How to sing a book to life and make reading extra fun
Published on: 14 December 2021 Author: Gareth P. Jones
Author Gareth P. Jones shares some terrific tips on how parents and teachers can include musical elements when reading to children. It won't be long before everyone is singing along and learning the words...
Illustration by Jim Smith
I was writing songs years before I wrote a book and decades before I was first published. These days, music and literature go hand in hand for me as I compose theme tunes to accompany my books, then perform them in schools and at festivals. You, too, can easily introduce music as you sing books to life – whether standing up in front of a class, or reading to your children.
My musical journey began at the age of ten when I started taking trumpet lessons. In sixth form, I picked up a guitar and learned two chords (A major & E major). I used these chords to write a song… about only knowing two chords. It wasn’t a very good song, but in order to improve, I wrote more silly songs.
My first book, The Dragon Detective Agency: The Case of the Missing Cats, was published in 2007. I didn’t have a clue what being a children’s author involved back then. I didn’t know what to say in a school and I had no idea how to do a book festival event. When I was invited to perform at the Edinburgh Book Festival, I felt nervous and unsure what to do. My wife suggested I write one of my silly songs about the book, so I borrowed some chords from Louis Armstrong and a sing-along bit from Cab Calloway and wrote a song.
My first ever performance of this song involved me reading the words from a music stand and making roughly one thousand mistakes. But the reaction was undeniable. From that point onwards, every book got a song. The scary books got scary songs. The funny books got funny songs. And the silly books got silly songs. Song writing is now a part of my writing process. If I’m stuck on a chapter, I reach for an instrument.
How to get everyone singing or playing along
When it comes to performing songs, you don’t need to be the world’s greatest performer. Choosing familiar songs or tunes helps, and songs with actions always work well.
I am not a musical genius, not by a long way. And you don’t need to be a note-perfect musician to sing-along, either! Some of my favourite live performances have been my most chaotic.
One handy tip is to use a tune that your young audience already knows (whether it’s a nursery rhyme, a TV theme tune or an advert jingle), then use that to sing the words of the book. For example, this year I published a book called The Lion on the Bus, which is designed to be sung to the tune of The Wheels on the Bus. I love reading this book because it’s to a tune which everyone knows so EVERYONE sings. An impeccable musical performance it is not, but these readings (or should that be "singings") are always good fun.
There are plenty of easy tips like this to help bring music into your readings. Whilst you’re at it, why not try:
- Doing silly voices: Different characters have different voices so why not try a very low, muttery voice for one and a high-pitched squeak. In my experience, nothing makes kids laugh more than silly voices.
- Taking a well-known song and changing the words to make it fit the book you’re reading: I borrowed from Louis Armstrong for The Dragon Detective Agency – you really can use any song or genre you like!
- Remember that you don't need a musical instrument: Even if you don’t have a musical instrument handy, you can always bang out a rhythm on a saucepan, a book with your hand, or on any hard surface. Make the world your instrument!
I always heartily recommend using music as part of book readings and school sessions. A song can punctuate a moment, be used to bring everyone’s focus back to the matter in hand or to unify an audience.
Using music in this way won’t be for everyone, but if it’s something that appeals to a reluctant reader, it’s certainly worth thinking about. After all, anyone can hold down a few chords or strum a ukulele.
Whether you’re reworking a well-known tune or making up your own, music speaks to your audience on a different level to words.
A good melody can tell a story and I firmly believe that songs connect us. In other words, music brings us… altogether now!
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