Do you remember those songs we used to sing as kids that went on and on and on? That had what felt like a hundred verses, each one longer and sillier than the one before it?
This is the joy of a cumulative song.
From music class to road trips, playgrounds to choir rehearsal, cumulative songs are fun to sing, engaging for children of all ages, and an effective teaching tool.
For those of you who may not know what I’m talking about, a cumulative song is a song that adds a new phrase of text with each repetition.
Usually, the lyrics are a list of some kind, getting progressively longer as the song goes on.
Cumulative songs are great for children because they:
feature built-in repetition, which helps with learning and retention, while still being silly and fun to sing
help with recall and provide a mental challenge - keeping track of all those lyrics and what to add each time
help children develop their singing voices: the natural repetition creates numerous opportunities to listen and practice singing tunefully and with a beautiful tone
are a great teaching tool for developing choral musicianship, particularly developing good breath control and breath support for singing (the phrases get longer and longer each time you sing them!)
How to Teach a Cumulative Song
Here are a few helpful steps for introducing a cumulative song to your children’s choir or elementary music class:
Establish tonality (play the tonic chord and starting note for the given song) and sing the first verse without accompaniment. Consider asking the children to keep a steady beat as they listen by tapping on their laps, stepping in place, or tapping lightly over their heart.
Sing the first verse again and use hand gestures to indicate tonal patterns or when the melody goes up or down.
Invite the children to sing with you. Draw phrase shapes in the air to indicate when to breathe for a new phrase.
Demonstrate the new phrase of text for the second verse and sing together. Use a visual to illustrate the order of phrases and help children keep track of the lyrics.
Continue this process for each new verse/added phrase. Once children can sing confidently and securely on their own, drop out and listen for tuneful singing, a pure tone, and deep, low breaths.
You can use cumulative songs as a change-of-pace in the middle of your rehearsal or to review and reinforce a particular musical concept you’re working on.
To help with your planning, I put together a list of cumulative songs with the musical concepts featured in each one. This way, you can choose a cumulative song that works with other songs you’re teaching and reinforce those musical skills and concepts in your rehearsal.
17 Cumulative Songs for Children’s Choir
1. There’s a Hole at the Bottom of the Sea
Musical concepts: quarter rests, pick-up notes/upbeats, duple meter, major tonality
2. She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain
Source: American folk song
Musical concepts: duple meter, pick-up notes/upbeats, dotted rhythms
3. One Man Went to Mow
Musical concepts: compound meter, major tonality, breath control and breath support
Other notes: a great counting song (up to 10)
4. There Was an Old Lady
Source: Rose Bonne (lyrics) and Alan Mills (music)
Musical concepts: pick-up notes/upbeats, quarter rest, duple meter, major tonality
5. Oh, In the Woods (The Green Grass Grew All Around)
Musical concepts: duple meter, major tonality, pick-up notes/upbeats, call and response, ABC form
6. The Cat Goes Fiddle-i-fee (Bought Me a Cat)
Musical concepts: duple meter, major tonality, mi-re-do, do-sol-do
7. Today is Monday
Source: Eric Carle
Musical concepts: mi-sol, duple meter, pick-up notes/upbeats, major tonality, dotted rhythms
Other notes: a great song for learning the days of the week
8. When I First Came to this Land
Source: Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Song
Musical concepts: duple meter, major tonality, do-mi-sol, sol-do, AA’BA' form
9. Father Abraham
Musical concepts: rests, duple meter, pick-up notes/upbeats, major tonality
Other notes: a fun movement activity!
10. One More River to Cross
Musical concepts: compound meter, AB form, major tonality, sol-la-sol-mi, breath control and breath support
Other notes: a traditional counting song about Noah’s Ark
11. The Twelve Days of Christmas
Source: English Christmas carol
Musical concepts: pick-up notes/upbeats, duple meter, major tonality, sol-mi
Other notes: a traditional Christmas counting song (up to 12)
12. I Am the Music Man
Source: German folk song
Musical concepts: pick-up notes/upbeats, major tonality, duple meter, call and response
13. Had a Little Rooster
Musical concepts: compound meter, major tonality, do-la-sol
14. Come and I Will Sing You
Source: Great Big Sea
Musical concepts: duple meter, major tonality, call and response
15. One Finger, One Thumb, Keep Moving
Musical concepts: pick-up note/upbeat, compound meter, major tonality, do-mi-sol
16. Green Grow the Rushes
Source: English folk song
Musical concepts: duple meter, dotted rhythms, major tonality, call and response
Other notes: a traditional counting song (up to 5)
17. Johnny Works with One Hammer
Musical concepts: duple meter, re-sol-do, major tonality
Other notes: a great movement activity and counting song (up to 5)
What cumulative songs have you used with elementary-age singers? Leave your favorite in the comments below.