One of the first things people ever say to me when they find out that I both create and deliver Jellybeans Music early years music classes is either ‘You must love singing Wheels on the Bus’ or ‘You must be so tired of singing Wheels on the Bus’. It is an iconic song of a 21st century early childhood, one of those songs that expectant parents probably look forward to singing with their new baby although I do wonder whether if we were to time travel forward to visit them 4 years later, those very same parents may very well be wondering why they ever wanted to sing it in the first place……….. It is one of those songs that as the first few notes unfold the vast majority of a class will know exactly what they are about to sing. It is a ‘happy’ song in a major key that is musically easy to master and then sing. In all honesty, I neither love or loathe singing the song and I must have sung it thousands of times since Jellybeans Music launched in 2007 but I do know that small children love it, and I mean really love it. They respond instinctively to the strong repetitive lyrics and rhythm and how can you not want to sing a song that makes so many small children so happy they shine with happiness?
So let’s dissect it – and don’t worry I’m not going to have an existential crisis about why the wheels go round and round, we’ll leave that thought to those endless wooden signs you can now buy on Etsy. The song is credited to Verna Hills and first appeared in print in 1939 in Volume 25 of ‘American Childhood’ and it is that version that we sing in Jellybeans Music with it’s musical echoes of ‘Here we go round the mulberry bush’ – go on, sing that song to yourself and you’ll spot the similarities very quickly. As I said earlier it is very repetitive both musically, lyrically and rhythmically but is that necessarily a bad thing? This repetition makes it very easy for the child to assimilate and sing, especially the last 3 words ‘ all day long’, a phrase I have observed many, many children first finding their singing voices belting out those 3 words (silent for the rest of the lyrics) complete with magnificent glottal stops on the ‘long’.
The language of the verses, although simplistic, are strong on ‘sound’ words, ‘swish’, ‘beep’, ‘waaa’, ‘chatter’, to name but a few of the many verse variations. It is a song to encourage conversations and extend vocabularies – ‘what colour is the bus’ ‘how fast is the bus going’ – and crucially it about a bus, something surely 99.9% of children recognise and understand even if they’ve never been on one or seen a red double decker bus in everyday life.
Physically, it is a fantastic song for supporting the development of both fine and gross motor skills for example strong arms go ’round and round’ (gross), small hands ‘open and shut’ (fine). As the child matures we can extend ‘swishing’ wipers arms down to feet and attempt to synchronise the movement likewise with the ‘beeping horn’ – one strong hand moving in and out becomes two, ultimately aiming for cross lateral ‘beeping’. It is a song which enables us to again introduce and reinforce the music concepts of loud and quiet as the sleeping babies are ‘fast asleep, shh’ while the wide awake babies ‘go waah, waah, waah’ again depending on which set of verses are being used.
I think it is the variations that make this song such a staple and useful in early years – because the tune is so well known, it is very easy to adapt and switch up the lyrics; it is possibly the ultimate ‘go to’ song on a long, tiring parenting day. Hands up who’s ever sung about The Wheels on the Tractor or The Wheels on the Snowplough? Surely I’m not the only one who has sung The Wheels on Santa’s Sleigh? It is one of those songs that can be sung on endless car journeys about what ever can be seen out of a window. It is one of those songs that when your day has been going on for hours and you are exhausted you can adapt very easily and as we all know singing releases the feel good endorphin – for instance next time you just want to get your child in the bath, why not try
The baby in bath goes splash, splash, splash, all night long
or if meal times are becoming a battleground
The carrots in the bowl are really yummy, really yummy, really yummy. The carrots in the bowl are really yummy, I think they’re scrummy
The food in your hair is stuck really fast, stuck really fast, stuck really fast. The food in your hair is stuck really fast, all day long?
The Wheels on the bus is a song that ‘everyone’ sings. It is a song that ‘everyone’ knows (or thinks they know). It is the song that is always used in television sitcoms or news segments whenever early years music classes are depicted. It is a song that I deliberately did not record for inclusion in the Jellybeans Music ‘Wriggly Giggly’ CD. It is a song that I do sing in classes, but, and this is a very big but, it is a really teeny tiny part of our Jellybeans Music repertoire as I believe there are so many more wonderful early years songs out there just waiting for their chance to shine in your child’s musical world.
So, please, next time you hear those opening notes, don’t inwardly groan at my lack of musical imagination or knowledge. Look around you, look at the children. Observe those strong shoulder muscles, arm muscles, finger muscles swirling round and round and think pincer grip, this song is helping my child develop the skills to hold a pencil. Watch the anticipation on the child’s face as they realise they are about to be tickled and think, wow, my child’s memory is expanding rapidly. Listen to the ‘sound’ words your child is singing and be proud of how their innate knowledge of rhythmic language and vocabulary is developing. Hear the laughter and see the smiles as the children fly to the sky as the ‘stairs go up and down’ but most of all, remember early years don’t last very long, make the most of every single minute, be the adult who swishes, beeps, and lifts your way into their memories as you sing with them.
PS it’s the song that I will be singing a variation of when we celebrate Prince Harry’s marriage later this month …………….” The ladies in the church said it should have been me” …….. you have been warned!