Planning Ahead: How to Choose Repertoire for your Elementary Music Class



In this post we covered how to map out concepts in a curriculum outline. Now that we know what elements and concepts we want to teach, it’s time to start plugging in songs.
>>>> Read: Planning Ahead - Mapping Out Your Ideal Music Curriculum 

Song choice is important as we plan the year, because the musical material we choose is the curriculum. These songs and pieces will introduce students to new ideas, give the springboard for creativity, and encourage their awareness of their own musical development.

Let us take our children seriously! Everything else follows from this... only the best is good enough for a child.”
— Zoltan Kodaly

Here are some of the criteria I use for selecting musical material. These criteria have been sourced from several books, including Artful, Playful, Mindful by Jane Frazee and First, We Sing from Susan Brumfield.

Songs for Elementary Music

1. Choose Material that is High Quality

It can be simple, and it can be fun. But remember that the repertoire we use will shape our students musically. 

I look for two main things when selecting music that is artistic: the lyrics, and the music itself.


Look or songs with interesting melody lines or rhythms. As we choose repertoire, it's best to get a variety of material so that we don’t end up with all the same chord structure or time signature in each piece. This can be tricky in some of the younger grades when their musical vocabulary is limited - but it’s not impossible!

For melodic pieces, sing the melody without the words. Is the melody interesting on its own? For pieces without pitch (spoken rhymes or unpitched percussion pieces), do the same thing. Is the rhythm interesting enough to play back in your head on its own?


Does the poetry explain something about life as a child? Is it gratifying to speak without a melody? Is it particularly beautiful or insightful or humorous? All these things contribute to the lyrical quality of a song.

One of the best ways to test this to write out the lyrics or speak them by themselves. This will give you an idea about the extent to which the poetry can stand alone, without melody or harmony to aid it.

We select the musical influences from which our students will grow - and that's pretty exciting.

2. Choose Material You Like

You’ll spend a lot of time with this material. You’ll likely sing or play it several times a week as you rotate through different classes in each grade level. Additionally, you’ll be using it to sing, play games, play instruments, and create.

Since you’ll use this material so much, it’s important that you like it!

I used to think it was selfish for me to think about my own preferences when selecting songs or pieces for my class. Now I realize that having a connection to the musical material isn’t optional - it’s one of the core criteria.

As a trained musician you have developed an ear for quality music. If a song strikes you as cheesy, there’s probably a good reason. If a melody seems unnatural to you, you have a legitimate reason to keep it out of your repertoire.

Personal preference takes a key role when choosing material for your year.

3. Choose Material that Meets Your Curriculum Goals

Take a look at the songs that intrinsically are of high quality and that you would love to teach. Which of these meet the musical goals you have for your students?

Of course not every song needs to have a literary tie-in. Some material is worth teaching for its beauty. Some is worth teaching because of how fun it is to play. 

In the same way that we read The Chronicles of Narnia to young children who can’t necessarily read and write every word in it, so we also expose children to music of other cultures, classical music, jazz music, etc. This music may be beyond their reach literacy wise, but not beyond their understanding or enjoyment as young musicians.

That said, it would be a shame for students to leave our classrooms without the ability to record their musical ideas in notation or recognize the form of a pop song. For that reason, I usually pick about 5 pieces of material (songs, rhymes, movement activities, or instrumental pieces) for each target element in my curriculum.

These pieces need to meet the following criteria:

The target element is musically and lyrically obvious.

Look for material that uses the target rhythm or melody on a main word in the sentence, or a strong beat. The target element should also exist naturally in the music.

For example, a  2 over 3 rhythm in 6/8 time is technically an eighth note pattern but students won't get it intuitively. Finding mi re do in a la-based minor song is technically still mi re do, but students will have a hard time hearing it and applying it to other songs.

Think about what is natural to point out in a song; what the students will naturally hear.

The Singing Range and and Intervals are Appropriate:

The appropriate range of a song will change depending on the age of your students. Here is a quick reference I use.


These intervals are sourced from Kennieh H. Philip’s book, Teaching Kids to Sing.

It’s also good to look at the intervals in the song to make sure your students can sing them tunefully. Especially when working on target melodic elements, tuneful singing is essential. Avoiding half steps or large leaps for young singers will help them be more successful.

Our repertoire should move us toward our curriculum goals.

4. Get Creative!

Look through each song and decide how this song will actually live in your classroom - the shape it will actually take.

Some questions to consider:

  • How could you teach the song?

  • Can it tie into any programs you have coming up?

  • Is there room in this song for students to apply their own musical creativity?

  • How would it transfer to instruments?

  • Is there text painting that could be emphasized?

  • Is there a story or strong emotion you could act out?

  • Is there creative material students could use to create an ostinato?

The higher quality the piece is (from point #1), the easier it is to take it apart and explore it piece by piece. And once you know why you have chosen that particular piece in your curriculum (from point #3), it’s easy to look for creative paths to enhance the purpose of the piece. You’ll probably be especially motivated to give this some serious thought because you actually enjoy the piece your students are working on (from point #2)

Where to Look for Songs

Like I said in the intro video, there’s never a bad time to think carefully creatively about your goals for your students, even if you’re in the middle of the school year.

If you want a collection of material that meet these criteria for me, try checking out the Folk Song Index. It’s a totally free collection of songs from around the world that are perfect for your use in the classroom.

You can sign up below!