What research exists on children’s singing and what insight can it provide for music educators?
What did the researcher do?
In order to offer suggestions for helping children learn to sing, Hedden conducted a literature review of existing research studies pertaining to prepubescent children’s singing. This included studies of both internal factors (e.g., vocal range, pitch matching, sex differences) and external factors (e.g., solo versus group, use of accompaniment, use of text, vocal modeling).
In synthesizing the 50+ studies on children’s singing, Hedden identified many important themes. While I cannot present them all in this post, here are a few I find to be particularly valuable for teaching elementary general music:
✴ Young children can sing short patterns more accurately than whole songs.
Hedden summarized numerous studies that suggest young children may struggle with singing complete songs. Children in these studies were more able to accurately sing short patterns or individual pitches.
✴ Children benefit from whole group, small group, and solo singing experiences.
A number of researchers have studied whether children sing more accurately in solo or in large or small groups, to varying results. Ensuring that students experience both seems to be most beneficial.
✴ Children may benefit when singing is introduced on neutral syllables before text.
Though research findings have varied, there is some evidence to suggest that children may sing less accurately when learning songs with text. “There appears to be some merit in introducing singing on neutral syllables to offer one challenge at a time” (Hedden, 2012, p. 58).
✴ Learning a song by rote or immersion may be more effective than phrase-by-phrase.
Children may have an easier time absorbing and retaining a new melody when they’re given numerous opportunities to listen in a focused way before being asked to sing. “As the child hears the song several times, [they] will gain familiarity with the pitch contour…. This process is akin to that of language acquisition, in that the young children hears certain words and phrases repeatedly before attempting to replicate them” (p. 58).
What does this mean for my classroom?
Because young children initially sing short patterns more accurately than whole songs, we can provide students with opportunities to echo short tonal patterns or chime in on short melodic patterns within a song. For example, you might model singing “Frog Song” and pretending to make your hand hop upward on the “ga-gung” pattern. Then you might invite students to chime in on that pattern whenever it occurs during the song.
Most music classes feature ample opportunities for students to sing as a whole group. To build musical independence, we can also add opportunities for students to sing in small groups and in solo. For example, once students are familiar with “Frog Song,” I add a frog finger puppet on the “ga-gung” pattern, inviting students to sing the rest of the song as I sing that pattern in solo while moving the frog puppet in an upward motion. Then I pass out three puppets to three individual students, who each sing one “ga-gung” in solo with the puppet while the rest of the class sings the rest of the song. Once students are familiar with the activity, it also provides an opportunity for singing assessment, using a rating scale such as the following:
- 4 = Student sings the entire tonal pattern accurately.
- 3 = Student sings the tonal pattern with slight intonation error.
- 2 = Student performs the pattern in singing voice but inaccurate pitches.
- 1 = Student performs the pattern in speaking voice.
You could also have students echo short tonal patterns in solo, as shown in this video:
When teaching students a new melody, one approach is to use this process for teaching a song by rote, common among practitioners of Gordon’s Music Learning Theory:
- Teacher models singing the song while students listen.
- Teacher models singing the resting tone (on “bum” or solfege) and invites students to audiate and sing the resting tone whenever they pause and gesture during the song.
- Teacher models moving to the microbeats (e.g., tapping, etc.) and invites students to move to the microbeats as they listen to the teacher sing the song.
- Teacher models moving to the macrobeats (e.g., swaying, etc.) and invites students to move to the macrobeats as they listen to the teacher sing the song.
- Teacher and students move to simultaneous macrobeat/microbeat while the teacher sings the song.
- Students close their eyes and sing the song silently in their heads, raising their hands when they are finished. (Teacher should be sure to give a starting signal/cue.)
- Students sing the song independently (without the teacher).
Songs can also be taught through immersion by engaging students in imaginative play as you expose them to the song. For example, you might…
- Pretend to stir a different ingredient into a big pot of soup each time the teacher sings the song. Invite individual students to suggest ingredients to add!
- Pretend to make a pizza, acting out a different step each time the teacher sings the song (stir, roll dough, poke dough, toss in the air, sway and sing or chant “tick-tock” to the beat while baking, slice to the beat, eat!)
- Pretend it’s a snow day and do a different action each time the teacher sings the song (wake up/stretch, jump for joy, build a snowman, sledding, snow angels, snowball fight).
- Pretend to bake cookies (stir, roll dough, use cookie cutters, “tick-tock”, frost, eat!), acting out a different step each time the teacher sings the song. Here is a video of this activity using a song in Lydian tonality sung on neutral syllables:
Playful activities like these allow students to hear and absorb the song a number of times so that by the time you ask them to sing it, they can already audiate it and are ready to sing.
Finally, since children may initially sing more accurately without text/lyrics, consider first teaching songs on a neutral syllable, such as “bum”, “loo”, “da”, or a combination of syllables.