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Tips of the trade: writing children’s music

Tip Published Thursday 12 December 2019
L-R: Emily Who, Peter Combe and Teeny Tiny Stevies have a wealth of knowledge about writing music for little ones

Peter Combe is inspired by real life, imagination and the funny things that happen every day

Sibylla Stephen wants her music to be both purposeful and useful

Emily Who is a new children’s musician who says to make sure the songs are enjoyable for the parents is important too – they also have to hear the songs on repeat

Children’s music is its own unique genre, in part because it draws from so many styles and other genres to connect to its very impressionable and enthusiastic audience. But what does it take to write children’s music and make it relatable – to both children and their parents and carers who are along for the musical journey?

We asked three children's music songwriters at different career stages to share insight into their practice and craft: the legendary Peter Combe, Sibylla Stephen of popular folk-pop duo Teeny Tiny Stevies, and the up-and-coming Emily Who.

Peter Combe

For more than four decades, Peter has been creating memorable music for children, and carving a path for other Australian songwriters to follow in.

How did you musical career lead into children’s music?

My background as a primary classroom teacher and musician was paramount in me becoming a children's singer composer. My big 'break' was landing a presenting role on a children's TV programme called Music Time in 1977 with the BBC in London.

The ABC bought the Music Time series and I also then presented Let's Have Music for ABC national radio.

A song I wrote in 1973 as a teacher for my class 'Robin Hood's Dream,' ended up on the Newspaper Mama album. I was acutely aware when I wrote it in 1973 that while there were numerous authors writing books for children, there seemed to be no one writing songs, and I wondered why. 1981 I released my first children's album. On cassette! Remember them?

It started as a cottage industry with the cassettes selling by word of mouth. I used to run them off myself onto cassette from a reel to reel tape.

My big break was the title track from my Toffee Apple album, at my suggestion, and to my amazement, being turned into a full length video clip which was shown 100's of times on ABC TV in 1987.

Where do you get song ideas and inspiration from?

Real life, my imagination and the funny (and serious) things that happen every day. One needs to be observant and write down ideas as they come to you, e.g. if you get a good idea in the middle of the night, record it on your iPhone or write it down. If you wait until the morning the idea will have gone!

Do you have a brainstorming process?

Not really, although I do have a big red book at home with 178 song ideas in it. I write in big creative chunks of time.

There's always a reason for not starting because creating a good song is rarely easy. Delaying the process may be e.g., "I forgot to ring that guy back and I said I would" or "I meant to respond to that email and I promised that I would" or 'I need a coffee before I start"...etc.

So you have to 'work through' that creative barrier to get to your first good songwriting idea. It's a bit like cleaning out a cupboard. You throw out all the useless stuff (the bad ideas) until you come across something precious (a good idea).

How do you test run the ideas past the intended audience?

The best 'testing' audience is a class of kids at a school, I suggest 6-8 year olds. Sing the new song(s) to them and carefully and honestly assess the reaction. 3-4 year olds aren't necessarily as good a testing audience because their general zest for life means they tend to react enthusiastically to almost any song.

What is one essential songwriting tool for creating children’s music?

Hard to reduce it to one. Not necessarily in order...the ability to play an instrument (or two), lyrical and melodic imagination, a sense of the ridiculous (kids love really silly things), respect for children's intelligence and their imagination.

Peter Combe -
Wash Your Face In Orange Juice

Sibylla Stephens

As one-half of Teeny Tiny Stevies with her sister, Beth, the duo have released two albums, Useful Songs for Little People and Helpful Songs for Little People.

Before you and your sister formed Teeny Tiny Stevies, you were (and still are) fronting folk-pop band The Little Stevies. Was the transition to children’s music a conscious/strategic one or more organic?

It was conscious and strategic! But also very organic. We had reached a place where if we wanted to keep being working musicians/songwriters we had to diversify and get really creative about the way we were doing things.

I'd had my first child and taking big chunks of time to travel overseas to play festival circuits wasn't sustainable, for us. I was now existing in that new parent landscape, so I was aware that the kind of kids’ music I'd be happy to play my own kids over and over again was limited.

Like most, I didn't find the transition to becoming a parent easy and kept coming up against big challenges with my little one, so the idea was born that we'd have a go at writing some music that would fall within that genre, but our rule was it had to be useful.

We decided that if we were going to write music and lyrics that will likely be played over and over again (and get stuck in kids’ heads) we wanted the words to be purposeful and useful. We started with learning to use the toilet.

