For children, listening to music is like dreaming. Kids connect to the raw data feed and interface directly with the sound waves. I know this because I work in a school and I play music with kids almost every day. Also, I was a kid, once.
When I was a small child I was constantly listening to music and creating it. I absorbed songs and reproduced them with my voice and my tiny drum set. I was hooked on organized sound from the second it hit my baby brain.
Throughout childhood my tastes diversified and my passion grew. The artists behind the songs I loved were like deities: powerful, impossible, perfect. Music was more than a hobby. It was a spirituality.
These fundamental aspects of my relationship to music haven't changed since the moment I first heard a melody. I allow more patterns into my sphere every day, greeting each new sonic specimen with the same reverence I gave to the first.
It would be difficult to draw a distinction between the musical self of my childhood and that of my adulthood, because the transition from one to the other has simply been a process of accumulation.
As I write songs today, I wonder, is there any need to draw a line between music I create for adults, and music I create for children? I'm around kids all the time and I bear witness to their brilliance on a daily basis. Whether I'm speaking or singing with them, I pay respect to them as I would to any peer. They get it. So why do kids need a separate musical category?
When I was very young I listened almost exclusively to music that was created for adults. Since the songs I'm writing today aren't angry, depressing, or laden with profanity, can't I just consider every audience member an equal participant and claim that my music is for all ages, without giving a second thought to kid/adult differences?
Well, no, because in order to make songs that truly engage and include people of all ages, you need a nuanced approach to songwriting and performance that takes the kid/adult contrast into consideration. I don't want to treat kids like they are lesser musical beings, because their soul-bond with music is just as powerful, just as real. But I want to give them songs that resonate with their experience of the world, so I have to acknowledge their different perspective.
So, what to write songs about? Since I like to write songs with lyrics, I need to give them careful consideration. All-ages music should bring in concepts with which kids have some familiarity. That way, they can connect to it more fully, understanding the message as well as the melody. The possible topics are myriad: forest animals, the ocean, stars and galaxies, monsters, friendships, snow.
With a set of topics chosen, my personal approach is to build a story. Everyone loves a good story. I draw inspiration from the great rock operas and concept albums, weaving a narrative through a cycle of songs.
I've developed a set of characters and I now I write about their exploits, in verse. My songs follow a pair of dogs as they travel the world. The lyrics are clear, direct, and concrete, always advancing the narrative.
In addition to the songs, my musical story is also told through skits. On my most recent album, I teamed up with elementary school kids who act out the skits as characters in the story. I'm a teacher, so I can't resist an opportunity to involve young people in my projects.
As for style, I think that there is a disproportionate amount of children's music that draws from the folk tradition. It needs to be balanced with more songs that borrow from punk, rap, progressive rock, math rock, noise, electronic dance music, metal, and other genres that have not often been tapped for contributions to the world of kid's entertainment.
Alternative music genres are a source of power and emotional depth that can really speak to kids. I want edge, authenticity, and rawness in music, and I've always wanted it that way, ever since I was a tiny human. All-ages music should be real.
Finally, when my songs are ready to be played live, I can't spend all of my time playing bars, clubs, and house parties, because these places aren't particularly hospitable to kids. I have to make sure to book some gigs earlier in the evening, or during the day, at family friendly venues if I want to give kids access. This is crucial! The live experience can be transcendent.
It's really important to me that my music be enjoyable for all ages, and I'm not the only one with this perspective. There are tons of other bands out there taking a similar approach. I support them. I believe in making music for everyone.