Nursery Rhymes and Children's Songs

The Cow Jumps over the Moon Nursery Rhymes is a term used to describe a wide range of poems or rhymes for children. The poems can tell little stories (sometimes strange stories whose meaning is lost in history) and they are sometimes padded out with nonsense words. Some of the rhymes are simply recited like poems but a great many of them are in fact songs with associated melodies, and we will concentrate on such "nursery songs" in this article. Nursery Songs are part of our folklore with the same characteristics as folks songs: they may be hundreds of years old, and have frequently been passed from generation to generation via an oral tradition. The songs are often very simple in nature with plenty of repetition, and frequently with simple up and down patterns in their melodies. The melodies often seem to follow the spoken word closely, as though it is the next step up from the exaggerated "motherese" which adults use to speak to very young children - with lots of inflection (and probably eye-contact and facial expressions) to help communicate the song. No doubt this simply means that they are easy for young children to learn, and singing Nursery Rhymes to children will surely contribute to their early education.

Types of Nursery Rhymes

Little Bo Peep with her Sheep Nursery Rhymes can be divided into a number of different categories. For the youngest children there are lullabies, which parents sing to their babies in a gentle and soothing tone to comfort them as they are following asleep (e.g. Bye, Baby Bunting). For older children there are different bedtime songs which support the message that it is important to go to bed (e.g. Wee Willie Winkie). Many young children like the nursery rhymes which are associated with tickling games (e.g. "This Little Piggy Went to Market") and many others are used to accompany simple actions and movements (e.g. See Saw Margery Daw). Some rhymes tell stories with a little cautionary message (e.g. Jack and Jill), and other songs help to teach counting (e.g. One Two Three Four Five). Older children learn songs which accompany more complex dances (e.g. The Grand Old Duke of York) or teach them to sing independently multiple parts in a Round (e.g. Three Blind Mice). There are lots of Children's Songs which are more closely associated with the school playground rather than the home, and these are generally passed from child to child rather than from adult to child. And even beyond the school playground there are songs for going on trips and traditional campfires songs.

Kettle and Tea So Nursery Rhymes can provide fun and entertainment to children in the same way as fairy tales and bedtime stories, but like those other narrative forms they also serve to support important learning processes: they encourage interraction, they tell interesting stories and they teach lots of words and ideas. Many studies have shown that music and song helps in the development of other brain functions, so the usefulness of these simple nursery rhymes shouldn't be underestimated. Although the primary method of communication of nursery rhymes is verbal (after all young children can't read) many collections of nursery rhymes have been printed in books and song-books, usually with illustrations which help to depict the story. Most of the rhymes listed in this article are British in origin, but many rhymes and associated songs have originated elsewhere (e.g. Germany, France or the USA). The most popular rhymes have often been translated, or rebranded with different words to cross national boundaries and become widely known under different names. As a special kind of folk songs, nursery rhymes become part of a cultural tradition, a universal reference point understood my millions of children and adults across the world.

Music for Nursery Rhymes

Children playing on a Seesaw The main purpose of this article is to present the music for a number of Nursery Rhymes, so that you can play or sing them to your children or perhaps teach your children to play them when they are a little older. Rather than present the rhymes in a big long list we will group them by type. The music arrangements are all for piano and very simple in nature with a melody in the right hand usually supported by a simple bass-line or basic chords in the left hand. If you play an instrument other than the piano you may be able to play the right hand melody. It should be noted that many Nursery Rhymes come in lots of different variations, since like folk songs they have evolved over time as the verbal communication process has introduced various changes to words and melodies. The versions included here come from the British Isles and particularly Scotland, but we suspect that the music will be familiar to people in many countries.

Lullabies and Bedtime Songs

Baby in a Cradle Lullabies are sung to babies and young children when it is time for a nap, or at bedtime until they fall asleep. They are usually soft, gentle, dreamy songs where the sound of the parent's voice helps to sooth and reassure the child and make them feel relaxed and comfortable. The lilting sound of the voice may be accompanied by a gentle rocking motion. If there are young children in the family then Lullabies can be used to help teach them how to hold a sooth a baby. Children can pretend they are singing to a baby in their arms, or cradle a doll and rock it as though to sleep. Other nursery rhymes such as "Wee Willie Winkie" are suitable for older children and help to emphasise a regular bed-time.

Although seasonal in nature, a number of Christmas Carols are also Lullabies, esspecially those which talk about soothing or rocking the baby to sleep. Here are some examples:

Tickling Rhymes

a young child's foot Tickling Songs are a special kind of nursery rhyme with associated movements, it's just that those movements involve tickling. Reasearchers are finding many connections between the body and the brain which all suggest that we learn things faster when they are associated with aspects of our bodies. Games and songs involving movement and particular parts of the body are the perfect example of this. Children love to anticipate the tickling and that's what these rhymes are all about. There are two widely known tickling rhymes, though curiously neither of these rhymes have memorable melodies: "This Little Piggy Went to Market" and "Round and Round the Garden" so we haven't included them here.

Simple Actions and Movements

Some rhymes can be reinforced using simple movements or actions. Some of these can be adapted as tickling songs if required. Children enjoy the actions and they can join in and copy their parents. Some of these songs can accompany very simple dances suitable for the youngest children.

