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.

Source:

Potter, J. (2021). Elementary general music performances and teachers’ perceptions of stress. Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, 40(1), 36-44.

What did the researcher want to know?

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. 

RTRL.51: Research on Children’s Singing (Hedden, 2012)

Source:

Potter, J. (2021). Elementary general music performances and teachers’ perceptions of stress. Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, 40(1), 36-44.

What did the researcher want to know?

Hedden, D. (2012). An overview of existing research about children’s singing and the implications of teaching children to sing. Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, 30(2), 52-62.

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:

Kindergarten Students Echoing Tonal Patterns on Neutral Syllables

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: 

  1. Teacher models singing the song while students listen.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Teacher and students move to simultaneous macrobeat/microbeat while the teacher sings the song.
  6. 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.)
  7. 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:
Informal Music Guidance: Kindergarten Students Absorbing a New Song

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.

RTRL.34: Relationships Between Tonal Aptitude, Singing Achievement, and Grade Level Among Elementary Students (Hornbach & Taggart, 2005)

Source:

Potter, J. (2021). Elementary general music performances and teachers’ perceptions of stress. Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, 40(1), 36-44.

What did the researcher want to know?

Hornbach, C. M., & Taggart, C. C. (2005). The relationship between developmental tonal aptitude and singing achievement among kindergarten, first-, second-, and third-grade students. Journal of Research in Music Education, 53(4), 322-331.

What did the researchers want to know?

What is the relationship between developmental tonal music aptitude and singing achievement among elementary students?

What did the researchers do?

Hornbach and Taggart studied tonal aptitude and singing achievement among 162 students in kindergarten, first, second, and third grade at two elementary schools in Michigan. Tonal music aptitude was measured using the Primary Measures of Music Audiation (PMMA), a published developmental music aptitude test, which was administered by the general music teachers at the two schools. Singing achievement was measured by asking each individual student to sing a familiar song (“Bow Belinda”); performances were audio-recorded and later assessed by Hornbach, Taggart, and an independent judge using the rating scale shown below.

What did the researchers find?

Analysis showed that mean singing achievement scores tended to increase from kindergarten through second grade and then drop between second and third grades. Mean tonal aptitude scores also increased across grade levels, with one school showing a drop between second and third grades. There were no significant correlations found between singing achievement and developmental tonal aptitude scores at any grade level. While tonal aptitude scores did not differ significantly between the two schools, students from School 2 demonstrated significantly higher singing achievement than students from School 1.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Singing achievement and tonal music aptitude seem to be separate from one another. Therefore, a teacher should not assume that a child who demonstrates low singing achievement has low tonal potential nor that a child who demonstrates high singing achievement necessarily has more “talent” than students with lower singing achievement. The fact that students at one school scored significantly higher in singing achievement that students at the other school (despite there being no significant difference in aptitude scores) suggests “that if singing is taught, students’ singing achievement may improve” (p. 328).

Music educators should also be conscious that a student’s lack of success in demonstrating singing skill may be due to choice rather than inability. The drop in singing achievement from second to third grade among students at both schools “may be the result of issues relating to social rather than musical development” (p. 328). Due to increasing social awareness and/or self-consciousness, third-grade students may have chosen not to use their singing voices, even if they were capable. “Teachers and parents may need to find ways to encourage the valuing of singing voice use by children in the upper grade levels in elementary school, as it may be that peer pressure results in less singing achievement in older children” (p. 328).

RTRL.11: “The Effect of Vocal Modeling on Pitch-Matching Accuracy of Elementary Schoolchildren” (Green, 1990)

Source:

Potter, J. (2021). Elementary general music performances and teachers’ perceptions of stress. Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, 40(1), 36-44.

What did the researcher want to know?

Green, G. A. (1990). The effect of vocal modeling on pitch-matching accuracy of elementary schoolchildren. Journal of Research in Music Education, 38(3), 225-231.

What did the researcher want to know?

Does children’s pitch-matching accuracy vary depending on whether the vocal model is female, male, or a child?

What did the researcher do?

Green tested the pitch-matching ability of 282 children in grades 1 through 6. Each individual student was prompted to echo a recording of the tonal pattern sol-mi (G-E above middle C) on a neutral syllable (“la”) on three separate occasions: once in response to a female vocal model, once in response to a male vocal model, and once in response to a child vocal model. Three judges then used a tuner to evaluate the accuracy of each pitch as correct, sharp, or flat.

What did the researcher find?

The child vocal model prompted the highest number of correct responses, and the male vocal model prompted the lowest number of correct responses.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Children may more easily match pitch when the timbre of the vocal model is similar to their own voice. Similarly, some children may struggle with matching pitch in response to an adult male voice due to the octave transfer. If an individual student is struggling to accurately sing pitches modeled by the teacher, consider asking a strong singer to repeat the prompt and then have the struggling student echo their classmate.