Singing Development

One popular class assignment asked students to find examples of kids learning to sing at various stages.  Students had to connect each video to specific discussion in our textbook with page numbers.  Pedagogically, this assignment aimed to help students apply the theories discussed in class to real world examples of children’s singing behaviours.  Here is a sample assignment from the class:

To observe the developmental process of young singers, the various ages studied corresponded to the different stages illustrated in the textbook, Psychology of Music. One video viewed shows a 22-month-old girl named Emma singing in the car. The video exemplifies the capability of infants in their musical development during the Sensory Level. Over the course of the Sensory Level, children are more intrigued by their own sounds than in any structural organization (p.170). Emma begins by singing a rendition of “Elmo’s World”, which ultimately morphs into the song “I Love You” from the children’s show Barney. Little care is given to the interlude in between the songs, and no definitive ending is present for either. As far as expressiveness, Emma appears to care less about the material that she is singing, and more about what is going on in her surroundings (p.170). Though fragments of the original songs are mildly recognizable, much of Emma’s singing is babbling. Her babbling does not have a tonal center or a regular pulse, which are characteristics that generally develop at a later age (p. 156). Like most children her age, Emma cannot produce a full replication of the songs, as she however tends to focus on the words instead of a melodic contour (p.158).

The video for the 5-7 year old age group demonstrates a number of examples for musical learning in an early school setting. There are several children singing the same songs together which are intended to be sung in unison. Most of the children are either singing too quietly or roughly around the same pitch as the song playback. There is more emphasis on the rhythm and text in more of a chant-like fashion, a skill which emerges during early development (p. 158). The energetic red-haired boy in the front is quite clearly the star of the video. He has an understanding of the rhythm of the songs and most of the text, while demonstrating his expressive ability through his dancing and enthusiastic vocalizations (p. 157). He also shows a degree of expressiveness, while lacking structural control, which is demonstrated by his experimentation with dynamic levels (p. 171). All of these aspects combined make for quite an entertaining performance.

The next video discussed is of a 5 year old who goes by the name Toothless Jack, who is singing “Hey, Soul Sister” by Train. According to the textbook, Psychology of Music, “by the age of 4 or 5 years, most children know a small repertoire of conventional songs, though pitches and rhythms are not yet precise” (p. 159). Toothless Jack clearly fits this category as he is covering a song rather than improvising his own. The fact that Toothless Jack is trying to sing a song he knows shows that he is developing some singing skills. The singer in this video displays basic skills of singing such as rhythm, pulse, tonal center and general understanding of pitch, though none of these are perfect. This is quite similar to the stage of development that is described in the textbook which states that, “although each interval may not be precise, children’s singing reflects a clearer sense of tonal center across phrase boundaries, an underlying pulse is apparent…” (p. 159). The understanding of the pulse in this video is demonstrated by some movements by Jack such as swaying to the beat and some actions that follow in time (p. 162). Jack’s movements are like the “sustained and controlled motor actions” that are used to keep time to the music. There are also some mistakes in this video where either the rhythm or pitch is inaccurate. This demonstrates that the development of song-singing skills is not quite finished yet for Toothless Jack. It seems that Toothless Jack is also thinking about different things that can be done with his voice. He tries to imitate the kind of tone and sometimes figuration that the original singer would use. This is described in the book when it states that children of age 5 have “the ability to sing with expression” (p. 159). There are also a few instances in the video where the large intervals seem to be giving a bigger challenge to Toothless Jack than most intervals. The textbook affirms that “large intervals continue to pose a challenge to a young children”(p. 160). In conclusion, Toothless Jack shows that his singing skills are at the natural level or perhaps slightly higher for his age group.

Psychology of Music by Sin-Lan Tam, Peter Pfordresher and Rom Harré states that, “The potpourri song and learning of conventional songs marks the transition from a focus on improvisational and creative aspects of song to the acquisition of a particular musical repertoire” (p. 160). In this video a six-year old, Avery, is singing “If I Die Young” by The Band Perry. This song demonstrates the end of her transition from improvising at a younger age, to being able to sing a full-fledged pop song. She is singing the melody independently from the guitar and drums accompaniment, demonstrating a collaborative way of singing (p. 160). As stated in the Psychology of Music with a study by Shuter-Dyson and Gabriel (1981), children ages four to five can identity certain songs, though the pitches and rhythms are not exact (p. 159). Despite the fact that Avery is six, she demonstrates these points while being slightly off with the accompaniment and missing several notes. Furthermore, a different study by Rutkowski (1997) points out that “when learning songs they are taught, young children typically begin with a chant-like approach that focuses on lyrics, then sing within a narrow pitch range resembling the speaking range, and then move through a phase in which they alternate between speaking and singing […] before […]using a wider singing range” (p. 160). This also correlates with Carl Orff’s view that “young children’s singing gradually progresses from a speech-like character to a singing tone” (p. 175). Throughout the video, Avery is alternating between singing within a narrow pitch range, and singing while alternating between speaking and singing. She attempts both high and low notes, which are not commonly used within speaking, though her attempts are not very accurate which show her singing within a more comfortable speaking range—over time she will be able to gain a wider range of singing. She is gradually progressing from a speech-like character to singing properly. Something that would benefit Avery’s singing, would be to provide her with a vocal model such as singing with someone who has a similar voice, or using a technological program to visually display her voice—these tools would increase her pitch accuracy (p. 160) Additionally, the intervallic leaps which Avery sings in “If I Die Young” are not very accurate due to inexact pitch, which is to be expected of her age group (p. 160). In conclusion, with Avery’s ability to sing a pop song with accompaniment she is open to possibilities of enhancing her vocal techniques to be able to sing in a larger group (p. 160).

Just before reaching eight years old, kids have already started to develop vernacular skills and it is not before the ages of between eight and ten that they establish their vernacular skills more efficiently (p. 171). This is to say they can repeat musical themes and rhythm with more ease, therefore being able to create a specific form to the songs they are singing (p. 171). This next video is of two ten year old girls singing a song called Sunshine, which is according to the video description entirely improvised. The video demonstrates their already well-established vernacular skills and also introduces the speculative skill that develops in kids once reaching the age 10. While entirely improvised, the two girls show repetition of musical themes that give the song a more concrete form. They also employ less original ideas once a musical them is settled, which is very descriptive of well-established vernacular skills. The speculative aspect of the singing is heard at the end of the verses or choruses, where the singing includes some experimentation of newly improvised short segments of music. This confirms the fact that children gradually employ less exploration reaching the age of 8-10 and, rather, repeat and develop previous or imitative ideas, giving the song real structure (p. 171). Furthermore, it also marks the switch where children start to care more about the final outcome, whereas children below the age of eight are more concentrated in doing and being in the moment, not caring much about the outcome (p. 171).

To conclude, the videos presented illustrate examples of early musical development from the 0 – 10 year-old age group. Each video demonstrates an example of exposure to music and vocalizations by the child or children. The parents are involved in most of the videos whether just through documenting the child or deliberately encouraging vocal expression. In the oldest age group, the children have clearly had previous musical training, which becomes less of a process and more of a product oriented approach. Through exposure to musical situations by either parents, in school, extra-curricular activity, or private lessons, musical development and singing ability reaches a basic level in most children by the age of 10. As a potential music educator, one can gain an understanding of most children’s musical experiences, and can be expected from young children in a teaching situation.