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Musical Development and what can be Taught to Elementary School Children

Emily A. Wylie

James Madison University


E.A.W. Musical Development 1

Emily Wylie
MUED 380: Music in the Elementary School
December 6, 2018
Musical Development and what can be taught to Elementary School Students

Abstract

This work of research defines what it means to develop musicality and what can

be taught to learners similarly or differently to how that musicality is developed now in

an elementary school classroom. Musicality is taught in a formulated fashion in an

elementary school using diatonic scales and common time meters using a child’s age

as a measure for what should be taught and understood. This may be a tired and simple

viewpoint as a teacher for these classrooms. Not only does it simplify what elementary

aged students are capable of, but it implies that learners can develop their musicality at

the same rate as their peers. Research indicates that musical strengths not only reside

in performance or listening, but also analyzing and writing about music. These are

strengths that show up physically in the brain in different specified areas of strength, but

the interest to develop these skills are nurtured in a learner’s early life before a music

educator is brought into the process. The role of the educator is to nurture those

strengths by meeting the children where they stand as individuals and a class as a

whole in their musical interests and creating further interest in other aspects of music.

With this role, musical skills that aren’t explored normally in an elementary school

classroom can be explored.


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Does the extent of musical skills a learner can achieve lie within the standards

given to an elementary school educator? These skills, including the use of the diatonic

scales and common time meters, are taught commonly in elementary school music

classrooms. However, there are other aspects of musicality that aren’t explored through

this outlook. There may be a reason to say that learners could develop further musical

skills than what has been presented for them. The difficulty may lie with continuing

engagement through teaching advanced musical skills. Research presented further on

in this paper show that the way information is presented may dictate what can be

taught.

It would be helpful to define musicality and what development occurs from this.

From Bamberger’s article ​What develops in musical development,​ development is

defined as “transformations that occur over time in how individuals organize their

perceptions and the strategies they bring to bear in constructing their understanding of

the world around them.” (​Bamberger​, 2006). From this definition, it is clear that yes,

understanding a skill or topic fully will include time, however, it doesn’t give any

specifics on what information can be taught. In the context of developing musicality,

development is shown by growing a stronger sensitivity to music, which is the altering of

music meaning through scores and an individual’s understanding of them.

With this idea of musicality from Bramberger, D. J. Levitin defines musicality in a

very physical standpoint. That is to say, musicality is the amount of gray matter in the

brain that reacts to music. To him, there are multiple ways of being musical based on
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where the gray matter is located, and separate parts of the brain process different types

of musicality including the act of playing an instrument to the process of writing about or

choreographing to music. Physically, the musical brain matter is not developed in early

childhood, but the act of introducing young children to multiple genres of music before

their area of proficiency is brought to light is considered ideal for their interest

development. This interest and love for music sparks dopamine receptors in the brain

and can create passion for learning music further on in life. The way in which children

experience music early in their lives determine which strength of musicality the learner

will have. In Levitin’s definition, it is impossible for anyone to be lacking in musicality

entirely, however, there can always be room for improvement in an individual’s area of

strength which is where a teacher enters.

How does a teacher play into developing musicality. Welch explores this idea

through his emphasis on the process of discovering who learners are as individuals and

as a group before approaching what can be taught (Welch, 2006). This prevents having

a set course curriculum or traditions in a classroom, which can be a downside to being

an educator. However, it can create greater passion with the course material when the

learners and the class as a whole specifically shape a course. Individuals’ musical

understanding being shaped by their home life before elementary school as a whole will

also come into play when designing course schedules for an elementary school year.

Elementary school students learn the most about music the most from their home

life before a child enters elementary school. It becomes the role of the teacher to

encourage parents of children to at the very least create the interest in multiple genres
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of music to help elementary aged children to become well rounded and well-informed

musicians. Along with listening to various types of music, it becomes important to use

what they like through singing and practicing what they are exploring. Doxey and

Wright’s ​An exploratory study of children’s music ability​ repeats this concept by

explaining how a learner’s musical emphasis is developed even before entering a music

classroom (Doxey & Wright, 1990).

