In this project by composer and educator Kay Charlton, we offer a step-by-step guide to creating a song as a class.
Songs and singing are especially important to us at the London Philharmonic Orchestra because we spend the summer months playing at Glyndebourne Opera, the famous opera festival in East Sussex.
While the opera singers sing and act on the stage, the Orchestra sits underneath, in what’s called “the pit”, and play the music, listening to the beautiful singing while we play.
Operas are dramatic musical works performed live with singers and instrumental players, typically an orchestra, and have been written and performed since about 400 years ago. Some operas were hugely popular, and would have been the pop music of their day.
In this Summer Songwriting project, we will listen to a classic pop song and identify its structure, comparing it to a piece of music from a famous opera. We will then use this as a template for composing our own song as a class.
The London Philharmonic Orchestra in the pit at Glyndebourne
These resources are © copyright Kay Charlton and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, London 2019 (see About the Author section at the bottom of the article for more information).
The aims of this project are:
- To listen to music and identify elements within it
- To create a song – to be composers and lyric writers
- To make a song arrangement, making musical choices about how the song sounds
As part of this project you will explore the structure and elements of a song, write lyrics and put them to a melody with a chord structure. The project is in five sessions which can be spread over several weeks at your own pace:
- Part One – Song structure and lyrics
- Part Two – Chords
- Part Three – Rhythm and style
- Part Four – Melody
- Part Five – Arrangement
- YouTube/Spotify or other online audio resource for demonstrating music examples. Many links in this article open in YouTube – if your school blocks this, you can search for the same or similar content on other sites
- Whiteboards or paper and pens
- Classroom instruments
- Other instruments can be added (e.g. ukulele, guitar, keyboards, drums, brass/woodwind) depending on what is available in your school
In this section we will learn how to recognise the structure of music and name its sections, and look at some ideas for how to write lyrics. If you don’t cover everything in one session, this could be split over two.
1. Listening task
We will do this by listening first to a classic pop song. You can choose anything that you and your pupils are familiar with; I have chosen Lovely Day by Bill Withers (opens in YouTube).
Play the song to the class, and show the word cloud while it is playing – which sections can you hear?
With your class, discuss which section is which in the song – it is built from repeating eight-bar sections:
What can you hear? What about the texture – how many instruments are playing? Listen to how the song builds up in the introduction. What is the hook – the bit that sticks in your head? In fact, this song doesn’t have a ‘middle 8’ (a contrasting section, usually eight bars, that adds variety).
- There is variety in the main melody when it repeats
- Instrumental backings and layers are added gradually
- The bass line is very memorable
- The chorus is one line – ‘a lovely day’ – with backing vocalists singing a repeating refrain underneath
- The structure of this song is quite simple – three sections that repeat
Extending the listening task using opera (optional):
Now listen to ‘Toreador song’ from the opera Carmen by Georges Bizet (written over 100 years earlier than Lovely Day, in 1875), and spot the similarities and differences.
Show the same word cloud as the pop song and see if your children can follow the structure while they listen.
Here it is:
Now make two columns on the board, or get children to do this individually:
Ask the children for their ideas of the similarities and differences between Lovely Day and Toreador.
They might come up with these, or others:
Here are some other songs that have various structures that you could explore – there are no hard and fast rules:
- ‘Octopus’s Garden’ by The Beatles – includes a middle 8
- ‘Sir Duke’ by Stevie Wonder – the middle 8 here is an instrumental interlude
- ‘House of Fun’ by Madness – features a six bar instrumental followed by the middle 8
- Songs by Taylor Swift
Tell the class that we are going to compose our own song, but first we need some lyrics.
There are many ways to come up with lyrics. Here are some ideas for inspiration:
- Use a poem – either an existing poem or one written in class
- Start with a title and brainstorm some words
- Use your school motto or values as a starting point
- Create a character (like the Toreador, who is a heroic and intimidating character. In the opera he is a bullfighter, but probably best not to explore that here!)
Here’s a suggestion of a poem for inspiration: ‘Today; One Day’ by Michael Rosen. You can listen to Rosen reading out the poem (opens in YouTube).
Discuss the elements of the poem, for example the word patterns, mood and use of figurative language (metaphor, simile, personification, etc.).
To turn a poem in to lyrics we need a beat or a pulse. Create your own pulse or rhythmic pattern by clapping, or listen to this drum beat (opens in YouTube).
