Skills-based or theme-based? Which method is more effective when sharing music in the early years? Should it matter? Why? Since 2006, I have done both – and even been criticised. For both. However, my students (of all ages!) responded best to theme-based sessions. And from what I have read, this is why: people love stories.

My articles in the next few months will cover theme-based ideas for early years music sessions, and because it can and has been so hotly debated, I am using this opportunity to explain my reasons. And to further illustrate my point, interspersed in the article, I have included popular nursery rhymes – with their originating stories.

Baa baa, black sheep, have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir, three bags full
One for the master, one for the dame
One for the little boy who lives down the lane

Some thought it was a comment on racism – it was actually about unfair English taxes on wool in 1272!

Stories allow new ideas to travel through time and space; give us choices as we navigate the world; develop our imagination; allow us to dream about the impossible. Historically, people have been expressing themselves creatively to tell stories before formal records began. People with musical skills created tunes for words, movements or events, enhancing meaning. People copied these songs, initially from memory, and the lack of accuracy led to many variations until music began to be written down and ultimately, recorded.

But were we taught or were we born to tell stories? We still don’t know. Neither do we know why some stories and songs seem to have more impact than others. Creating them may have something to do with leaving a legacy, and music therapists have found that song-writing can be incredibly effective because even when people are at their lowest, loneliest points, they still want to tell their stories. They value music that reflects them, or helps them to better understand themselves.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again

Some thought it was about an egg on a wall – it actually tells the story of a great cannon that was used to defend the English king against Parliamentarians, until it literally fell off the castle walls into the mud below, in 1648!

Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, argued that we can all be “clever” in different ways, so he recommended that it was best to present the same information in different ways. One example is learning a scientific principle and then using it to solve real-world problems: e.g. “the volume of a non-uniform-shaped object is calculated by the amount of water that is displaced”. Alternatively, the story of Archimedes could be used where, after being challenged by the king, supposedly in his bath of water that night, he shouted, “Eureka!” as he realised that he could measure the volume of a non-uniform-shaped object by the amount of water it displaced.

Honestly, I am more likely to remember the story – in fact, I actually do. It was the stories in history that reminded me of factual dates and sequences of events; I had to invent tricks for theorems in geometry; even the order of the planets had a trick (now a breeze, after I put them to a familiar song, and created a whacky “story” using their first letters!).

Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie
Kissed the girls and made them cry
When the boys came out to play
Georgie Porgie ran away

Some thought it was about simple bullying – it was actually a commentary on a rather large king who could not be with the woman he loved and hated the woman he married, making both of them cry. He then went to watch an illegal bare-knuckle boxing fight, and when one fighter was killed, the king ran away to avoid being implicated!

Thinking back, stories were used when I was in primary school (in the 80s!) to teach language and humanities skills, unlike my daughter’s GCSE English books, which are split by skills. She will never get to remember to write and break paragraphs as we did, based on witch’s spells written in the form of haikus.

Doctor Foster went to Gloucester
In a shower of rain
He stepped in a puddle right up to his middle
And never went there again

Another rhyme, another king, this time around 1100. Being very clever, he was nicknamed Dr Foster, and he went to Gloucester because of the town’s strategic position near Wales. Riding his horse through a storm, he rode through what he thought was a puddle, but both he and the horse fell into a deep ditch. Embarrassed about having to be rescued, he vowed never to return!

Education research shows that we learn most successfully if we can relate new knowledge to what we already know, so singing about stories develops musical skills in a natural way. Other recreational activities like music, such as film, books, theatre, opera, all use storytelling.

Practitioners continue to debate the merits of skills-based sessions or thematic sessions; whether we should keep the original song words or change them to suit the game, purpose or culture. I, however, have made my peace with storytelling. I have found that it is powerful when introducing, exploring and consolidating ideas. I use themes that are familiar, change song lyrics if appropriate, and repeat skills often and in different ways. The next articles will cover the themes that I have successfully used in my music sessions, from babies through to 7-year-olds.


Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water
Jack fell down and broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after

No kings in this one, as far as we know, but a sad tale nonetheless! A young couple often went up a hill for privacy, and soon Jill became pregnant. Before the baby was born, Jack was killed by a rock that fell from their hill, and as the legend goes, Jill died in childbirth.

To conclude this article… my whacky order of the planets rhyme (circa 1990, before Pluto was recategorized as a minor/dwarf planet)… think of the tune to My Fair Lady’s “On The Street Where You Live”:

About the author

Frances Turnbull

Musician, researcher and author, Frances Turnbull, is a self-taught guitarist who has played contemporary and community music from the age of 12. She delivers music sessions to the early years and KS1. Trained in the music education techniques of Kodály (specialist singing), Dalcroze (specialist movement) and Orff (specialist percussion instruments), she has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology (Open University) and a Master’s degree in Education (University of Cambridge). She runs a local community choir, the Bolton Warblers, and delivers the Sound Sense initiative aiming for “A choir in every care home” within local care and residential homes, supporting health and wellbeing through her community interest company.

She has represented the early years music community at the House of Commons, advocating for recognition for early years music educators, and her table of progressive music skills for under 7s features in her curriculum books.

Frances is the author of “Learning with Music: Games and Activities for the Early Years“ “Learning with Music: Games and Activities for the Early Years“, published by Routledge, August 2017.

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