Selecting Song Materials

Numerous criteria need to be considered when deciding upon the appropriateness of a song for use with students. The following suggestions should all be considered.

Range and Tessitura:
Range refers to the lowest and highest notes employed by a song. Tessitura refers to the range where the majority of the notes lie. These should correspond to the range of the students in a particular class. However, a general guideline is provided below.

Vocal Range

Vocal Demands:
Several vocal demands should be considered when determining the appropriateness of a song for young singers.

  • Look at the treatment of the register lift in the song. The lift occurs between the pitches A4 and B4-flat or B4. It is much easier for students to shift registers by jumping over the lift and then descending diatonically through it than to ascend diatonically through it.
  • Contrary to popular notion, it is actually easier for students to sing skips, especially descending skips, rather than singing scaler patterns.
  • Consider the tempo of songs as well as rhythm pattern difficulty. Young students should not have to sing at a fast tempo and should not have to move the voice rapidly with difficult rhythm patterns.
  • Several notes sung on one syllable – melismas – present problems for most elementary school students, as does one note repeated several times. Those vocal demands that pose a problem for young students also seem to pose a problem for adolescent singers.
Length of Song:
Usually, songs intended for K-2 are too long. This does not seem to be a problem with songs published for older students. Generally, songs of four phrases of four beats are appropriate for primary grades, songs of eight four-beat phrases for middle grades, with longer songs being appropriate but not necessary, for upper elementary grades. However, adolescent singers should not sing extremely long songs or for long periods of time.

Most songs have repetition of some sort, such as tonal patterns, rhythm patterns, or text. More repetition is needed for younger students than for older students. The easiest type of repetition is when the words, melody, and rhythm repeat. A melody that repeats with different words is a bit more difficult but does not usually cause any problems for the students. However, when words repeat on a different melody, the students seem to have some difficulty, especially in K-2. Try to avoid this type of repetition for younger singers, and do not become frustrated if they have difficulty with this.

Students need to sing songs in a variety of meters. Therefore, guard against singing only duple songs. If you have difficulty in locating triple meter songs, find a new duple song and teach it as a triple song. However, do not present a "common" song in a meter other than that in which it is traditionally sung.

As with meter, students need to sing songs in a variety of modes. Since major songs seem to be in abundance, be on the lookout for minor songs as well as those in more unusual modes. You may also present a major song in minor (similar to the meter switch). Again, do not make this switch with a "common" song.

While the text of a song is certainly an important consideration, it should not be the only or most important criterion. It is important to know your students and then select a text based upon their experiences and one that seems relevant to their lives. Also, do not ignore foreign language texts; secondary school students especially like these. Finally, be certain that the text and music match.

Call-and-response songs work very well with students. Look for songs that have a repeated section that is easy for the students to sing in response to the teacher singing the other sections.

Finally, choose song materials carefully. Remember to make a distinction between songs for listening and songs for singing in music class for vocal development. Many songs that are popular with students, often those from various television shows, do not encourage singing accuracy because the range is generally too wide and the text too complicated for the students to think about actually singing correctly. These songs may be fine for listening to at home, but they are not appropriate to sing in music class if the goal is vocal development.

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Provided in partnership with NAfME

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