Can you say Rosen’s poem (or another) over the beat? Have a practice. Where is beat one? Make sure your words go with the beat, and that the emphasis is right. Perhaps you could use the word ‘today’ as a refrain, repeating it over and over, with the other lines in between.
Now it’s time to write your own lyrics, using the ideas from the poem or your chosen stimulus. Split into groups with a whiteboard or paper in each. Spend some time making up phrases, and after a while put the drum beat on and practise your words with the beat. At this stage don’t worry about how it sounds, just get some words and phrases down.
3. Song structure
At some point you need to decide which words to keep and what structure your song will take. Divide the words/phrases in to three columns – positive/negative/neutral. The positive lyrics will form the chorus, the negative ones are the verse and the neutral ones are for the bridge/middle 8 if you have one. Spend some time choosing which lines to keep/adapt and what to discard.
Here’s a suggested song structure – there are no rules on this, do what feels right to you (the middle 8 is an optional extra). Think of your lyrics – which sections did you decide on? What order do you want to put them in? The ‘outro’ could be the chorus repeated round and round for instance.
INTRO / VERSE / CHORUS / VERSE / CHORUS / MIDDLE 8 / CHORUS / OUTRO
At the end of the session make sure you record or video the children chanting their lyrics over a beat.
You should now have your lyrics and have divided them into chorus, verse, and bridge/middle 8.
Next, you need some chords. A chord is at least three notes played simultaneously and your chord choice will give the song its musical flavour. It could be, in simple terms, happy (major key), sad (minor key), or move between the two.
How does ‘Lovely Day’ make you feel? This is a happy song about a sunny day – it is in a major key. The chords for this song are basically a four-bar repeated progression in the verse and chorus (the fourth chord is actually more complicated but we have simplified it for this project):
‘Octopus’s Garden’ uses this four-chord progression too, as do many other songs.
The bridge in ‘Lovely Day’ has a two-chord progression:
Here are all the chords in the easier key of C major:
Verse (same as chorus)
You can listen to these chord progressions in the audio player:
Choose your chords
There are various ways you could approach this, depending on your and your children’s levels of confidence:
- Teacher chooses: The most straightforward option is for you to listen to the two examples in the audio player below, and choose example 1 or 2 as your chord structure. You can then play these to the class, teach them the chords (using the chord bank below) and practising moving from one chord to the other on instruments
- Children pick from a list: Alternatively, you could play the audio examples to the class and have them decide or vote for their favourite
- Teacher leads but children make controlled choices: You could decide on the first chord (e.g. C major), and ask the children which chord they would like to hear next, offering a choice of a couple of options (e.g. G major or F major?)
- Children decide: The most ambitious option. If you have time, and children who are confident to explore different chords, you could get children to decide their own chord progression in groups. You could give each group the chord blocks from the chord bank below, with each chord on a different piece of paper, so children can move them around and play from the pages
Common chord progressions: three examples
Here are three examples of common chord progressions you can use or adapt. Each box represents four beats. Check the chord bank for the notes to play for each chord and listen to the audio file to see what each section sounds like.
1. This suggestion has three sections (tracks 1-3 in the audio player below):
2. Here’s an easy 3 chord structure (as used in ‘Stay with Me’ by Sam Smith) that repeats round and round (track 4 in audio player below):
3. This one uses the same chords in various sequences for the different sections (tracks 5-7 in audio player below):
Here is a handy chord bank to play around with. The bottom note is the name of the chord, with the note names above being the other notes in that chord:
Once you’ve decided which chord blocks to use, try playing the chords on xylophones, glockenspiels or keyboards. Put the lowest note on the bigger instruments or lower keys, and play 4 beats on each chord. These chords are quite easy on the guitar or ukulele too, if any of your children play those instruments.
What kind of beat or feel will your song have? If you feel confident you might want to give your song a certain style, e.g. hip hop, reggae or rock, or you could use a simple beat that you’ve heard many times – think of ‘We will Rock You’ by Queen:
Putting this beat onto a variety of percussion instruments – or body percussion – will give you a great rhythm to build your song on. Think about how you can change the rhythm in some way for the different sections of your song.
Divide your class so some children are playing the beat, and others play the chord sequence you decided on in the last session, and practise this until everyone is happy with it.
Children from Plumcroft Primary School in Greenwich perform their song
Once you have decided on the chords, feel and structure of your song, you need a melody or tune. Start with the chorus – this should be catchy and repetitive, and you can use your words from Part One.
