One of the most practical things you can do at the beginning of a school year is to have a running list of songs to use with a particular concept. Songs lists can be time consuming to put together, but in the end they give clarity on lesson planning materials later. It is an investment that is well worth it!
What is a Song List?
Song lists are collections of high-quality, engaging materials you can use to teach targeted concepts with specific grade levels. Some teachers also prefer to create song lists by categories such as “primary” or “upper elementary”.
Many teachers prefer to list out specific under specific concepts in bullet points. This is a great option! I prefer to use a spreadsheet instead so I can see how the song relates to other elements at a glance.
As with all teaching decisions, how you craft your song list will depend on your personal preference and teaching style.
If you choose to use the spreadsheet model, you’ll list your musical concepts and elements at the top of the page, and then along the left hand column you’ll write the songs you might use in alphabetical order.
Here’s part of my 2nd grade song list, available for members of the Planning Binder as of July 2019.
I’ve written about song lists before in this guide to elementary music planning.
You can also find song lists for kindergarten - 3rd grade in the Planning Binder for reference as the July 2019 upload.
Once you have your method down, it’s time to start filling in songs! Where to begin?
Your Childhood Favorites:
The transmission of folk songs has traditionally been an oral practice. It’s likely that you have some childhood favorite songs that you learned by rote from a parent, other family member, or friend. Think through songs or rhymes you used on the playground or at bedtime.
If you can’t think of any, ask a family member.
When you have them down, see if you can find them notated in a reliable source as a cross reference.
Children as Song Sources (“Playground Field Research”):
Children are culture-bearers of their own unique, colorful worlds.
Often, as you walk through the playground you will hear students chanting or singing as a part of their play process, especially in younger grades. These playground songs and rhymes are a great addition to your song collection since students already know and love these materials.
When I have done “playground field research” I’ve discovered several musical gems that make for exciting classroom song additions.
Start by just “hanging out” on the playground. If students start to sing or chant as they play (jump rope games, chasing games, hand-clapping games, choosing games, etc), write the game down with a quick musical transcription. You can also take an audio of video recording of the song if it’s appropriate at your school.
When you have your song transcription or recording of students performing the game on the playground, you can list the student names as the source for the song. You can also deepen your understanding of their song materials by hunting for the song in another reliable source.
The inclusion of popular materials is controversial among music teachers, and for good reason. We want our students to study music that is high-quality and vocally safe. We also want to meet students where they are, in a musical language they identify with.
In general, I use popular materials sparingly, but I think it would be a shame not to use them at all. These popular materials should be selected with the same criteria you would use to choose a folk song.
(Read more about how to choose repertoire for the music room here.)
My folk song book collection seem to grow every year, and every new book brings new sources, variations, and background information. Here are some of my favorites.
Accessing Songbooks When You’re Broke:
Purchasing stacks of songbooks can get expensive! If you are just beginning your songbook collection, don’t feel that you need to purchase all of these at once.
Reputable music universities will have at least some of these books (and others!) in their libraries. WorldCat is a website that can help you locate where the book is in your nearest available library.
I also recommend reaching out to other music teachers in your area since most will have at least a few of these on hand. Music teachers are lovely generous people, and I have no doubt you can track down someone who would let you borrow a copy of their songbook. If you need help finding music teachers near you, start by reaching out to your local Kodaly or Orff chapter.
When we look for materials, it’s best to look for sources that list their own source for a song. This is part of choosing songs with integrity.
There are plenty of websites with a wealth of song materials and unlisted sources, and while it won’t harm your students or your teaching practice to use them, it may not provide as rich of a cultural context. Songs don’t exist in a vacuum. We do our students a service when we recognize where the song came from, who sang it, and why.
Holy Names University - This is an obvious one! You are likely familiar with this body of work already, but if not, sit back and enjoy! This is a song retrieval system specifically for American materials. The level of work these educators have put into this database is astounding.
Kodaly Hub: This is another song retrieval system, through the Liszt Academy in Budapest. Since it is not specific to American songs, I find this to be a good source for other materials outside the US. These songs are sourced globally - any member can upload to the library.
These recordings have not necessarily been taken with elementary general music education in mind. As such, you may need to do some digging to find songs for your specific purposes, but I promise the hunt is worth it!
Smithsonian Folkways - This is a well-known place to start when looking for folk music, and for good reason. This is an expansive collection of recordings and educational materials from across the globe.
Alan Lomax’s Field Recordings: Complete with photos, videos, and audio, this is an impressive collection of Alan Lomax’s work. You can search by location (New York, Italy, Alabama, etc.) or by genre (children’s song, lullaby, work song, etc.). I have spent hours on this impressive site, and my guess is you will too! You can also find some curated song collections on this podcast.
Global Jukebox: The Global Jukebox is a WEALTH of traditional song materials. You will get lost in the interactive global map where you can search for global musical patterns and similarities across cultures. I’ve never seen anything like it. Check it out and let me know what you think!
Choosing songs for your music room is a personal process. It’s bound in your personal teaching philosophy, ideals, and practices.
It’s also arguably the most important thing you can do in preparing for the school year because your repertoire is the curriculum!
When you source musical materials for your students, you are creating an aural and cultural tapestry that is the framework for everything they will learn in your room. It’s a big job, and if we do it well, it can be an immensely rewarding task for us too.