What are they listening to?

Can we develop better concerts by learning more about children’s developing perception of the music which surrounds them?
12 Aug, 2016

Children at a concert, experience the event on many different levels – some of which they are aware of, and others which they are not. What do children of different ages actually hear during a concert? Can we develop better concerts by learning more about children’s developing perception of the music which surrounds them? How does this affect the ways in which we think about producing musical experiences for children?

Children in western European countries grow up with a relationship to music which is deeply influenced by a commercial market, the entertainment industry and an accepted secondary function in life. Music is our identity, our refuge in an accelerating society and the soundtrack to our lives.

We encounter music every day. Lots of invested interests use music to affect our lives. Soothing music in elevators to make us more patient while we are waiting for our floor, low-tempo instrumental music in the grocery store to slow us down (and give us more time to buy stuff) and short instrumental loops with elevated tempi in fast-food restaurants to help us eat fast and get out, so that other customers can take our place.

This is all music we hear, but it is not listening.

Music researcher David Elliott describes listening in three separate stages: hearing, listening to, and listening for. This definition approaches listening as an activity on a sliding scale from the passive to the active.

All of our young audiences hear. Most of them are capable of “listening to” (at least for short periods of time). Few of them are capable of “listening for”.

If we are to develop our concerts for young people, we must also take a responsibility for helping our audience acquire the listening tools they need to explore the concert experience.

What might these tools be?

  • concepts to help children think about music
  • language to help children talk about music
  • methods of inquiry to help children explore music

What does the research say?

For elementary school children, listening is:

  • Perceptual.
  • A maturation skill
  • Single-track
  • Non-syntactic (focused on timbre, variation, intensity)
  • Melody is experienced as a shape or outline
  • Repeated listening leads to stronger acceptance or preference (at least initially)
  • Primarily a recognition task (not a discriminatory task)

So we hear different things. How do we talk about what we hear?

A concert audience needs to develop the ability to come closer to the music, and then to describe and reflect upon that experience.

Rob Dunn (1995) makes the distinction between “school music” and “life music”, pointing out that we listen differently in our everyday lives than we do at school. School music uses listening to approach theoretical subjects like music theory, music history and formal analysis. Life music is more based on an emotional connection, personal identity and curiosity.

What do we want from our concerts and our concert audience? Listening guided by knowledge of the instruments, historical facts and theoretical form? Or listening guided by an emotional response to the music? Both are valid approaches, but I prefer the concert audience that is not attempting to do anything beyond live with the music, in the moment.

Most of the after-concert responses we get from children fall into a few simple catagories:

Real or perceived relationship with the performers. (i.e. I liked him, he was funny, she seemed nice, etc.)

Technical expertise. (i.e. He was really good on his instrument, she played really fast, she sang really high, etc.)

Comparison with personal references/preferences. (i.e. That’s not the kind of music I usually listen to, that song was like pop music, The words of that song are just the way I feel, etc.)

The experience lies within the student’s existing cultural frame of reference. (i.e. I know that song, I recognize that musician, That was entertaining, etc.)

Most of us recognize these kinds of responses. At the same time, we can make the argument that, while all of these responses are about the concert experience, none of them are actually about the music.

Children simply do not have a mastery of language to describe their emotional experiences with music. We could argue that nobody really does. How much of what passes for musical criticism in the newspaper is actually about the music? If we are going to talk about musical experience in an emotional (and not a technical) sense, we need descriptive language.

Kate Hevner (1937) was the first music researcher to organize language as a tool for describing emotional experiences with music. Her adjective circle gives children the associative tools they need to recognize and define their emotional response. Hevner’s work has since been duplicated, adapted and expanded.

Rob Dunn’s research at Brigham Young University incorporates drawing (or “mapping”) to guide the discussion of the listening experience. Dunn follows the progression: listen-draw-explain-compare. Children make descriptive drawings of short musical examples, present them for others in the group, and discuss why (and how) they have heard and drawn different aspects of the music. In this manner, the children become conscious of their personal listening strategies and gain access to the strategies of others.

The mapping technique is extended further by having the children draw to another piece of music and switch drawings with each other. They then use the drawing as a reference when they listen (without any explanation), trying to find meaning in the drawings of others. Afterwards, they present their thoughts on the differences between what they see in the drawings and what they have heard in the music. This sort of activity can be connected to compositional processes by asking the children to draw an imaginary piece of music they attempt to hear inside of themselves. A group of musicians then perform from this drawing (as a compositional guide) as the child instructs them in order to come closer to his original intention. This creates a role for the child as listener and creator, with the child’s listening experience and artistic intent in focus. Through this sort of activity, children develop the expressive tools to be more competent listeners.

There is a wealth of information and activities we can use to help our audiences get closer to the music, through a systematic development of their listening skills.

Photo:Christian Brandt


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