Elements of a melody:
- Steps – “next-door notes”, connected, restrained, small range. Can be good for the verse, e.g. ‘Do Re Mi’ or ‘Three Blind Mice’
- Leaps – notes that are further away from each other. Creates a feeling of freedom and openness – could be good for the chorus, e.g. the opening notes from the theme to Star Wars or ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’.
Melodies are made up of phrases – a bit that makes sense on its own, e.g. ‘Happy birthday to you’. It could be a question phrase – which leaves the melody hanging…or an answer phrase that resolves or takes the melody ‘home’, finishing on the key note – the lowest chord note (sometimes called the ‘tonic’).
A melody structure might go:
Exactly as in ‘Happy birthday’ – question/answer, question/answer – the last phrase ‘resolves’, or takes us home; it sounds finished. The melody moves mostly by step in the first two phrases and has a big leap in the third phrase.
Phrases can be repeated, particularly the hook (e.g. ‘Lovely Day’) – the chorus needs to be memorable! Use some melodic phrases that are the same (repeated) and some that are different (contrasting).
Some melody starter ideas:
1. The shape of the melody
Here is an example melody based on the chords C / Am / F / G.
2. Choose a starting note
Try this exercise as a class:
- Sing a note that fits with your starting chord
- Should it be long or short?
- Where shall we go next – up or down?
- How long should that note be?
- Make it fit to your lyrics
- Do this for two more notes
- Make sure it has a question ending – sounds unfinished
This creates the first phrase. To create the second phrase:
- Repeat the same phrase again but with a different ending – finishing on the home note
- Repeating this process (with your lyrics) gives you the building blocks of a melody (again, think of ‘Happy Birthday’)
You could have a rap section of course – this could create contrast in your song and avoids the need for melody at that point.
This is the fun bit – the final finish to your song. Finalise the structure and think of ways to build the song so that repeated sections have some variety in texture (thick or thin texture – the number of instruments playing) or instrumentation (timbre, or quality of the sound). Just adding a tambourine on the chorus can really lift that section! Don’t forget to decide on a strong ending.
Try the following ideas:
- Changes in tempo (speed)– could your song speed up (accelerando) or slow down (rallentando) at the end?
- Contrasting dynamics – perhaps the chorus is loud and the middle 8 is quiet. Does your song fade out (diminuendo) or does it get louder at the end (crescendo)?
- Timbre – feature the unique sound of an instrument – perhaps some instruments drop out in a section and then come back in again?
- Texture – try different combinations and layers of the instruments. How does your piece start? Does everyone play all the time?
- Silence – a bar (4 beats) of silence can sound good at the end of a section – it is effective when everyone comes back in together
- Solos – do you have instrumentalists who could feature on the melody, or improvise?
Most of all, trust your instinct – be creative and have fun!
If you have more time and you’d like to extend your song try the following ideas:
- Add backing vocals – ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ on long notes can thicken the texture and add interest on the chorus or middle 8. Or, think of the repeated refrain on ‘Lovely Day’ – would that idea fit in your song?
- Do you have instrumental teachers who could get involved in composing a section for brass or woodwind?
Spend some time rehearsing as a class and deciding what everyone should do in the song (sing, play chords, play drums or other untuned percussion etc). If you are singing as a class we recommend taking a look at our Let’s Sing resources (Part 1 and Part 2) for warm-up ideas and tips on good singing technique.
Sharing your work
We would love to see or hear your class songs! If you would like us to share any of your work, you can send in any audio, images or video to [email protected] (please send any large files via wetransfer or other filesharing service rather than direct email).
Below is a video of a performance by Plumcroft Primary School, Greenwich. You can also download their lyrics and the chords they chose.
About the author
Kay Charlton is a composer and educator alongside a playing career with Bollywood Brass Band, whose CD Carnatic Connection was placed no.12 in Songlines Magazine’s top 50 world Music CDs of the last five years (2018). She teaches brass WCET for Royal Greenwich Music Hub as well as teaching Key Stage 2 music at Plumcroft Primary school.
Kay has composed examination pieces for Trinity College London and has brass/wind tutor books published by Spartan Press and Warwick Music. Her book of WCET repertoire and backing tracks, ‘Are You Ready?’, has also been converted into a series of online tutorials by MusicGurus, and she has delivered workshops based on this repertoire and her aural approach at the First Access Forum, Music Education Expo and as CPD sessions for Music Hubs. She composed the songs for Warwick Music’s pBuzz Key Stage 1 resource pack which was awarded five stars in Teach Primary Magazine.