Guest Post | Singing With Your Kids

Hi, Everybody.

It’s Joel’s sister, Lori. Some of you know about my musical projects featuring Joel’s art since he has so kindly mentioned them here. Joel, Darius, and I have been talking a lot about the connection between music, art, creativity, and the mind. As a teacher, I’ve seen the enormous benefit children receive from musical education and exposure. I’m thrilled that Joel and Darius have asked me to contribute a series of musical posts to broaden our conversations here at

Last summer, thanks to our three-year-old’s love of Bobby McFerrin, we attended an interview and concert. Afterward, we had the thrilling experience of meeting our son’s musical hero. He’s a warm and brilliant soul, further evidenced in this video from a neuroscience lecture in which he illustrates the power of the pentatonic scale:

As it turns out, the pentatonic scale [do re mi – so la] is prevalent in many cultures. Since it seems to be “hard-wired” into the human brain, it’s very pleasing to us.

The pentatonic scale lends itself beautifully to improvisation, i.e. making up songs on the spot. I bet a lot parents are with me on this – making up songs is a great way to have fun, learn something new, cajole your child into cooperating, etc. I’d love hear about the songs you’re singing with your children, made up or otherwise, and try to figure out if any of them use the pentatonic scale. Here are a few examples of songs that use the pentatonic scale:

The Farmer and the Dell
Mary Had a Little Lamb
Amazing Grace
Old MacDonald Had a Farm
Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater

The pentatonic scale is the tonal building block of both Orff-Schulwerk and the Kodály Method, used commonly in classroom music. If your child is learning either of these approaches, we’d love to hear about that, too. Vive la musique!


  1. Kerri
    June 9, 2011 at 3:34 am

    With my squirmy 11 month old I sing, "it's time to change your diaper, your diaper, your diaper. (repeat)... And the happier we' ll be. To the tune of an old Raffee song, and it works!

    1. June 9, 2011 at 7:38 am

      Love your idea Kerri. :) Sounds like you're using the tune from "The More We Get Together" yes? It uses the melodic rising major chord in the first three notes, a very cheery sound. After a quick search, I found that Raffi (or whoever wrote those lyrics) used the melody from "Oh du lieber Augustin" written in the late 17th century. (Also used for "Did You Ever See A Lassie" later in the 19th century.) Wow. People have definitely been singing that catchy tune for awhile!

  2. Keira
    June 9, 2011 at 7:36 am

    My kids (ages 4-10) have a hard time being good sports with each other when we play board games. But now when we play "Sorry!" together, we have songs that celebrate a couple of the good cards you can draw. As soon as someone draws a "2," everyone sings together "You get to go again! You get to go again! Someone drew another two, they get to go again!" That way we all celebrate for them at the top of our lungs. We also have a song for the "1" card, "It's not a two, but it'll do, it's a one....your fun's begun!"

    1. June 9, 2011 at 7:47 am

      Keira, this made me laugh out loud! What a great idea for assuaging the pain of those who didn't get the coveted two. :) Your "You get to go again" lyrics seem like they must be to the tune of "The Farmer and the Dell" yes? If so, bingo! Pentatonic. Trying to figure out the tune for your "One" song... is it possibly Old MacDonald?

  3. Keira
    June 9, 2011 at 8:06 am

    We actually made up our own tune, but maybe you can tell me if it's on the same scale. I can't write sheet music on here, but it goes something like this: E E E A B E (last E is one octave up) is for "You get to go agaaaaaain" then (Start again at higher E) E F# F# F# D E "You get to go again" (second time through) F# F# F# D E E E , (low)E E E C# B A (for "Someone drew another two, you get to go again!")

  4. Keira
    June 9, 2011 at 8:07 am

    It sounds a little like a sea shanty.

    1. June 10, 2011 at 12:03 pm

      Keira – Yes, I see what you mean about sounding like a sea shanty. If the D is definitely natural, and not sharp, you’re using the Mixolydian mode, which is ingenious of you since it dates back to the Renaissance, and is not so common any more. What a good topic for a future post… :) Leonard Bernstein does a lovely job talking about the modes in his Young People’s Concerts, if you happen to find them on DVD at your library. (And, though you didn’t got this route, your lyrics do work really well with the Farmer and the Dell tune, if you feel like trying it just to see how natural it feels to use the pentatonic.)

  5. Courtney
    June 9, 2011 at 11:19 am

    hi. im just wondering which album or songs your three-year-old loves? im about to be a mom for the first time and am also a 3rd grade teacher in new york city and i love using music in the classroom. thanks!

