Gramophone guest blog

Chewing-gum and cheese: what makes a good children's song?

Edward WickhamMon 24th September 2018

Edward Wickham explores the qualities that make for a successful musical setting for children

‘Let it go! Let it go!’ I cannot be the only parent to have suffered at the hands of a child who cannot stop belting the refrain from Disney’s Frozen. If only she could let it go; or perhaps the tune could let her go. But for months on end it was stuck in my daughter’s head like a piece of chewing-gum on the sole of a shoe. It has recently been replaced by ‘This is Me’ from The Greatest Showman, a song which has the rare distinction of making it from big screen to classroom in under a year, but which provides no less respite from the noise pollution which envelops domestic life.

There has been a good deal of research conducted recently on the ‘stickability’ of songs – what makes an effective ear-worm – though it’s an art which songwriters with no time for the music psychology literature will employ instinctively. A repeated melodic and text fragment, ideally three to five syllables, and you have the beginnings of a good hook. If ‘Let it go’ is not to your taste, then what about ‘Sing Levy Dew’? Benjamin Britten, writing in the early 1930s for the boys of Clive House School, Prestatyn, knew the benefit of a good hook, just as surely as do the chart-topping writers of today. No matter that nobody quite knows what ‘Sing Levy Dew’ actually means; some of the best lyrics are obscure or just plain gobbledygook.

Britten’s anthology of children’s songs which emerged from that period – Friday Afternoons – remains a much-cherished and pedagogically valuable resource, not least because it achieves that rare thing, which the makers of, for example, the Toy Story series also managed, of appealing to children and adults at the same time.

I have programmed Friday Afternoons in concerts by the Girls’ Choir of St Catharine’s College alongside upper voice music with more obviously sophisticated aesthetic ambitions, and audiences of all ages have never felt any incongruity. Britten’s strategy is to set texts which are predominantly ritualistic in character: the semi-nonsense of children’s games, or in the case of ‘A New-Year Carol’ with its refrain ‘Sing Levy Dew’ evoking some remote, ancient liturgy. Where there is sentiment, it is that form of nostalgia which children and adults might share, for a hot summer afternoon of fishing or for harvest-time. There is nothing kitsch in any of this. Britten know that children have a keen sense of smell, and can detect cheese a mile off.

And yet this is music which would sound peculiar coming from the mouths of adults. There is something in the timbre and delivery of young voices that provides authenticity to their performance. And it is here that we encounter a dilemma which is both aesthetic and – let’s be honest about it – commercial. The best children’s choirs are capable of singing highly complex, mature polyphonic music; but surely choral music of this sophistication might just as well be sung by professional, adult choirs? What quality does the best choral music for children possess that requires it to be sung by children?

There are many answers to this question, which might engage with, amongst others, issues of presentation, performance psychology and acoustics. But one answer lies in the characteristics of the text, and how these might be expressed by a sensitive composer. It should be no surprise that the poetry of Emily Dickinson has so often been mined by composers. Her lyrics consist of intense, pithy utterances which, unrestricted by syntactical regulation, lend themselves to repetition and manipulation.

Nor is it a surprise that they make great lyrics for children’s songs. Two cycles of Emily Dickinson settings appear on the St Catharine’s Girls’ Choir’s latest recording – by Sally Beamish and Jonathan Dove – and the wide-eyed fascination, and studied naivety in Dickinson’s poetic persona is entirely convincing when re-voiced by children. ‘How happy is the little stone, that … doesn’t care about Careers.’ Only a child, who knows nothing of the brutal world of professional music, could sing such a thing.

The latest CD from St Catharine’s Girls’ Choir 'Sing Levy Dew' is out now on Resonus Classics and celebrates the 10th anniversary of the Choir. For more information. please visit: resonusclassics.com

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