My Approach to Kids' Music

This blog grew out of a series of articles I wrote for my wife's parenting group newsletter. I enjoy listening to (and playing) music, I have an opinion about a lot of music, and -- most importantly for a newsletter author or blogger -- am fool enough to want to write about it. That was all that necessary to spend a page or two rambling on about kids' music. (Much of this entry is from my first newsletter article.)

We own maybe a couple dozen hundred children's CDs and have listened to maybe a dozen fifty more (though both figures are slowly growing). Our daughter is now about 3 1/2 5 1/2 years old and is only now expressing her musical preferences. Of course we want our daughter to listen to music she enjoys, that makes her happy. [Ed.: Things change in a couple years, don't they?]

But since you, the parent, will listen to the CDs and tapes almost every time your kids do, I think your (and my) opinion counts nearly as much as the child's. And you're still going to be able to offer your kids new, good stuff, so it's not like you're stuck listening to that [insert name of CD that makes you twitch just thinking about it.]

In this blog I'll write about a number of different CDs, spending more time on the good stuff than the bad for two reasons: 1) I'm not nearly catty enough to write enjoyable reviews about bad music, and 2) I want to focus on the good stuff.

I should probably explain my beliefs about children's music (for advice on music for the post-toddler set, click here):

1) Good kids' music is enjoyable for adults, too: I think the best kids' music can be enjoyed by kids and parents alike. This is true not only critically -- like Bugs Bunny cartoons, great kids music appeals to multiple generations -- but also practically. If you don't like a kids' CD, you are unlikely to play that CD very often, which probably means your child won't become a fan of it, either. (Or, alternately -- and sadly -- you'll be stuck listening to a painful CD over and over as your child wants to hear the same song over and over and Over and OVER!) In the end, "family music" is probably a better phrase than "kids' music," but sounds sort of dorky and plus Borders and Barnes & Nobles across the country would need to relabel their sections, so I think we're stuck with "kids'" or "children's" music.

2) Not all good adults' music is enjoyable (or even suitable) for kids: I don't think my daughter would like my Nirvana's "Nevermind" CD; even if she did, I wouldn't want her to listen to it for a few years. (Even if I really like the CD, which I do.) No, good kids' music is generally simpler melodically, lyrically, and rhythmically, plus you can usually understand what's being sung. (Clear enunciation was never Kurt Cobain's strong point musically.) Now please don't think I'm saying you should never play "your" music around your kids. You need to play music for yourself, and as I've noted above, some music really is for the entire family. But if you think that your 2-year-old is getting something out of listening to Tool, I think you're wrong.

3) Did I say simple was good?: I've heard CDs which seemed to have been produced by some guy in his basement with a Casio synthesizer with his cousin singing over-emoted versions of simple folk songs. If the song was sung quietly by moms to kids with no accompaniment 100 years ago, it's unlikely a cheesy synthesizer with faux strings will somehow add a layer of meaning or emotion. It's OK to have multiple instruments, but at least make sure they're real.

4) Who are you anyway?: OK, we're at silly, yet oddly accurate, predictors of a CD's quality. (Sort of like all those methods for predicting unborn babies' gender.) The best albums have the participants' names plastered all over the CD, just like "adult" music. I've never listened to a good album in which I didn't know exactly who was responsible. It's as if makers of bad CDs are embarrassed by what they've produced. If you can't see who's singing or playing on the CD, move away.

5) No "Stairway to Heaven": Do you want to listen to 4 minutes of "Old MacDonald Had A Farm"? ("And on this farm he had an ocelot...") I didn't think so. Kids don't have long attention spans, and most classic kids songs don't have much more than 60 seconds of material. So my basic rule is that kids' CDs shouldn't average much more than 2 minutes per song. This rule can be bent for CDs targeted at older kids, whose attention spans are (hopefully) longer, and for lullaby CDs.

Finally, I think you should know my personal musical preferences so if they closely match (or are opposed to) yours, you can take that into account in evaluating my recommendations. I particularly enjoy the following artists, among others: Wilco, the Jayhawks, Spoon, REM, They Might Be Giants, Matthew Sweet, U2, Lyle Lovett, Kelly Willis, Patty Griffin, Miles Davis and most classical chamber music. [Ed.: This list is about 5 years old -- see an updated list here.]

So there you have it -- my children's music philosophy in a nutshell. I hope you'll visit in the weeks and months to come as review children's music CDs and post some news on childrens' music.