More Nursery Rhymes

There are many Nursery Rhymes which don't fit into any obvious category. Although sometimes the words might be old-fashioned and obscure, these rhymes tell stories which are timeless. They are typically about people or animals and relationships. Some of the rhymes could be considered as cautionary tales with a moral, but it is really up to parents to decide on a suitable explanation when children ask about a rhyme's meaning.

Counting Rhymes

Some Nursery Rhymes help to teach numbers and counting, either normal upwards counting but including counting downwards for some songs. Three Blind Mice does not include any overt counting, but the melody repeats three strong beats so it helps to emphasise the number three, whereas Baa Baa Black Sheep actually counts out three bags of wool. Another Counting Rhyme is "One Two Buckle My Shoe" but this is recited rather than sung so are not able to include music for it.

Children's Games and Dances

School Bus Some songs are not about counting but they do have a progressive nature, following some kind of sequence or pattern. Such songs include Old McDonald Had a Farm where with each verse a new animal is chosen and children sing the noise it makes. Another such farming song is The Farmer's in his Den which follows a definite sequence. These songs are a type of children's game, and "The Farmer's in his Den" and other songs are frequently sung to accompany dances. Another Song in this category is the "Hokey Cokey" which was given this name in the 1940s but is based on a much older folk song. You could further categorise some of these songs into playground songs (including skipping, hopscotch, ball-games and selection songs such as "One Potato, two potato"), campfire songs (e.g. "Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree" which originated in Australia and spread across the globe through the girl guide movement), or those special songs which keep children entertained on long journeys such as The Wheels on the Bus.

Rounds - Singing Exercises

Three Mice A number of songs are structured in a way which lends them to being sung as a round, such as Three Blind Mice, Row, Row, Row Your Boat, London's Burning and Frere Jacques. These songs serve as perfect nursery rhymes as they stand, particularly for younger children. As a round they become more sophisticated songs with different singers starting at different times, which makes them more suitable for older children. The concept of singing or playing in a round is an old one and classical composers frequently use the device, calling the technique a "Canon". Even "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" can be performed as a round, though we have included only the more common Round Songs below. Please note that we have illustrated each of them using only two voices so that the two hands of a piano can demonstrate the technique clearly.

Songs for Older Children

Christmas Bells These songs can still be categorised as children's songs but they are more adult in nature and a little more difficult for younger children to learn. Some of these might also by classified as adult Folk Songs, and some of these songs have a more recent origin such as the well-known "The Runaway Train". Certain children's songs have a seasonal nature such as Jingle Bells and other Christmas Carols. Some of the songs in our collection of Folk Songs are also suitable for children such as Early One Morning or Swing Low Sweet Chariot. Similarly a number of Music Hall Songs are also taught to and popular with children, such as Daisy Bell or Daddy Wouldn't Buy Me a Bow-Wow.

Cultural Influence of Nursery Rhymes

Humpty Dumpty Nursery rhymes are part of our folklore and culture. They are widely known and create a common reference point for people. Because Nursery Rhymes in particular have frequently crossed national boundaries they are just as widely known as fairy tales and other traditions. The most obvious way to see their influence, is that works of literature, novels, films and songs often quote the titles or other lines from nursery rhymes. For example "All the King's Men" (the phrase is borrowed from Humpty Dumpty) is a novel which has been adapted for film, "Rings on Her Fingers" (a phrase taken from Ride a Cock Horse) is the name of a film, and there are lots of novels and films called "We All Fall Down" (taken from Ring a Ring o' Roses). The phrase "Jack and Jill" is often used to refer to a generic "boy and girl".

Row Boat The music of Nursery Rhymes also has a cultural influence, although sometimes it is more subtle and not so easily documented. The more obvious examples are when nursery rhymes are sung in films and television (e.g. Row, Row, Row Your Boat sung as a Round in one of the Star Trek films). But the melodies of nursery rhymes are so basic and elemental in some ways that they are constantly being re-cycled. Children and entertainers frequently make up funny songs by singing new lyrics to existing nursery songs, and nursery songs are even sampled by today's music artists. A recent example of this is Gotye quoting the melody from Baa Baa Black Sheep in his song "Somebody That I Used to Know". Another cultural influence is when composers create melodies similar to nursery rhymes, often to suggest childhood or innocence. A notable example of this is Jerry Goldsmith's main theme for the film Poltergeist. No doubt the words and music of nursery rhymes will continue to play a part in our culture for many years to come.

Nursery Rhymes on CD

There are many collections of nursery rhymes and children's songs on CD. You can sing along with your children, entertain your children on a long car journey or keep them amused at home. Here is a small selection of CDs, some of which are also available as mp3 downloads:

Biographical Note

Since there can be variations in nursery rhymes and children's songs in different countries and regions, it seems appropriate to include some biographical information to help understand any differences. My parents came from Morayshire in Scotland so those nursery rhymes I learned as a child are likely to be the versions prevalent in Morayshire. However I went to school in Fife so many songs and games I learned at that age are likely to be the versions prevalent in Fife at that time. Of course some rhymes and songs appear in books or are broadcast on television, so certain song versions are communicated more widely.