RTRL.55: Young Children’s Spontaneous Singing (Dean, 2020)

* This guest post was authored by Sarah Boyd, graduate student at Eastern Michigan University, Lead Teaching Artist for the Detroit Symphony, and director of Hummingbird Music Together. Click here and here to learn more about Ms. Boyd and her work.


Dean, B. (2020). Spontaneous singing in early childhood: An examination of young children’s singing at home. Research Studies in Music Education. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1177/1321103X20924139

What did the researcher want to know?

How do young children use spontaneous singing in their everyday lives?

What did the researcher do?

Due to technological advances, Dean was able to capture continuous audio recording of fifteen children, ages three and four years, at home in daily life.  In total, over 180 hours of audio footage were recorded from parents monitoring a small recording device that the child wore on their clothes. The mobile recording technology allowed the children to be recorded without disrupting daily routines. Data was collected without relying on adult observation. Most families recorded over 2-4 days, and the total time that each child was recorded ranged from 4 hours to 24 hours.  Once the recordings were collected, Dean manually located episodes of singing within the recordings and created audio-clips for analysis. Each clip was labeled according to the type of singing behavior, context, communication intent, and the function of the singing. The four types of singing behaviors identified after analysis of the clips were improvisatory singing, singing based on learned songs, humming, and chant. Dean then further analyzes the context of clips that included spontaneous singing.

What did the researcher find?

Spontaneous singing is the most common form of singing in young children. 

Data showed that all fifteen children improvised songs to some degree. On average, children spent almost 5% of their total recorded time (total time, not just musical clips) in spontaneous song. It was the most frequently recorded type of singing behavior and the type recorded for the longest total time. Dean points out that although previous major studies refer to chant as the main singing behavior in young children, this is not the case for these 3- and 4-year-olds at home. 

Children use music in ways that are meaningful to them and suit their needs. 

In addition to improvising songs, children rarely sang unaltered versions of conventional songs they knew. Children made use of spontaneous singing during self-directed play, especially when playing alone. After play, children used spontaneous song during stationary activities (bath, meals) or parent-directed activities like transitioning or waiting. Dean asserts these findings suggest that “singing may act as a substitute for physical activity, reflecting an active state of mind even when the body is relatively still” (p. 11). 

Children amend their singing behaviors based on their social context. 

Children sang songs they knew, or improvised songs with words that had meaning, when they were singing to communicate with others. The motivation behind their singing behaviors seemed to be to be understood and share common songs with their family or caregivers. In contrast, when children were alone, their spontaneous songs had less focus on language and meaning. These improvisations were highly exploratory, with more humming, nonsense words, and syllables. The focus appeared to be experimentation and altering songs for their own purposes – narrating their own play or experimenting vocally.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Early childhood educators – both music and classroom – need to develop and foster an environment where spontaneous song has a place in classroom life. Furthermore, the improvisational songs of children need to be recognized as a fundamental singing behavior that is valuable to their musical development. Notably, the study showed that the children who improvised the most had families who included a wide repertoire of song in their daily life. Children will benefit from having a large repertoire of songs in their listening and singing vocabularies, upon which they can draw from when in spontaneous song. Using a wide variety of tunes in your classroom – include a variety of tonalities and meters – can provide this repertoire for children.

Spontaneous song occurred most during free play but was also found in active and stationary contexts – which shows us that singing can be a part of any and all activity! Educators can model using their own spontaneous song while washing hands or cleaning up, making music a part of your daily classroom activities. Be aware of the “hum” of your classroom – if you hear a child’s song, validate it by singing something back to them, either an echo or your own musical idea. This shows that you value their music making. 

Finally, children are aware of what is accepted socially with music, and they quickly add words or sing conventional songs when interacting with adults. Allow children the freedom to sing without words, thus enabling them to focus on the music at hand. Just as 3- and 4-year-old children need to explore in order to teach themselves through play, the same is true with music. Children will flourish in a classroom that gives space for spontaneous song, as it is what comes most naturally to them. 

2 thoughts on “RTRL.55: Young Children’s Spontaneous Singing (Dean, 2020)

  1. Julie

    Reading this article has affirmed that I am teaching the children in my daycare classroom correctly. I love to ding and create new songs. I am currently trying to find a tune in which to teach proper hand
    Any ideas.washing. The children are not getting the fact that they are to dry their hands and tgen turn the water off with the towel.

    1. Heather Shouldice

      I would make up a song or chant to teach them to help them remember! Maybe something like this:

      “Wet your hands, get some soap and scrub.
      Then rinse it off, rub a dub dub!
      Grab a paper towel and dry them off,
      Then use the towel to turn the water off!”

      Not perfect, but just an example!

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