    1. June 10, 2011 at 12:03 pm

      Courtney ~ Congratulations! :) Our son is now four, and he loves so many different styles of music. He still adores anything by Bobby McFerrin. When he started studying the cello in January, his favorite way to “practice” was to pretend that he was Yo-Yo Ma and I was Bobby McFerrin, and we’d do “Hush Little Baby.” One of his absolute favorite Kindie albums is Randy Kaplan’s “Five Cent Piece” found here: And he loves singing along with my children’s songs that I just published, found here:, especially “It’s Hard To Wait For Your Birthday.” We’ve used “his lullabies” (from my classical album that Sarah mentioned above) for years as a soothing comfort, and we enjoy more upbeat classical music when we’re up and around, like the Brandenburg Concertos, by J.S. Bach. When he was young, he really dug youtube videos with the jazz greats. It’s amazing what children will listen to when given the chance.

    2. Amanda
      August 4, 2011 at 9:09 pm

      I rarely play music recorded specifically for children with my 1.5 y/o. We listen to a lot of almost every kind of music. He LOVES salsa and disco. We also listen to a lot of classical too but he doesn't love it as much as the other stuff. When I'm trying to calm him down for nap time we listen to artists like Nora Jones and Priscilla Ahn. They're very soothing and I love them as much as he does.

  6. June 9, 2011 at 11:57 am

    My 4 year old son and I have lots of fun singing together. Besides religious songs from our church's primary song book, we sing classic childhood songs like "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and "The Itsy Bitsy Spider". I'm always making up new words for many of the songs we sing and we always have a good laugh. Our favorite made up song goes "In My Little Kitchen the ___ is singing " and he chooses what in the kitchen is singing. I bought your Piano Lullabies cd awhile back and my son loves going to sleep by it. He calls it his "Birdie Music" because of the beautiful album Joel designed for it. :-)

    1. June 10, 2011 at 12:04 pm

      Sarah ~ Thanks so much for buying Lullaby Piano! :) Yes! Birdie music is the perfect title for it. This year I’ve been using Twinkle Twinkle and other known melodies more and more as a way to deliver information in a song, especially information that I’m hoping children will learn. This is the topic of one of my future posts, and I really hope people will even upload their sound recordings, which is possible on FB, and would be a hoot! Especially to hear the kids singing… Little angels that they are. ♥

  7. June 9, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    My son can't talk. He sings, instead. I have to transfer every order through songs.

    1. June 10, 2011 at 12:05 pm

      Aneladgam ~ It’s marvelous how you’ve come up with a solution like this. Akin to signing, and a wonderful way to enjoy music in the moment. Do you find yourself re-singing certain songs? Or making up new ones every time?

  8. June 9, 2011 at 10:10 pm

    I own a preschool and childcare. I have a small list of the children's favorite songs that we sing together in the school(sometimes with a guitar and others a cappella). -"This Land is Your Land"-Woodie Guthrie (the children can sing along with ALL of the verses -"Morning Has Broken"- hymn -"You Are My Sunshine"- Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell -"I Love You, A Bushel and a Peck"- Frank Loesser -"Our Old Homemade Kitchen Clock"- unknown -"Down Into the Barnyard"- Tom Hunter/Bev Bos (I think) -"Would You Like To See Me Grow?"- Tom Hunter/Bev Bos (I think) (our school kids call this "Zoop" -"I Wanna Be a Friend of Yours"- performed by Nat King Cole (although I'm not sure if he wrote it or not) I am definitely a fly-by the seat of my pants singer also. I grew up with a dad who created songs for just about anything, and I have acquired the skill as well. Singing just makes things so much more fun! In parenting my boys (now 6 and 8 yrs old) as well as in teaching preschool, my favorite children's music has always been albums made by authentic musicians. I love the "Curious George" album by Jack Johnson, the "What Kind of Cat are You?" album by Billy Jonas, and the "Catch the Moon" album by Elizabeth Mitchell and Lisa Loeb. In the preschool we also play a lot of George Winston as background music, which has a lovely calming effect. My boys have always enjoyed experiencing whatever music we as parents enjoy. We need to realize as parents that children can appreciate quality music from a young age, provided they are simply exposed to it! Thank you for sharing with us!! I enjoyed your post and also have loved reading through the comments!

    1. June 11, 2011 at 8:56 pm

      Your response is so full of great stuff - I have to go research all the songs and albums I don't know! :) And, let me say, it *thrills* me to see you included a Frank Loesser song!!!!!! And especially that one. Brilliant! It reminds me to sing that one again to my son, who used to sing it around the house. ♥ I've been teaching choir at a lovely small school since January, and we just had our final performance Thursday night in which we sang, among other things, "This Land Is Your Land." People of every age love this song, and it really is poetic with all the verses. We also sang "The Happy Wanderer" which is a hoot, really, and has been around for a long time as well. I sang it in my grade school choir, too. This is one of the beautiful things about music - singing songs that have been enjoyed through many generations.

  9. June 9, 2011 at 10:17 pm

    I love this! Thanks for the beautiful post Lori! And these comments by all of you are fantastic. So much useful and inspiring information here! I'm taking notes!

