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Criteria for Writing Children’s Songs

Are you interested in writing a children’s song for the Church’s recently announced new songbook for children? In this interview the prolific LDS children’s song writer Vanja Watkins said that a dissertation written by one of her former professors helped her immensely with her song writing process. Criteria for Selection of Children’s Songs in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by Lue S. Groesbeck was written in 1966 but is still applicable today.

The following are 19 criteria that a panel of Church leaders, Church musicians, and non-LDS musicians felt were important to consider when writing children’s songs. These were later used to select music for Church publications:

  1. Is the range of the song suitable for children’s voices?
  2. Does the melody begin on a scale degree that will establish tonality and be comfortable to sing?
  3. Does the melody create patterns of tension and release through careful use of the active scale tones and their resolutions?
  4. Are large skips followed be a reversal of direction?
  5. Are skips of augmented or diminished intervals and extensive use of chromatics avoided?
  6. Does the melody fit the expressive meaning of the text?
  7. Are high tones and sustained tones of the melody on extensible vowels of the text?
  8. Does the melody complement the mood of the text?
  9. Does the form of the melody contain a balance of repetition and contrast in its melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic movement?
  10. Are musical phrases clearly defined by an appropriate cadence?
  11. Does the length of the phrases permit children to breath normally?
  12. Does the rhythm of the melody match the rhythm of the text?
  13. Does the tempo of the rhythm change with the general emotional trend of the text?
  14. Are extremes in dynamics avoided?
  15. If dynamics are used, do they follow the emotional curve of the words?
  16. Is the harmonic motion of two-part songs confined to the common practices used in oblique or parallel motion? (examples: descants, rounds, thirds, or sixths)
  17. Does the accompaniment reinforce the expressive qualities of the melody?
  18. Does the accompaniment involve the common usage of the 18th and 19th century voice leading?
  19. Does the song represent a skillful and intelligent use of all poetic and melodic qualities?

These criteria contain a lot of musical jargon. We would love to explain any of them in more depth if you would like more clarification. Please comment below or send us a message through or contact page. We look forward to hearing from you!

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Part Writing

Scholar David Huron explains that part writing (also called “voice leading”) “has been variously defined, but one simple definition is that it is the art of combining concurrent musical lines or melodies.” He continues, “The practice became codified into a set of recommendations (do’s and don’ts)” around the 1500s. These recommendations have evolved over the years along with changes in style, taste, and insight.

Fully trained musicians recognize that mastering part writing requires more than simple adherence to these rules. As a simplification of musical practice, the rules cannot cover every scenario. In certain situations, the rules may contradict each other. At other times, the goal underlying a particular rule may not align with the composer’s musical goal. Thus, though students of part writing begin by learning some basic rules, they best master the art is by studying masterworks.

Without “dumping the whole load of hay,” as Elder Maxwell once put it, here are two brief examples to consider:

Most amateur musicians recognize Bach as one of these master composers, but a composer they may not know is Palestrina. Palestrina’s “Sicut Cervus” is breathtaking not only for the beauty of its sound but for the grace of its voice leading. Each of its five parts are graceful to sing and seem to fit effortlessly with the other voices:

Good part-writing is not only the provenance of master composers. Professional choral composers also distinguish themselves by their voice leading. Part of the reason Eric Whitacre is famous for his cluster sound is not only because it’s breathtaking but also because he wrote the parts in such a way that this effect is as easy as possible to achieve:

Closer to home, listen to Ronald Staheli’s version of “I Know That My Redeemer Lives.” (You can find the music on It is another excellent example of professional-level voice leading, but in a familiar, LDS context:

Learning to identify good part writing can especially be a challenge for amateur musicians who lack the time and resources to devote to its study. That’s part of the reason I’m writing these posts—to help you discern quality craft beyond mere surface beauty and, in turn, to help you see how an understanding of craft enables you to see beauty and feel the Spirit in ways that require sensitivity to these details.

(This post was an excerpt from a longer post available here.)
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Naming Pitches

Often when we talk about pitches, we make reference to where it falls in the singer’s voice (e.g., a soprano’s high E versus her low E) or in relation to the piano’s middle C.

This system mostly works, but it can sometimes lead to some confusion. For instance, many sopranos can sing three Cs: the one below the staff, the one in the staff, and the one above the staff. If we called the one above the staff her “high C” and the one below the staff her “low C,” would that make the one in the staff her “middle C”? That’d be really confusing, because the piano’s middle C would be the soprano’s low C.

To solve this confusion, there are three main systems for naming pitches in America: scientific pitch notation, Helmholtz pitch notation, and MIDI note numbers. Of these, the last is useless for choirs and the second can be somewhat confusing.

The most straightforward and practical for you and your choir to learn is scientific pitch notation. This is the system we use on Mormon Musician.

In this system, octaves span from C to B, and each octave has a specific number. In scientific pitch notation, the piano’s middle C is C4. The rest of the notes in a chromatic scale following that pitch would all be in octave 4 — C#4, D4, Eb4, etc. — until you reach the next C, the mid-staff C. Scientific pitch notation calls this note C5. In turn, the soprano’s high C is C6.

The same principle extends down into the men’s ranges, too. A tenor singing the piano’s middle C also sings C4, just like the soprano singing her lowest C. Although C4 falls in a different place in the ranges of a soprano or a tenor, scientific pitch notation calls this pitch the same name because it has the same frequency.

The website Theoretically Correct has a nice chart that explains these pitch-naming conventions a little further.

(This post was an excerpt from a longer post available here.)
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