Brad Mossman on Writing Music for Kids of All Ages
Brad Mossman • September 18, 2014
It’s very mysterious what makes a successful song for kids. I think that’s part of the joy in songwriting and being a fan of music in general. Why can we hear a D chord played by one band and not be particularly moved and then be transported by the same D chord played by another band? I don’t know! Even though some songs are massively popular, it’s still very subjective.
WHAT IS KIDS MUSIC?
While Bob Boyle and I have had success with our songwriting-to-animation formula, I don’t particularly identify myself as a kids music songwriter (ironically, most of my live gigs these days are playing bluegrass and older rock songs for folks in nursing homes!) and I’m not normally attracted to songs that are intentionally within the kids music genre.
And what defines a kids song anyway? My kids get transfixed when Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” comes on. I remember my daughter would sit close and stare at the stereo speaker when the Beatles’ “Come Together” started up. And why do I love Gwendolyn & The Goodtime Gang, Caspar Babypants and Woody Guthrie’s album Songs to Grow On for Mother and Child just as much and in the same way as any non-kids music? I don’t think of it as kids music when it’s on.
I think the best songs are the ones that blur generational divides. When kids aren’t bored by “grown-up” music and when adults aren’t annoyed by kids music. Bob and I have heard from many adults that they really enjoy our kids songs, and we’ve written “adult” songs such as the “NPR” song which Bob penned in response to NPR’s challenge to write a song in a weekend…our song was chosen from over 150 entries and we got interviewed on their “Weekend Edition” program.
Of course, there will always be assignments for the songs about pirates, sharing, not littering, fruits & vegetables, etc. And of course, I probably wouldn’t put a backwards track of my voice processed like a deathcore metal screecher shooting a machine gun while riding a flaming motorcycle…but I think it’s always best to stay within the realms of “doing what you do naturally” and what feels most real/honest, and applying that to songwriting for kids. Hopefully, experimenting and going outside your comfort zone is a given.
THE ELEMENTS OF A GREAT KIDS SONG
There does seem to be a hotwire between kids’ brains and certain types of songs. Advertisers know this well. Even though kids might be bouncing around to an “adult” song, many of them will immediately veer away towards the source if they hear Andrew Huang’s “Pink Fluffy Unicorns Dancing on Rainbows” or Christian Schneider’s “Gummy Bear.” Try it with some local kids!
So, are there certain key elements that need to be utilized to create one of these “universally engaging” kids songs? The above two songs are energetic, humorous, somewhat simple and sound good. The lyrics are fun, nutty and sung high. But there are plenty of songs that don’t have those qualities that also resonate with youngsters.
As usual, your personal success in composing kids music is to first sit down (or stand up!) and consciously create what you think is a kids song, then feel if you enjoy it and if it feels fun and honest to you to write with that genre in mind. If you don’t know how to start, choose a subject such as “monsters” or “sharing.” Or go for “silly” or “wacky” with fun rhymes, surreal pairings, a made-up language or strange vocal sounds. Instrumentally, the palette is vast. Along with your usual tools, you can bang two sticks together, scrape sandpaper, etc. And remember…no matter how wild or non-kid-like a song sounds, once one kid or more is singing the lead vocals, it almost always becomes a kids song.
You can find out if your inner vibration resonates with kids just by the nature of your songwriting. My inner vibration seems to run at a naturally faster tempo. When I was a kid, my mom would let me stay up late to watch music shows and I would repeatedly ask her over and over “Is this fast? Is this fast?” The bands I’ve played in have generally been faster-paced as well. I started to hear that friends’ kids were really enjoying the bands’ music. Lyrically, my natural tendency is to rhyme, and be rather simple. A bit surreal and silly at times, searching for odd word pairs, ironic twists, weirder wordplay and fun imagery. So maybe I do have a natural “kids song” ticker.
Bob and I seem to have touched upon something highly popular with kids with our “Wow Wow Wubbzy” theme song and our Sesame Street “Letter Y” song. Bob is a great lyricist for kids because he really understands the joy and freedom of being silly and rhyme-y. His process in writing lyrics is to just go for it with stream of consciousness and write everything he can down, then send it all to me to edit, change, add to, subtract from, etc. As I start to create what feel like verses and choruses, I then begin to hear his words as melodies in a rhythmic pattern. I play these sounds in my head over and over for hours or days (!!!!) until I get a first draft to send back to Bob. We continue this back and forth until we both agree, and a final version is imminent.
The fun of our process is the freedom we give each other to create and then change things along the way. Also, we don’t take it personally when we aren’t so into what the other offers. Bob has often not liked a first draft on a song, and I’ve simply tossed it and moved on to the next. We’ve had to do numerous versions to get where we enjoy things (my personal record is 17 takes on a song about the tooth fairy!). Bob also doesn’t take it personally if I totally change his lyrics and insert my own. I think this shedding of ego is helpful in a partnership, but it’s hard to establish. The older you are, the better!
An accompanying animation or video certainly can help your kids song venture, and Bob and I are lucky in that he creates the visuals. He’s got a very unique, bright, bold, colorful, positive and fun design sense that wraps around kids like a blanket. Hence the success of Wow! Wow! Wubbzy! and our Sesame Street pieces. Pairing my music with his words and visions is our formula. It’s very energetic and playful, and I think it is a result of us creating from the place of who we naturally are, rather than what we think we need to do in order to make a kids song. It’s been no problem to use our tools to compose for specific “kids” subjects. It still feels natural most of the time. And if it doesn’t, we let each other know.
