Music – for pleasure and enjoyment, for its role in child development, for its emotive possibilities, for its capacity to connect – belongs in every child’s life.
And books can play a part in introducing children to music, starting with their very first board books.
Think about the basic elements of music – beat (the underlying, repeating pulse), rhythm (the pattern of sound and silence into notes of different length), tempo (speed), pitch (the range of high and low notes), dynamics (the variety of loud and soft notes) and tonal colour (the quality of the sound). Now think about the way we use our voices when we read and tell stories aloud. Each of the musical elements can be – should be – present when we read out loud.
The simplest way to start feeling the beat in books is with nursery rhymes.
If you recite ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ to yourself, you’ll notice it has a straightforward 4/4 beat: Twin (1) – kle (2), twin (3) – kle (4), lit (1) – tle (2) star (3, 4), how (1) I (2) won (3) – der (4) what (1) you (2) are (3, 4).
Whether you say the words or sing them, feel the underlying pulse. Babies are already familiar with a regular beat – they’ve been listening to their mother’s heartbeat in the womb.
Adding some variety to a steady beat introduces rhythm.
Board books sometimes adapt traditional songs to give them a localised or more modern flavour while still maintaining the rhythm of the original. Matt Shanks’ Old MacDonald Had a Farm, for example, puts a twist on the usual collection farm animals by replacing them with Australian fauna. The emu has a peck-peck here and a peck-peck there. Here a peck, there a peck, everywhere a peck-peck!
Some of words in Old MacDonald’s rhythm maintain a steady, even beat, but then there’s a longer note on the ‘O’ of Ei-I-Ei-I-O and plenty of shorter notes when the emu starts pecking. Now there’s a rhythm overlaying the beat.
Let’s change it up some more by varying the speed at which the words in a book are read.
Incorporating tempo into books for the very young is not always easy, but one book that achieves it with gusto is British author, and former Children’s Laureate, Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, an adaptation of old American folk song.
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is a simple ‘there and back again’ tale – a family leaves on an outing, reaches its goal and returns home – but the obstacles encountered along the way change the pace at which the text is read.
The tempo is relaxed on the outward journey although trekking through the long wavy grass is quicker than squelching through the thick oozy mud. On the way home, with a bear in pursuit, the storytelling speeds up and the text is read at a headlong, rushing pace.
The evocative travelling sounds from the outward journey, like Tiptoe! Tiptoe! Tiptoe! (through the cave), and Stumble trip! Stumble trip! Stumble Trip! (through the forest) and Squelch squerch! Squelch squerch! Squelch squerch! (through the mud) lend themselves to both slow, drawn-out readings on the first encounter and fast, rapid-fire renderings on the return trip.
Adding pitch to rhythm creates the melody.
Where Is the Green Sheep?, by multi-award winning South Australian Mem Fox (text) and gifted artist and cartoonist Judy Horacek (illustrations), creates multiple opportunities for pitch variation.
When reading the text for the up sheep and the down sheep, you’ll easily recognise where to pitch your voice.
It’s important to ‘read’ the clues in the illustrations as well as the words in the text.
Judy Horacek’s train sheep is pictured in a carriage with an animal menagerie. Does the dog make a high-pitched, yappy sound or a low-pitched growl? Does the cat purr contentedly in a lower register or spit and snarl higher up the scale?
And what about the swing sheep and the slide sheep? Imagine the slippery, slide-y sound of a trombone and stretch out the words out as you read. The words swing sheep might start low and rise higher, the words slide sheep could sound from high to low, matching the sheep’s descent.
As a music primer in board book form, Where Is the Green Sheep? truly ‘tops the charts’. In addition to its in-built melody (based on a regular, repeating rhythm and the opportunities to create pitch variation), it lends itself to choice in dynamics.
Judy Horacek’s multi-talented band sheep plays the drums, the tuba, the guitar and the xylophone giving the reader a chance to use a range of voices.
Perhaps the drum will be loud and thumping; the tuba low and throbbing; the guitar gently lilting; and the xylophone quietly tinkling.
The scared sheep might be read with a squeaky tremolo and the brave sheep with a booming confidence.
And, at the story’s end, the tempo slows and the text instructs the reader to Turn the page quietly. In a hushed voice, the reader closes with: Here’s our green sheep, fast asleep.
Tonal Colour (sound quality)
Darwin-based Nick Bland’s The Very Noisy Bear (part of his larger Cranky Bear series) sees Bear wakened from his hibernating sleep in the Jingle Jangle Forest. One by one, the other animals offer Bear the chance to try their instruments (on which they are, seemingly, quite proficient). Bear bangs and bashes on the drums, strums wildly on the guitar, and screeches on the trumpet.
The ‘quality’ of sound produced by Bear generates a mass exodus of animals. Eventually, sheep wonders:
Have you ever tried a microphone? It’s just a simple thing.
You only have to hold it up, clear your throat and sing!
Accompanied by the jungle band, Bear’s earlier cacophonous sounds transform into a vocal performance that leaves the audience calling for more.
The Very Noisy Bear is a reminder that instruments can be played in different ways. Each one can produce sounds in a variety of tones (some pleasing; some … not so much). Reading Bland’s Bear book, you can make as many ‘unmusical’ sounds as you like. You’re limited only by your imagination.
You don’t need a formal qualification to introduce music to children. Just like Bear, if you have a voice, you have an instrument – play away!
Links and Sources
The books mentioned in this blog post are all suitable for children in the 0–3 age group. As children grow towards pre-school age, the range of music-themed books expands and the storytelling incorporates a further musical element – harmony.
Meerkat Choir (2017)
You can start exploring the harmonic aspect of music with Nicki Greenberg’s madcap Meerkat Choir (2017).
If you want to move on to orchestration and the emotional riches of music, try Clare McFadden’s Crichton Award-winning The Flying Orchestra (2010, 2017).
- ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’, from Merrily, Merrily: A Book of Songs and Rhymes. Nursing Mothers Association of Australia: Hawthorn, Vic., 1979
- Old MacDonald Had a Farm by Matt Shanks (text and illus.). Scholastic Australia: Gosford, NSW, 2020
- We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen (text) and Helen Oxenbury (illus.). Walker Books Australia: Newtown, NSW, 2015
- Where Is the Green Sheep? by Mem Fox (text) and Judy Horacek (illus.). Walker Books Australia: Newtown, NSW, 2006
- The Very Noisy Bear by Nick Bland (text and illus.). Scholastic Australia: Gosford, NSW, 2016
- Meerkat Choir by Nicki Greenberg (text and illus.). Allen & Unwin: Crows Nest, NSW, 2017
- The Flying Orchestra by Clare McFadden (text and illus.). University of Queensland Press: St Lucia, Qld, 2017
- Conga Dance by Amanda Tarlau (text) and Jane Chapman (illus.). Scholastic Australia: Gosford, NSW, 2016