The Sweet Relief of Discovering Decent Children’s Music

As you may be aware, I’m the Mobile Piano Geek, your friendly neighborhood piano teacher bringing the joy of music and a cheerful sparkle to your very door once a week. That is a bit misleading my friends, as in reality I mostly stay home, parenting like crazy since my daughter was born 3 years ago. In this strange land of parenthood there is a lot of bad music. Very bad music. Bad music written ostensibly for children but with the unpreventable side effect of producing a curious mix of rage and boredom in parents who are incidentally exposed to it. Oh it just makes me so so mad! Probably because of my music training and love (and RESPECT) for music. These…people who just put out the shittiest crap imaginable. Horrible dumb lyrics and the worst ‘accompaniment’ made by casio synthesisers found at garage sales. They think kids are stupid and they think adults are stupid and won’t notice the shocking lack of musicality, effort, attention to detail. I can’t even name names because I snap off the music player with outraged disgust whenever we accidentally come across this dreck. Any parent of a pre-school child can think of a couple of examples right off the top of their heads. And when you think of those examples, they start playing over and over in your head. God damn those tortuous ear worms.
There’s a couple of ways to address this. Some parents who are music fans forgo kids music altogether and just listen to the stuff they like with their kids. I know some parents like this and it is really cute to see a toddler bob and weave to their favorite Bob Marley album or ask their Grammy “Do you have any Daft Punk?” when riding in the car. (No. No she did not.) Another option is to seek out music that is appealing to children (i.e. lyrical stories that kids can relate to, that help them understand their lives and the overwhelming world they struggle to find their place in) while also appealing to adults. Maybe ‘appeal’ is too strong a word. Perhaps not wanting to escape the rage/boredom through copious amounts of drugs and alcohol would suffice. Elmo’s World is bad but Elmo’s World on repeat while drunk would be worse than…I can’t even think of what would be worse than that. Maybe Randy Bachman’s Vinyl Tap when he goes off on the genius of The Guess Who and plays Takin Care Of Business AGAIN because he can… oh wait, that’s every episode of Vinyl Tap. MAYBE that would be worse.
Music is very important in the lives of young children. It helps them in so many ways. Language development, math comprehension, social development, cultivation of joy, fostering connection with caregivers, encouraging their bodies to be active through dancing – this will have to be a separate blog post, all the wonderful ways that music can enhance the lives infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers.
I have shamelessly used songs, dancing and listening to music as a mood changer for my little girl since she was born. She is far more likely to listen and follow instructions if the message is delivered in a silly song. Throw in a little improvised soft shoe and she’s up for anything. I get sick of the sound of my own voice sometimes though, no really I actually do. Recently I started checking CD’s out of the library to expand our musical horizons. And to my great relief, I have stumbled across some very fine music for kids. Right now we are enjoying The Might Be Giants, Here Come The 123’s. It came out in 2008 so I was completely unaware of it because in 2008 kids were pretty much the last thing on my mind and my imminent rock and roll success was the first.
There are a lot of good things about this record. It’s clever, catchy, the playing is top-notch and the songs are deliberately constructed with an ear to quality. It’s a good mix of textures, tempos, and styles. I also learned the mathematical definition of zero and infinity from it. I love how the songs can be taken on two different levels, one for kids and one for adults. One Everything for example, is delightfully catchy and easy to sing along with. It also describes the nature of the universe

There’s only one everything/ Remember these words/ There’s only one everything/ And if you go out and count up everything/ It all adds up to one

and asks some tough questions

What if you drew a giant circle/ What if it went around all there is/ Then would there still be such a thing as an outside/ And does that question even make any sense?

The bass playing on this song is fantastic too. Great, memorable lines and killer fills throughout.

Another element I appreciate about this record is the palpable warmth and good humor that all the lead vocals contain. Too many kids songs are sung by adults who are not infusing their vocals with love, with care and enthusiasm. I know that sounds silly, but love is a key ingredient in good music and it is a key ingredient when dealing with kids. The Number Two, a song sung from the perspective of a number two who used to be unhappy he was not number 1, contains silly, beautiful lines sung with such warm happiness that tears occasionally spring to my eyes when we listen.

Two hips for shakin’, two lips for kissin’/Too long I’ve been blue, because it’s you that I’m missin’/Two knees for kneelin’, two shoulders for shruggin’/Two cheeks to make a little grin while we’re huggin’

Our favorite song as a family on this album is without a doubt, High Five. My husband and I blasted this one with windows open, driving around doing errands with Elisabeth in the back in her carseat giving herself high fives. We have been known to listen to this one a few times in a row for living room family dance parties too. It’s disco, it’s got good horn lines, more tasty bass playing. It explains how to do a high five, the various kinds of high fives and, my favorite part, a comprehensive list of contexts in which a high five is warranted.

Sing this song! (High five!)/ Learn to swim! (Low five!)/ A superhero! (Slap me five!)/ Home run! (High five!)/ Finger paint! (Low five!)/ Count to ten! (Slap me five!) /Do it again! (Slap me five!)/ Now do it again! (Slap me five!)

The kids who sing the backgrounds on High Five sound SO HAPPY. I fancy that I can hear the ear splitting grins that were plastered on their faces while they were recording. Which brings me to the last element of this record that I enjoy, and that is the children who sing with TMBG. Many kids albums have kids singing on them, like a background chorus. I love the kids singing on Here Come The 123’s. These children often sound like they are on the verge of laughing from the sheer delight of singing such ridiculously funny songs. “Seven” contains a lot of this. When they sing the chorus “We want cake! Where’s our cake?” I burst out laughing almost every time. Delivered with such happy commitment, and something all kids would love to say but are not usually allowed to.
We’ve been listening to this record for a few weeks and it has not gotten old. It is absolutely educational and will teach a young child a lot about numbers, math concepts (adding, even & odd numbers) and grand ideas (the oneness of the universe, infinity).But it won’t make you want to bury your head in a pillow and howl in despair when your little one asks to listen to it for the second, third, fourth time that day. It will make you feel happy and bouncy, and like life is worth living. Highly recommended. Life is too short to listen to terrible children’s music. Seek out the good stuff, your sanity is worth preserving. You can find this record here, at the They Might Be Giants website, iTunes, or Amazon. Or at the library.