Good songs for beginning to explore the “Great American Songbook”

I try to teach a style-agnostic approach to vocal function in general. Some of my students come for technical instruction only, and others come for that in combination with help with repertoire. In either case, I want to work with them on songs at least some of the time, because the bridge between acquiring better function in exercises to USING it in repertoire can be a challenge.

For people who come to me wanting to sing a variety of styles, or no style in particular, it is usually fruitful to look at some of the classic American popular songs. These are songs that have earned a long-term place in entertainers’ gig books. Many of them are popular in the jazz world as points of departure for improvisation and recasting into fabulous new creations.

The classic standard often has a 32-bar melody in AABA form, divided into 8-bar chunks for each section. In performance it is common to hear the whole tune repeated with some variation. The list below (by composer) consists of songs that have a modest range, a simple structure, and are generally well-loved:

Harold Arlen:
Come Rain Or Come Shine
Get Happy
If I Only Had a Brain
It’s Only a Paper Moon

Irving Berlin:
How Deep Is the Ocean?
Isn’t This a Lovely Day?
I Got the Sun in the Morning
My Defenses Are Down
Steppin’ Out With My Baby
White Christmas

Eleanor Farjeon:
Morning Has Broken

George Gershwin:
Embraceable You
Love Is Here To Stay
Someone to Watch Over Me

Bart Howard:
Fly Me to the Moon

Fred Karlin:
Come Saturday Morning

Jerome Kern:
The Way You Look Tonight

Joseph Kosma:
Autumn Leaves

Henry Mancini:
Moon River

Roger Miller:
King of the Road

Richard Rodgers:
Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered
Glad to Be Unhappy
I Could Write a Book
You Took Advantage of Me

Jule Styne:
Let It Snow!
Make Someone Happy

James Van Heusen:
Moonlight Becomes You

Fats Waller:
Ain’t Misbehavin’

Francis Webster and Sonny Burke:
Black Coffee

Kurt Weill:
September Song

These have proven to be appealing to students of a wide age range and background, and generally present few technical difficulties when transposed to fit the student. There are thousands more songs suitable for introducing students to the American Songbook! Singers should be encouraged to learn them as naturally as possible with their own voices, respecting the originally published notes and rhythms. After the initial introduction and learning of the musical and lyric structure, listening to recordings and live performances can be a wonderful learning experience. The teacher and student can discuss choices in melody, tempo, key, and rhythm. After knowing the original and hearing various versions, the student may begin to experiment with changes.

You can hardly go wrong with this repertoire, unless you insist on things that were never “standard” on these songs. Such errors could include locking oneself into a certain key, timbre, tempo, imitating a particular artist exclusively, and inauthentic diction. Sing with the voice you have, develop an opinion on the meaning of the lyrics, and enjoy!

2 Replies to “Good songs for beginning to explore the “Great American Songbook””

  1. Hi Dr. Lee!
    I am starting a new unit with my private voice students – it’s a Love Song to the Great American Songbook to be completed in some kind of virtual exhibition of material on Valentine’s Day. I went on a google hunt searching for songs in this category that are also good for developing voices. Your blog happened to come up! It was like visiting a friend though because I had just been listening to your new podcast with Justin Petersen. Small world or you are everywhere! Thank you for this blog – I am definitely going to pull repertoire options from your list above. Nicole

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