The two-measure phrasing encourages breath support without overwhelming beginning singers.


  • Don’t ask the ensemble to hold notes much longer than four counts, unless you have provided strong harmonic support to assist with intonation.

  • Don’t ask the ensemble to count very long rests unless an interlude is clear and easy for students to follow.

  • Don’t give students tricky entrances unless it is for a specific educational purpose (e.g. pickups, syncopation).

Compositional Example 3 - Not Suitable

  • Voicing: This piece is marked as a two-part piece, when in actuality it sustains three parts throughout.

  • Rhythms and Text: The text of the descant part makes it necessary for students to count over the barline which increases the piece's difficulty. Closed vowels (e.g. "sweetly") are difficult to sing in the higher register.

  • Phrasing: The descant part's four-bar phrases may make it difficult for students to sustain motion and healthy breath support, especially in the upper register of the voice.

  • Harmony: It is unlikely that students at this age level would have the aural skills necessary to sing this passage of parallel thirds motion.

Compositional examples by Gala Flagello. Example commentary by Jacqueline Bouffard.

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