From Brainstorming to Singing a Tune

By Liz Buchanan

In my last blog piece, I talked about helping children create songs through brainstorming – essentially making lists of ideas.  Brainstorming is the time for broad-brushing and “all over the map” thinking.  But how do all those brainstorm ideas become a song?

The short answer is not all of them do.  Your big list gets narrowed down; you and the students choose what’s most compelling and interesting.  Some ideas get left behind, but that’s not a bad thing.

My own process varies from classroom to classroom.  Sometimes, a list of ideas may turn into the chorus or verse of the song.  This happened in one of my classes at the Condon School in Boston, where the students were working on a song about creatures that live right here in the city.  Here’s the first verse:

Pigeons, butterflies and frogs/ Rabbits, skunks, raccoons and dogs

Seagulls, hawks, mice and rats/ Caterpillars, bees and cats.

Pretty simple – a list!  I recently had the chance to meet Jessica Anne Baron, founder and executive director of Guitars in the Classroom.  This program provides basic instruction in guitar for classroom teachers, so they can use it in their teaching practice. Great teaching technique: write songs with students!

Jessica says that making lists can be a wonderful basis for a class-created song which delivers the information that students need to learn.  The teacher doesn’t need to make up the tune – just use one from the public domain, such as “The Wheels on the Bus” or “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”  These are both two-chord songs, very easy to play on guitar, ukulele or autoharp.  Imagine – a list of mammals to the tune of “Whole World.”  Or vegetables, or amphibians.  Modes of transportation can be put to “Wheels on the Bus.”

I almost always write original tunes with my classes, although often they sound a lot like other tunes. But that’s true generally – many songs sound a little bit or even a lot like something else; it’s happened throughout the history of music.

A songwriting teacher can use various processes for making up tunes.  You can ask a brave student to stand up and sing the lyrics you’ve just written, and hope the tune will stick. You can use a recording device, then put together the best ones.

CMN member Mara Beckerman came up with an elaborate tune-writing system using Orff xylophones, pentatonic scales and post-its. You can read about it here in CMN’s journal, Pass It On!

I’ve also used a melody-shape method suggested by composer Nick Page in his book Music as a Way of Knowing. Page writes, “you have to know that all melodies have shapes. Some are ascending lines, some are descending … When students understand the concept … begin creating shapes.”  I tried this once with some kindergarteners in writing my song “Nihao, Jambo, Hola.”  The students drew wavy lines which went up or down at the end and we sang them.  The song ends on a high note because that’s how a student drew the line!

There’s no single right or wrong way to do any of these things.   You can do it one way, then change it for a different age group or a different class dynamic.  Do what’s most comfortable.  The process might fall apart; that’s okay.  If the song’s a total mess at the end of class, take it home and do repair work.  The end product will still reflect the students’ ideas, and they’ll still have fun singing it – 99 percent guaranteed.

Liz Buchanan is President of The Children’s Music Network.  She has been writing about songwriting with children for the past few months.


  1. The list idea is has so many possibilities. Thanks for sharing that one!

  2. Glad to hear you like the idea, Kim. Have you written songs with kids?

  3. Liz, thanks for this beautiful articulation about list songs and for sharing about GITC and our chat a couple weeks back. As an organization, Guitars in the Classroom is blessed to be finding ways to work together with you and CMN to further the cause of musical creativity in childhood and education. Wow! If anyone from CMN wants to discuss ways to employ song forms (story songs, anthems. cause and effect forms, etc) to writing new songs that accomplish specific academic tasks in the classroom, please feel free to get in touch with me at The possibilities are exciting- just like the great lists in your post, Liz! Thanks so much. Jess

  4. Thanks for the inspiration! It is good to be reminded of how simple and effective songwriting with kids can be. I especially am happy to revisit the “list song” idea!

  5. This is another tool that might prove valuable when writing songs with kids. It’s an app for iPhone and iPod Touch (also runs on iPad) that allows anyone, even non-musicians and beginners, to explore interesting chord progressions one or two finger-taps at a time. There are several demonstration videos at the website. With classrooms becoming more tech-friendly, this might give a lot of kids the chance to explore chords and songwriting.

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