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The influence of music on young children

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development There is music in child development

Early musical stimulation

In the early years of a child's life the main source of musical stimulation is the way that parents talk with their children. That is called infant-directed-speech.

Parents are often not really conscious of how musically they communicate with their child.

In their communication both parents and child use musical elements, like pitch, melody, rhythm, rhythm patterns, volume, accent, timbre and harmony.

In the contact with their baby parents unconsciously use a complicated pattern of stimulation.

They use their voice: They talk, sing, and make sounds. They also make use of what a baby can see: For instance a happy face , or a bright colored toy. They use movement: They rock their babies. And they caress and cuddle.

So the musical part is interwoven in a bigger and more complicated pattern of hearing, seeing, moving and feeling. Parent and child can adjust to one another in that pattern, so that a contact is created that doesn´t need words yet.

Different melodies

Parents use about 5 or 6 standard melodies when they talk to their baby.

They repeat them many times and they never become stereotypical. In other words they are never exactly the same.

The same melody can be used with different words.

The melodies consist of gliding tones.

Often it is the baby that makes a sound and the parent that imitates it. Mothers and fathers also use infant-directed speech to modulate and influence their child’s emotions and behavior.

In other words they reassure, stimulate and draw attention and the like in a musical way.

Children are very sensitive to the musical quality in a parent’s voice.

They react to the expression (a happy, angry, interested, cheerful, weary voice) more than to the words spoken.

This musical communication between parent and child is a basis on which the identity is formed.


Spontaneous singing

Spontaneous singing resembles speech, in that sense that it is used with a special goal in a given situation.

Teasing chants for instance contain a special message. A well-known melody for that purpose is the tone sequence g-a-g-e, as in the song "Baa baa black sheep".

That is an ancient musical motive. And it is not just used for teasing, but for a lot of other messages too.

Spontaneous singing can also be a straight expression of feelings. Especially the flowing song that doesn´t have a fixed form, the type that adults may not want to call a song.

That type of singing is characterized by gliding tones (glissandi), free rhythms and small intervals.

Just think about a child that sits and makes a drawing meanwhile humming. The humming mirrors in sound the arm movements of the child and the lines that are drawn on the paper.

The movement, the picture and the sound are one experience. The child sings the drawing, is the way that professor Björkvold expresses it.

Musical development

From birth there is a natural coherence between breathing, voice and body. For young children it means that a sentence in a song ends when the child is out of breath. Not when the sentence ends.

Until about the age of three there is a direct connection between melodic development and speech development. There is a flowing transition between speech and song.

Most two-year olds can recognize a melody, but not reproduce it. Even if a heard melody goes up, they sing mostly short falling intervals, in the size of about a third. That is an interval over three tones.

Children round the age of 3-4 can reproduce existing songs usually. Their tonal range covers approximately 5 tones. As a comparison: Most adults’ range is about 14 tones. Kids in this age are primarily focused on the rhythm in a melody.

Around 5-6 years of age it becomes interesting for them to sing a song in a correct way. The children can sing larger intervals now. Now they sing in tune, a grownup would say.

Three main functions

Professor in musicology Jon-Roar Björkvold has done a lot of research in song structure and in how children use their singing.

For a start he points out the fact that the basic musical elements, sound, movement and rhythm, are already there before birth.

The spontaneous singing is formed within the frame of the culture in which children grow up.

The professor explaines why it is an essential substance in a children´s world. The singing has three main functions:


M. Papousek (1996): Intuitive parenting: a hidden source of musical stimulation in infancy.
S. Malloch, Trewarthen C (2009): Communicative musicality, exploring the basis of human companionship.
J.R. Björkvold (1991): Den musiska människan: barnet, sången och lekfullheten genom livets faser.
H. Hammershöj (1997): Musikalisk utveckling i förskoleåldern.



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