Do children have their own unique musical language?

I’ve just come home from four inspiring days in Launceston at the ASME conference (ASME being the Australian Society For Music Education). Lots of highlights, lots of great conversations, and a great chance to catch up with colleagues in the academic world as well as all the Education Managers from the different orchestras around Australia and in New Zealand. I even found two Italian speakers to hang out with – my joy knew no bounds!

I will need to write about this in more detail, but will blog now about an idea that I am really intrigued by, and that came up in two separate unrelated research projects.

In one, Nick Reynolds (University of Melbourne) has been investigating the characteristics of children’s compositions in a music technology environment. A group of 7 primary school children composed hundreds (200, I think he said) of compositions of varying lengths, using waveform, midi and other recording software. These compositions were then analysed, and Nick also interviewed the children about their compositions, and reasons behind certain choices.

By all accounts, the children hadn’t had any particular training in using the software, other than some navigational information about how it worked. Essentially, they worked in pairs, mucked around, and invented stuff. And there ended up being  some striking similarities across their creations. There was no regard for ‘1’ or the downbeat. They put together a lot of loops and samples….  but these rarely lined up. I say ‘rarely’ – but perhaps it is not an exaggeration to say they never lined up into a discernable, common sense of pulse.

Also, different lines (tracks) in the one composition might be set to differing tempi, or beats per minute. And the students were filled with praise for approximation, for things that sounded enough like a well-known tune (‘Rugrats’ theme was an example given) and yet, to adult ears, not quite right.

There are lots of questions that could be asked about why the students composed in this way, or the significnce of it, but what excited me was suggestion that these particular commonalities among the compositions could also suggest that this musical incoherence or lack of understanding of musical conventions, or lack of skill, might in fact indicate to us something about the way music makes sense to children of this age. How much do we adults impose an adult musical sensibility on young people, and how much are we perhaps stifling what could be for them a more natural musical voice (that may evolve in time towards the conventions that we recognise and value)?

Later that same day, I heard a paper by Kathy Marsh (Sydney Conservatorium of Music) about the musical playground games of children, collected in playgrounds in different countries around the world and analysed. We watched clips of some highly complex clapping games, and songs and games that made use of additive rhythms, polyrhythms, constant metre changes, and other challening things that rarely make appearances in primary music classrooms. Kathy described the way the rhythmic accuracy of the games held great importance to the participants. They would often stop a game – or accuse each other of mucking up – when errors occured in the rhythmic flow. Conversely, notions of melody, and intervallic accuracy, were of secondary importance, and the flow of the game would never be interrupted to correct pitching and melodic efforts. Groups would often sing the songs in polytonality, with no adjustment towards another’s preferred pitch. Greater stability in the melodies was more evident in the older children.Melodic contours were consistent, but the actual intervals tended to be sung only with approximation.

Perhaps this suggests that pitch is something that children do not quite conceptualise until they are a bit older. However, rhythmic complexity is not only more comfortable, it is a strong motivator and object of satisfaction and goal for the young participants. These similarity of these findings between the two separate research projects was pretty exciting, I thought. What are the implications for music educators? Perhaps that we can push children’s rhythmic skills and competencies more than we currently do. Perhaps we are all born with tremoundous rhythmic capacity, but that this can wear off as we get older (in the same way that some believe we are all born with perfect pitch, but that these skills diminish rapidly if they are not targeted and developed). Certainly I can think of many adults that would struggle to memorise and perform some of the clapping games we saw.

John Blacking was an ethnomusicologist who, when researching the music of the Venda people in Africa, discovered the existence of a discrete children’s musical culture, different from that of the adults. I haven’t read any of his research, only heard about it. But it seems like there could be links there, too.

Anyway. These are my earliest, rambling thoughts, written on the night of my birthday when I really should be getting to sleep so as to be fresh for music at Pelican Primary School tomorrow. Hopefully I will write some more coherent thoughts and summaries in response to these and other inspiring ASME papers in the next few days. But thanks to everyone who presented, and participated. It really was a very stimulating four days.

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3 comments so far

  1. Linda Kay Burk on

    Thanks for a fascinating article!

  2. pip on

    It would be worth reading ‘How Musical Is Man’ by John Blacking, as well as Particia Sheehan Campbell’s writing on Blacking. She succinctly puts his ideas forward. I do think that children probably have their own musical sub-culture in all societies, but that as adults perhaps we dismiss what they practise as ‘not really up to the mark’, and therefore we do not pay attention to this important reflection of social practice, understanding and belief systems. I think that children’s musical cultures have the potential to inform the adult world in a real sense, and that perhaps we need to pay closer attention to what is happening there.

  3. T on

    Has anyone correlated the development of rhythm, pitch and harmonic awareness with stages of cognitive development in children?
    Also, rather than designing classes and courses based on our adult perspective of what constitutes good music and thorough music education, maybe we need to consider working from the child’s viewpoint, allowing them to develop their own unique voices and creative culture from within their own individual developmental positioning. Maybe more children would develop uniquely creative mature expressions if music education began and remained firmly based in musical self-discovery rather than in adult conceptions and prescriptions of what is appropriate.


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