Set a Poem to Music

Creating singable songs from poetry in print


Key Staff

Music teacher (or English teacher with strong music background)

Key Skills

Making Art: Producing, Executing and Performing
Developing Arts Literacies: Analyzing and Evaluating - Critique
Creative Thinking: Creativity and Innovation


After exploring a “singable” picture book as a class, each student examines a personally selected poem for rhythm to determine its musical meter. Using previous musical skills, students set the poem to music. As a final reflection, they create a two-page spread of a picture book that contains their “singable” poem.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Explore a picture book that began as a song
  • Discuss song as a form of poetry
  • Select a poem and dissect it for rhythm and meter
  • Set the poem to music using previous music skills
  • Perform their poem (optional)
  • Create a portion of a picture book incorporating their “singable” poem

Teaching Approach

Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Cooperative Learning
  • Hands-On Learning
  • Guided Listening
  • Direct Instruction
  • Guided Practice

Assessment Type

Performance Assessment


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Classroom
  • 1 Computer per Learner
  • Internet Access
  • Projector
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

  • Select a picture book that originated from a song. Possible books include these. (The example used throughout this lesson is 'Sunshine on My Shoulders' from the John Denver Series created by Christopher Canyon.)
  • Schedule time with the school or public librarian to explore (as a class) picture books from songs and/or children’s poetry or nursery rhymes. (Depending on the age range for your school, your school librarian may need to request these books from your elementary school library.) Here is one online source for nursery rhymes.
  • Experiment with a virtual keyboard, such as this one. (Schedule time in the computer lab for students, if necessary.)

Because the instructor for this lesson should be either a music teacher or a teacher with a strong musical background, it is assumed that the instructor has strong knowledge of music theory and composition.

Prior Student Knowledge

  • Word syllabication
  • General music theory and composition skills

Physical Space

  • Classroom
  • Computer Lab
  • Media Center or Library


Large Group Instruction

Accessibility Notes

Students who are deaf or hard of hearing may require additional help with syllabication and music composition. It may be helpful to listen to recordings of the picture books set to music with increased bass or while holding balloons to feel the bass vibration.

English Language Learners can select a song in their native language for this lesson.

Struggling/striving readers will find this lesson easier if they choose familiar nursery rhymes as their starting poems.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.



1. Read to the class a children’s picture book that originated from a song, including but not limited to, one from this list. Ask students:

  • What is this? (Answers could include children’s book, children’s picture book, a song, a poem, lyrical story, etc.)
  • Are songs poetry? (yes)
  • Why? (Songs use rhythm, and often rhyme, like some poems.)
  • Can poems become songs? (yes)
  • Why do you think this publisher chose to create a picture book using this song? (Answers will vary but could include it’s a popular song that adults and children can enjoy together, the lyrics lent themselves well to illustration, it’s a way to allow non-readers to read by knowing the song, etc.)
  • What role do the illustrations play in this book? (In picture books, illustrations tell half of the story. The words and illustrations play an equal role.)

2. Sing the song from the book. Most picture books created from song will have the original song at the end of the book. You may choose to make copies of the song or project it onto a screen for students to see. While singing it, clap to “hear” the rhythm. (You may choose to do this for one verse or chorus.) Ask students:

  • What is the time signature for this song? (will vary depending on song)
  • What key is it in? (will vary depending on the song)
  • What did the composer do to make the words fit the time signature? (different words/syllables were assigned different note values to match the time signature, words may have been contracted or shortened to meet the rhythm, etc.)

Build Knowledge

1. Analyze the first four lines of the children’s book/song/poem for rhythm. Using the example of Sunshine on My Shoulders:

  • Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy (10 syllables)
  • Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry (9 syllables)
  • Sunshine on the water looks so lovely (10 syllables)
  • Sunshine almost always makes me high (9 syllables)

You may find it helpful to write the lyrics in syllable format. For example:

Sun-shine on my shoul-ders makes me hap-py

2. Ask students:

  • Do you see a pattern? (In this poem, there is a 10/9/10/9 rhythm established)
  • Would this poem transfer easily to a musical time signature? (In this poem, if each syllable was given an equal musical note, it would not transfer easily to a song.)

It may be helpful to have students recite the poem aloud at this point, giving each syllable equal time, to hear how this would sound. (It should sound unnatural and awkward.)

