Monday, 30 October 2006

24: We Are Musical

24: We Are Musical

Graham F Welch

Chair and Professor of Music Education, Institute of Education, University of London

In one sense, it seems bizarre to be asked to be an 'advocate' for music and music education because both have a species-wide omnipresence. We are musical: it is part of our basic human design. The human brain has specialist areas whose prime functions are networked for musical processing. Also, we are musically educated, in the sense that we acquire sophisticated musical behaviours from pre-birth through enculturated experience. We do not require formalised music education in order to engage purposefully with music and to exhibit musical behaviours. Informal music education happens all the time because the experience of organised sound is a key element in our daily lives. Our basic neuropsychobiological design enables us to make sense of, and find significance in, the patterns of sound that are organised as music within our culture.

Yet, despite this human propensity for musical behaviour and our desire to engage in musical activity (whether as producers or listeners), it is apparent that we are not all identical musically. As we get older, there is a continuum of engagement with music that depends, in part, on individual preference, the local context for listening or enjoying music, the availability of musical styles and genres and also on our perception and emotional 'tagging' of previous musical experiences – all of which shape the extent to which we regard ourselves as 'musical'. Indeed, there may be some rare individuals who appear to have some congenital disorder with regard to music and who find little sense or enjoyment in much musical activity.

But, for the vast majority, music is integral to our social and cultural environment and to their engagement with it. This engagement begins pre-birth. The womb is a relatively quiet environment and from the third trimester the foetus is observed to react to external sounds, especially to mother's speech and singing, as well as external musics. In particular, although speech is partially muffled and the sound spectrum is reduced for its higher frequencies, the pitch inflections of mother's speech are clearly audible. Subsequently, as newborns, we demonstrate sensitivity to our own mother's voice compared to other mothers, as well as sensitivity to the music of our maternal culture – particularly the music that mother listened to during pregnancy. Furthermore, because our developing foetal life involves a shared bloodstream, mother's emotional engagement with music (related to her neuroendocrine condition) during pregnancy is also shared. Music that she finds pleasurable, soothing, relaxing, exciting or boring to listen to is likely to produce a biased sound-associated affect in us. So we enter the world with a cognitive and emotional bias towards our mother's voice and her music.

This interweaving of language and music, speech and song from pre-birth through early childhood is further evidenced in vocal interactions between our parents (caregivers) and us as infants. The vocal sounds of these adults are intrinsically musical and encourage imitative sounds, spontaneous singing and growing vocal mastery by us during the first eighteen months of life. Mothers exaggerate critical acoustic features in speech (such as emphasising vowels and raising vocal pitch) when addressing us as young children. Mothers also often have a special repertoire of lullabies and play songs that are characterised by relatively higher pitches, slower tempi and more emotive voice quality when compared to their usual singing style.

These common elements of vocal behaviour in our upbringing as young children are key foundations for subsequent musical development and distinctive musical behaviours. However, much of these early vocal and musical interactions are other-than-conscious. Parents are rarely aware of how they are fostering, shaping and framing our musical development. Consequently, any relative lack of interaction between a parent and us, any relative paucity in our local sound environment, such as a limited encouragement to engage and explore with sound, is likely to lead to lesser musical development when compared with others who are provided with such extensive experiences and opportunities.

This diversity of pre-school musical experience needs to be understood and addressed when children enter the educational system if we are to ensure that each child's basic musicality is developed to its full potential, whatever that may be. If musical behaviour is integral to human design, it should be equally integral to any educational system that professes to educate the whole person. This is not to deny that much learning in music takes place outside school, but rather to argue that such non-school experience may be haphazard and uneven at the level of the individual. Music in school, therefore, is not just a basic human and educational entitlement; it should be sensitively designed to address the diversity of our musical backgrounds, to differentiate our musical needs and to foster individual musical development.

For example, children whose mothers have sung to them during their early years and who have been encouraged to sing are highly likely to enter school at age five as relatively competent singers. Not surprisingly, children who have had fewer opportunities to sing, or to be sung to, are more likely to enter school as less developed singers. Unfortunately, this latter group are more liable to be labelled as 'unmusical' by insensitive and ill-informed adults. Negative comments from such teachers on the basis of perceived singing ability generates public humiliation in front of friends and peers and a sense of shame and inadequacy that can lead to lifelong self-perception of musical disability.

It does not need to be like this. Such negative and harmful comments arise from several false assumptions, such as people are either 'musical' or 'unmusical' and that singing is a simple activity. Because some children and adults appear to find singing easy masks its basic underlying complexity. Singing involves words and music being interwoven in a complex physical behaviour that has strong cultural associations. The pre-school experiences of some young children lead them to focus on the element of the song which (for them) has the greatest significance, namely the words. The same children become much more pitch accurate when asked to focus solely on the song's musical features without the perceptual 'contamination' of its text. Furthermore, there is a highly significant school effect. Research evidence demonstrates that, whilst some schools foster song-singing development in their pupils; others do not. In some schools, children who are relatively less accurate than their peers at age five (in their pitch or word accuracy, or both) can become even more inaccurate by age seven. In contrast, in other schools children improve significantly by age seven, despite having demonstrated the same singing competency at age five, suggesting that there are important variations in the nature and quality of music teaching between schools.

It would seem that many (Western) children follow a phased-base sequence of singing development in which completely 'in-tune' song singing is preceded by simpler, less complex, singing behaviours. These phases appear to be related to the child's particular perceptual focus, which tends to progress from the song text, to melodic contour, to phrase-based accuracy and finally to an increased accuracy overall. Young children also often have a limited comfortable vocal pitch range. This range tends to expand as the children get older, with girls having wider ranges than boys for successive age groups.

As well as addressing developmental issues, school music education will be more successful if it embraces both the plurality of musical cultures within the wider community and also children's initial individual preferences for certain kinds of music (and songs). Popular music and music practices are often poorly represented in school music, leading to a mismatch between the interests and musical identities of pupils and the curricula that they experience. Young children like activity songs and often use play songs for specific purposes and individuals that link to their activities.

It is normal, therefore, for children to exhibit a range of singing behaviours and competences as part of their musical development. Because of their earliest vocal experiences with parents and caregivers, the borders between speaking and singing for young children are often blurred. 'Out-of-tune' singing behaviour will likely arise from a mismatch between the child's current singing competency and the particular musical 'task' that they have been set by the teacher/adult. But children and adults who have been labelled or who have self-labelled themselves as 'non-singers' and 'tone-deaf' have been shown to improve and develop enhanced singing skills when provided with appropriate educational experiences.

We are all musical: we just need the opportunity for our musicality to be celebrated and developed. Such is the prime purpose of music education.

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