Upon recording, if you’re getting the sound you’re after on your own, great. If you know someone who could make your song sound better, get them to produce. Personally, I know my strength lies in getting the ideas down. While I’m always open to learning more about recording and enjoy it a great deal, I love knowing that there are others out there who can take my tracks and raise the resulting song up a notch higher than I ever could myself. You want your songs to sound as best they can. Don’t take it personally if someone can make your song sound better than you can!
The recording process is joyously mysterious in that no matter how much of a novice or a seasoned composer/engineer/producer you are, you will still be surprised at how some recordings turn out (for better or for worse!). That degree of uncertainty is great motivation to always press “Record” for your next idea/song. You never really know how it’s going to sound until you hear it outside of your head.
GETTING THE WORK
For me, the key to getting the opportunity to create songs for animations that kids watch was networking with folks I knew who were creating these shows, and being lucky enough to have started out in a good place at a good time.
I was playing in bands in the San Francisco Bay Area during the ‘90s, and I found that while I loved these bands, I wanted to write more songs than we were capable of outputting. At this time, the dot-com boom was starting in the Bay Area, and online animation and animated games were extremely popular. There were loads of companies who needed theme songs, score and loops. My friend David Fremont created one of the first popular online animations, called Glue, at Wildbrain studios, and he invited me to create the title song.
This song reverberated throughout the community, so I asked all the producers and creators at Wildbrain who they knew at other companies that I could contact. I started to get more gigs by making these connections. Every time I landed a gig, I would ask the creator and the producer who they knew elsewhere who I could contact. One of these creators I worked with, Denis Morella, jumped over to TV to create Disney’s Higglytown Heroes and he took me with him as one of the songwriters. I then had connections within the TV world that I could ask about who else I could send my demo and resume. I still do this all the time. You have to keep up with your connections and continue forging new ones. Your phone will rarely just ring on its own, no matter how successful or established you get. Trust me.
It’s always best to KNOW the folks who are creating the shows you want to write music for. While this may seem like a fairy tale, it doesn’t have to be at the start. You could meet locals, especially students, creating animation, video or theater productions and offer to compose for them. Don’t worry about doing stuff for free at the start (and don’t worry about sometimes doing stuff for free at times later on when you’re rich and famous!). Just begin building your reel and resume.
You could put an ad online or hang a flyer offering your services to connect with visual creators. Contact art colleges with strong visual arts departments to ask how you could advertise your services with students and alumni from there. At some point, these creators will move on to bigger and better achievements. You will be on their lists for musical needs. Be sure to stay in touch with them along the way, checking in to see how they’re doing, asking if they need music or if they know of anyone else who needs music.
I met Bob Boyle because he was invited along to lunch with another person I was scheduled to meet with. I’ve also had some luck just sending out e-mails and/or snail mail packages to creators and studios I don’t personally know. Remember that this business is all about rejection and “no,” and mostly you will be rejected or unanswered. Your success will ultimately be based on only the handful of acceptances and “yeses” that you receive in your entire career.
Brad Mossman & Bob Boyle at work. Illustration by Bob Boyle.
As you’re contacting and trying to meet with people as much as possible, strive to develop solid working relationships. Sometimes these will lead to personal friendships, which is an added bonus.
A good resource for contacts in the Film and TV world is the Music Business Registry, where you can purchase updated lists of studios and their personnel. Stay up to date with productions starting up which might need music by checking in with trade publications such as The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. Contact the creators and producers.
Once you start landing gigs, be sure to have a good attorney to help you navigate and negotiate your contracts. An agent can also provide these services. You might also want to explore the world of music publishing. This would align your kids song catalog with a company that seeks placement for your songs.
ASCAP has been an invaluable resource for me with their cue sheet organization and assistance. It’s also a good idea to contact them from time to time and ask about resources they have that might be able to help.
GET OUT THERE!
If you don’t connect your kids music with visual productions, then release albums and sell them on your own website and/or on music commerce sites. Learn about booking a house concert, library, school, bookstore, zoo or summer camp tour. Rent out a space in your town to put on a kids music show. Make your own kids music videos. These can be just running the camera on your fish tank, ants on the ground, popcorn popping, someone drawing a picture or a street sweeper as your song plays.
Finally, the “classic” piece of advice is to just create and get your songs out to the kids…If you want to entertain and inspire kids, there are loads of ways to get you and your music out there. It’s a fantastic time to connect with the rest of the planet by posting, promoting and selling your music online.
Brad Mossman has been writing and recording original music professionally for over 25 years. Brad has composed, sung and performed his original theme songs and scores for online shorts, online games and TV promo spots for clients including Cartoon Network. Brad contributed over 40 original songs for the Disney Channel hit Higglytown Heroes, and paired with creative director Bob Boyle on the Emmy-winning Nick Jr. series, Wow! Wow! Wubbzy! Brad and Bob have composed and created accompanying animations for over 60 songs together, including eight for Sesame Street. Brad is currently composing songs to be paired with mixed live action/animated sequences that teach English as a second language, for use by schools and families around the world. Visit Brad online at bmossman.com.