How to Scaffold Songwriting in Elementary Music

Would you believe me if I said that getting elementary students to write their own songs is easy? It’s probably not something you learned how to do in college (I didn’t!) and, if you come from a classical background like many music teachers do, it may be something you’ve never even done yourself. But don’t worry! There are 3 easy steps to elementary songwriting, using concepts you already practice regularly with your students!

1. Writing the Lyrics

This isn’t where all songwriters start, but I find my students are much more comfortable matching the correct rhythms to words than the other way around.

I’ve found that the key is to offer a few options – students still have some creativity, but aren’t overwhelmed by the number of options.

First, students need to pick the topic of their song. You can offer a general guideline (for example, it must be about a favorite memory) while still allowing students some free reign.

Some good songwriting topics could be:

Consider creating guidelines for how many lines to write and the length of those lines. For example, maybe you want their song to be 16 measures long. It might take a good 4 measures to express a full thought, so try having students write four phrases or sentences which they’ll then split across 16 measures.

2. Match Up Rhythms

If your students are used to doing rhythm matching activities, this should be easy peasy! I like to do this in two rounds.

In the first round, students just match rhythms to the words. I find that my students often get stuck using just ta and ti-ti the first time around, so they may need reminders (or even requirements) to use more complex rhythms.

In the second round, students make their rhythms fit into measures. If students are new to songwriting, I’d suggest stricter guidelines here (must be in 4/4 time, must be 16 measures long, etc.) They’ll most likely have to make tweaks to the rhythms or lyrics they originally wrote down in order to make them fit nicely across the lines given. I’ve found that some students get frustrated by this – they want it to be one and done. That’s not how songwriting (or many other creative endeavors) work, so this is a good teaching moment about dealing with that frustration.

A songwriting worksheet on which students write lyrics in dashed boxes and then write their rhythms over the boxes.
Showing an example is super helpful – many students don’t realize they can use dashes to split up words into syllables!

3. Add the Melody

You have your lyrics and your rhythms – now, just add the pitches! Consider giving guidelines on things like tonality, pitches they can use, starting and ending on the same note, etc. Tweak these based on students’ prior knowledge.

For example, if you’ve been working in C pentatonic a lot recently, maybe you tell students that their composition must be in C pentatonic and start and end on C. This gives them only five notes to work with and gives them a point to start from and return to. You could even add requirements about the number of steps versus skips and leaps, if you want to.

I like to compare your home tone to a house. Day-to-day, you probably don’t go too far from your house – you might go to school or run some errands. This represents stepwise motion. However, now and then, you may take a day trip or even a long vacation. You go pretty far away (skip or leap) and you stay in that area for a bit (stepwise motion), but you always end up returning home.

If your students are older or more advanced, you could talk about major versus minor tonality and how this affects the mood. This is something we practice aurally as young as kindergarten, but it’s much more difficult when you’re writing! Keep this in mind when coming up with your guidelines.

If you like the songwriting pages above, you can grab them from my protest music composition project for upper elementary.

Final Thoughts

Obviously, every songwriter has their own preferences when creating their songs, so take this all with a grain of salt and feel free to tweak it as needed. However, many students haven’t figured out their songwriting framework yet, and this can get them started with low stakes and high reward. Remember, songwriting is an iterative process – students will have to learn to be patient and not expect perfection the first time around.

Let me know how it goes in the comments below!

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A picture of a student writing out music. The image is titled "How to teach songwriting in elementary music".

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