    1. June 11, 2011 at 8:57 pm

      Are you kidding!?! Thanks for sharing your kind, artistic, and thoughtful readers with me. Such a joy! And I'm already working on my next post... :)

  10. June 9, 2011 at 10:21 pm

    I love that video! Thanks for sharing it. We have a little pentatonic xylophone, and I love how it always sounds good when the kids are banging on it. I like to play "Shortnin' Bread" on it. My kids are really into the Wizard of Oz music right now, so that's what everyone is singing at our house.

    1. June 11, 2011 at 8:30 pm

      Ooh, yes! Shortin' Bread is a great pentatonic example! :) We have a metallophone on which the keys can be removed, so we can turn it into a pentatonic instrument. At first my son wasn't so sure he wanted us to remove keys, and now he made up a game in which he gradually takes away *all* the keys as I'm playing. He finds this hilarious - with a bit of Chaplinesque response on my part when I go to hit a key which, as it turns out, is now missing... Fun times w/music. :) Which songs to your kids tend to sing from W. of O.?

    2. June 11, 2011 at 9:42 pm

      P.S. Oh goodness - I was just looking around Youtube and found this that you *must* share with your kids!!!

    3. June 11, 2011 at 11:12 pm

      I find it soooo hilarious when they (6, 4, and almost 2) sing "Lollipop Guild." My little baby really does sound like a Munchkin! They also sing "Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead" and "If I Only Had a Brain." They ask me to sing "We're Off To See the Wizard" and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" several times a day, but my 4 year old told me today that Judy Garland sounds a lot better than I do! The Wizard of Oz is an OBSESSION around here, esp. with my 4 year old. We got the soundtrack album from the library today, and he laid on the couch and listened to the whole thing (2 discs), and I'm sure he'll do it again tomorrow. He is constantly practicing his "moves" and assigning characters to everyone he knows, and has been planning an Oz-themed Halloween for months. Now, would you PLEASE start a creative music-with-kids blog, you're obviously the woman for the job!

    4. June 13, 2011 at 8:14 am

      Thank you, Lori! That McFerrin "Oz" video is AMAZING! We all loved it. Our most favorite music for children albums are some old classics: "Whoever Shall Have Some Good Peanuts" by Sam Hinton, and "Little White Duck" by Burl Ives. We also love listening to and singing these songs: "Abiyoyo" by Pete Seeger and "Did You Feed My Cow?" by Ella Jenkins.

  11. June 10, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    My daughter isn't quite two. She loves the Itsy Bitsy Spider and The Wheels on the Bus. We've been singing them to her for a couple of years now whenever she was feeling particularly distressed and now she's just joining in. I also sing to her I'm a little teapot (I'm terrible at this one), If you're happy and you know it, Where is Thumbkin and the Hokey Pokey. We both like anything that involves moving or gestures as part of the songs.

    1. June 11, 2011 at 8:22 pm

      I love those songs, too. Interestingly, four of those you mentioned (Itsy, Wheels, If You're Happy, and Hokey Pokey) all begin with a rising perfect 4th interval, and with an upbeat (on beat 4 instead of 1... and in the case of HP it's +4+1). It seems a lot of kid-friendly songs have that in common, too. Very fun to notice. Thanks!

  12. June 11, 2011 at 1:02 am

    Lori, both :) I've been a teacher of English for 15 years and after giving birth to my son I realized that I knew lots of English song, but only a few in Polish. So I adapted song I knew from my courses - "Every day I comb my hair" and others. Now he has a one-year-old sister and sings the same songs to her ;) Thanks to the song he made a huge progress, sometimes he even seems to understand that he can use the text itself, without melody.

    1. June 11, 2011 at 8:17 pm

      Wow, that's wonderful. This reminds me of a touching story Joel's wife told me awhile back. One of her geriatric patients, who had been quite closed down for awhile, was able to participate beautifully in a singing class one day. The songs the guest had brought were songs from her childhood. It happened to be the day her daughter was visiting, and she was completely amazed by the life that came into her mother during the singing. Very moving.

  13. June 11, 2011 at 11:12 pm

    Wow, this is great! I definitely learned something new. I make up songs for my little guy a lot--I guess it's pretty natural, hugh?

  14. June 13, 2011 at 6:18 am

    Wow! As a Speech Pathologist and Mum I knew that songs and music were a great way to teach new vocabulary, grammar, comprehension and to introduce new concepts. But now I know that there's an actual NAME for the type of songs we've been using. Thanks for introducing me to some new info - I'm off to find out more!

  15. July 23, 2011 at 10:27 am

    I'm a terrible singer, but I love to sing. It makes me so happy. When my kids were little I made up silly songs about a lot of daily activities. When my daughter was young, I can't remember what age, she went around the house singing opera style to describe what she was doing at any moment or as an answer any question I ask her. This brought much laughter to our home. One of the many songs my children, and now my grandchildren love is Six Little Ducks. I find they can quack long before they can talk, and they sometimes come to me making the motions to the song wanting me to sing, which of course delights me to no end! Before they reach two, I've found that singing that song sometimes stops a crying jag, and soon they are laughing and quacking with me. I have just found this site and have really enjoyed following this discussion!

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