  • What did the composer (John Denver) do to transfer this poem into music? (He gave some syllables/words more time than others.)

3. Share the printed music with students. At this time, if you haven’t done it already, it would be helpful to share the printed music for this song with students so they can see the time signature, count the beats per measure, view musical notation, and see how the poem was transferred into melodic form. Most picture books created from songs include the original music in the book, typically on the last page(s).

What do you think came first, the poem or the music? (Answers will vary and may include they were created simultaneously. Composers can work in a method that is best for him or her. Some start with the words. Some start with the melody. Some create both at the same time.)


1. Explore picture books originating from songs, children’s poetry, and nursery rhymes with a visit to the library.

2. Each student should select a children’s poem or nursery rhyme to set to music. If the student selects a nursery rhyme, he or she should not set it to a melody that is already known.

3. Back in the classroom, analyze the first four lines of the poem or nursery rhyme for syllables and rhythm. Using note paper, write the lyrics on every third line, allowing space between the lines for working on rhythm and musical notation. Each individual word should be broken into its syllables. For example, the word lesson would appear as les-son. Ask students to consult their dictionaries for proper syllabication. Ask students:

  • Do your first four lines establish a rhythm or pattern?
  • Will they transfer easily into song?
  • What time signature might work best for your poem?
  • What will you have to do to make the words fit each measure?

Ask students to set the first four lines to music, using musical notes (length, not tones, at this point) to establish the rhythm for the musical time signature. This work can be done on the note paper. For example, if the word in the student’s poem is to have two beats, he or she would place a half-note above the word. If two syllables of a single word would both receive one half beat, then one eighth note would be placed above each syllable.

As students complete the work on these first four lines, the instructor should check the work for understanding. Once the student has the first four lines completed, ask him or her to continue working on the poem using the same format as above. You may want to place a line limit on the original poem selected or have the student select verses for this lesson.

4. Set the remainder of the poem in a similar format. Students should use the Assignment Checklist located within the Resource Carousel as a guide for this part of the lesson.

5. Create a melody for the poem. Working on staff paper and using the musical notes assigned to each syllable of the lyrics, students should assign tonal values to each note. To do this, the student must first select the key in which he or she wishes to compose the song. For students with limited musical composition understanding, it may be helpful to restrict the students to the key of C. Students may find it helpful to create the melody using instruments in the classroom, such as a keyboard or piano, or work on a virtual keyboard.


1. Each student should perform his or her newly-created melody for the class. Ask the class:

  • What mood did the student composer try to create with the melody?
  • Was he or she successful in integrating the words with the music?
  • Would this be an easy song for children to learn? Why or why not?

2. Create a two-page picture book spread using one or more lines from the song. Students may wish to refer to other picture books that originated from songs for guidance or inspiration. Using two sheets of blank paper per student, students may work either vertically or horizontally on the paper. The two pages can be joined using transparent tape.

3. Create a “singable” picture book display in the classroom or library using published books and the students’ work.


Assess student's work using the Assessment Rubric located within the Resource Carousel.

Extending the Learning
  • Create a 32-page picture book of the poem or nursery rhyme.
  • Compare two or more “singable” picture books for style.
  • Create a picture book of another popular children’s song.
  • Create a short musical based on a collection of themed poems set to music.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

ArtsEdge Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.

Common Core/State Standards

Select state and grade(s) below, then click "Find" to display Common Core and state standards.

National Standards For Arts Education

Grade 5-8 Music Standard 1: Singing, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music

Grade 5-8 Music Standard 4: Composing and arranging music within specified guidelines

Grade 5-8 Music Standard 5: Reading and notating music

Grade 5-8 Music Standard 6: Listening to, analyzing, and describing music

Grade 5-8 Music Standard 7: Evaluating music and music performances

Grade 5-8 Music Standard 8: Understanding relationships between music, the other arts, and disciplines outside the arts

Visual Art

Grade 5-8 Visual Arts Standard 6: Making connections between visual arts and other disciplines

National Standards in Other Subjects
Language Arts

Language Arts Standard 2: Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing

Language Arts Standard 3: Uses grammatical and mechanical conventions in written compositions



Leslie A. Thomas
Original Writer

Carol Parenzan Smalley

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