Do you have a different creative approach when writing Teeny Tiny Stevies songs? Are there different constraints or freedoms to children’s music?

Yes. Lyrically for our kids stuff we usually decide on a bunch of themes and then go about writing specifically about them. It's an excellent feeling because there's naturally a lot more of a plan in place. Like, we're on a mission and we mostly know how we're going to get there. We're not relying on personal emotional outpourings, we're writing to a theme.

Having said that, there definitely are TTS songs that have a lot of emotional outpouring in them, and they often end up being listeners' favourites, and that's not surprising – we connect deeply on shared feelings, not instructional lyrics about how to put your socks on.

Musically speaking, sometimes Beth and I will come up with musical ideas all on our own and bring it to the other, and sometimes we'll work together from the start. I find sitting together in a room when you're not coming up with anything good excruciating, so often Beth will email me some awesome riff she's had for a while and I'll start putting a melody (if it doesn't already have one) and words to it – this seems to work pretty well for us.

The best thing about creating this music is the freedom to delve into any genre we want. With our adult stuff it's kind of expected you'll 'stay in your lane' in terms of genre, but with our kids stuff we can get away with much more on the musical landscape and that's really fun.

How do you test run the ideas past the intended audience?

This is an interesting question because I think for us, even though our music appears to be 'for kids' it's secretly actually for parents, or at least as much for parents as it is for kids.

A different kids artist might have a proper answer about what 8-year-olds like vs what 5-year-olds like (and I'm sure they wouldn't be wrong), but that hasn't been our approach. A good song is a good song. So for us it's as much about if the adults around us like it as much as the kids around us.

What is one essential songwriting tool for creating children’s music?

In my opinion that can be the difference between good kids lyrics and not so good kids lyrics, take real time on making the phrasing and rhyming great, don't settle for less because it's 'kids' music'. And when you think it's done think again, go back and make it even better.

Can you share a tip or two on how to build a fanbase for children’s music?

Well, when we made our first TTS record we basically let our friends, family and The Little Stevies fanbase know about it. We were lucky because TLS fans were starting to have kids or becoming grandparents. Then word of mouth really took off for us. A few people who have big followings on social media starting talking about our stuff which helped.

I'd say find your niche. For instance, if teachers really dig your content, then really focus on getting in with teachers and schools, follow educators on Instagram, etc. If your content is about fairies become friends with everyone who does fairy stuff, collaborate, help each other.

Always have an email list when you play live.

Once you have a social media following, engage with them like a human person. People like helping people.

Teeny Tiny Stevies -
I Ate a Rainbow

Emily Who

Emily Who is new to the scene, and tells us a bit about her collaborative approach to songwriting. She recently released her first album, A Day for Adventure.

Can you tell you us a bit more about Emily Who and what ages you are writing for?

I’m Emily Who! A brand new Aussie children’s singer. My songs are aimed at pre-school aged children – but I know many people younger (and older!) than that who love the songs too!

As a trained actor and musician, how did your career lead into children’s music and the launch of Emily Who?

My first professional acting job after drama school was on a children’s TV show called Jay’s Jungle, featuring Jay Laga'aia. That’s when I discovered a true love for working with kids. Shortly after I teamed up with Peter Bailey and Rob Gist to start fulfilling our shared dream of writing children’s music.

Over the past two years or so we’ve met regularly to come up with everything together – and were all so excited to release our music our into the world!

Where do you get song ideas and inspiration from? Do you have a brainstorming process?

Ideas can come from many different things! Some of the lyrics have come from my experience of babysitting little people and the games we’ve played, sometimes from things I just think are important for kids to know about – and sometimes just because that’s what entered our heads on that day!

Usually Rob, Peter and I sit around at the piano or with guitars and come up with the songs together. I wouldn’t say we necessarily have a ‘process’ but you can usually trust that the three of us in one room working together will result in a great new song!

What is one essential songwriting tool for creating children’s music?

I think it’s important to remember that kids love playing songs on repeat – so repetition within a song is ok. I think making sure the songs are enjoyable for the parents is important too – they also have to hear the songs on repeat!

What makes being a songwriter and performer of children’s music exciting right now?

It’s always exciting to me to know that I can make a difference to someone’s life – if that’s teaching them to count, or encouraging imagination and play or simply to bring happiness and laughter to them!

Any other songwriting resources or other children’s music you recommend?

I have been loving connecting with other great kids singers recently such as Pevan and Sarah, Livvi Kids Music and Lizzy Loo. I must say I’m ever inspired by the kids' music greats such as Peter Combe and Jay Laga'aia too.