How can an individual’s musical area of strength be explored? Swanwick in

Musical development theories Revisited​ opens up this methodological based question

encourages that each learner is met half-way. Learners all experience their own

culture’s music before the music they hear in elementary music. The point Swanwick

brought to light was to use the music that learners already enjoy and incorporate it into

skills they could develop (Swanwick, 2001). This shows that learners are capable of

knowing a skill but not having experience with terminology or playing it themselves. An

example of facilitating this understanding comes from allowing learners to explain

themselves in ways separate from staff notation. Learners are to be encouraged to use

their own symbols and notation and can then bring that into staff notation.

The form of education that occurs now centers around the western practice of

classical music specifically. This means that as a standard, diatonic scales and specific

solfege are taught before most other things because those are what learners will retain

at first. Trainor and Trehub’s ​Key membership and implied harmony in western tonal

music: Developmental perspectives​ present the idea that even though younger children

have greater musical potential, the easiest way to teach western classical music is to
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introduce the basic solfege piece by piece and the common time meters (Trainor &

Trehub, 1994). While this is effective to interest future music majors at a young age, it

ignores music from other countries and also music that they had grown up at home with.

It truly alienates musicians that won’t have any need to study Beethoven further.

Continuing through becoming musically skillful without staff notation, Mills and

McPherson wrote on how becoming musical is somewhat similar to “speaking music” or

being musically literate (Mills & McPherson, 2006). These two don’t include solely staff

notation understanding, similar to Levitin previously, but can also include remembering

music or knowing the history behind a piece with great detail. Ways in which these two

educators look at facilitating education includes playing games and practicing ways in

which to strengthen both staff notation understanding and aural aspects of music

creation and understanding. The only preventative measure of introducing musical skills

is that an enjoyment and engagement with a new skill like a new scale needs to exist

before staff notation can be brought into play, once again bringing individuals rather

than courses as a whole into the light. This means that all that is needed for an

educational experience is interest and passion with the topic.

Elementary school music education is currently western-centered and

non-individually based. But it can be seen throughout all of these articles, in order to

begin to teach a group of elementary-aged learners, they must first be understood as

individuals with varying musical strengths and weaknesses. Whatever they have

interest in can even be connected to the standards given to them loosely. The idea is to

bring more learners into the world of music regardless of them becoming music majors
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in the future, and treating elementary school students like individuals and approaching

their mental development and musical strengths is the way to engage these learners in

music. Unfortunately, but inspirationally, the only way to find what works for each

individual is to constantly approach individuals and practice these ideas as an educator

every day.
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Works Cited

Bamberger, J. (1991). ​The mind behind the musical ear: How children develop musical

intelligence.​ Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bamberger, J. (2006). What develops in musical development? In G. McPherson (Ed.),

The Child as Musician: A handbook of musical Development​ (pp.69-91). Oxford,

NY: Oxford University Press.

Doxey, C., & Wright, C. (1990). An exploratory study of children’s music ability. ​Early

Childhood Research Quarterly,​ 5, 425-440.

Levitin, D. J. (2012). What does it mean to be musical? ​Neuron,​ 73(4), 633-637.

Mills, J., & McPherson, G. E. (2006). Musical Literacy in G. McPherson (Ed.), ​The Child

as Musician: A Handbook of musical Development (​ pp.255-171). Oxford

University Press.

Swanwick, K. (2001). Musical development theories Revisited. ​Music Education

Research,​ 3(2), 227-242.

Trainor, L. J., & Trehub, S. E. (1994). Key membership and implied harmony in western

tonal music: Developmental perspectives. ​Perception and Psychophysics,​ 56(2),

125-132.

Welch, G. F. (2006). The musical development and education of young children. In B.

Spodek & O. N. Saracho (Eds.), ​Handbook of research on the education of

young children​ (pp. 251-267). London: Routledge.