Can young children differentiate between random and patterned sounds?
I am once again reflecting on one of the questions appearing on the website’s homepage. This one might appear to be best suited for an expert in language development. Young children readily imitate language patterns thereby demonstrating an ability to discern patterns in the sounds they hear. Yet, it has become clear to me their music-making behavior also affirms young children’s “expert” ability to differentiate and conceptualize sound patterns. Indeed, interactions with either language or music rely on skills for distinguishing and performing patterned sounds.
I have spent many years observing young children in the act of recognizing and performing conspicuous patterns in music. This capacity is most evident through songs, the medium of human expression where words and music play together in joyful synchronicity. Leading young children in casual, classroom song performances has helped me realize how language and music work together in early development.
Songs are a powerful medium for young children for various reasons. An important one that may not be immediately obvious is that when children are performing songs, they are not encumbered with the necessity to describe, explain or request. Songs are an important part of the “poetic life” of young children which I commented on in a previous post: when engaged in singing, children are free to contribute according to their desires and abilities with no negative consequences. Vocalizing wrong words, incomplete phrases or not at all are frequent occurrences for young children in group singing. In song, word sounds and word patterns offer children a way to use emerging language skills in a playful way.
The fact that songs place a greater emphasis on the rhythm of language seems to assure the fun. To further accentuate the rhythmic nature of words in a song, I always offer children (2-5 years) the opportunity to use rhythm instruments (drums, maracas, tambourines, etc.). We then play the “Game of Music,” a fun approach to music-making that emphasizes patterns that are at once musical, rhythmic and linguistic.
(I have elaborated on the “Game of Music” in an article available at http://www.naeyc.org/yc/node/267)
Here are two indications that young children have functional skills for recognizing patterned sounds:
1) Children with emerging verbal skills who have not yet mastered the words of a particular song will spontaneously invent words to fit a musical phrase – which in essence is a sound pattern. When children do this they are usually very accurate with the rhythmic execution of their invented word patterns. This suggests that although they did not hear or know the actual words, they still internalized the musical pattern that the words were attached to. (The musical quality in language is known as prosody. I do not know of a special term for the linguistic quality that helps drive the musical energy in a song. Over the years, I have referred to this phenomenon as “Word-rhythms.”)
2) Some children are less verbal yet are still attracted to hands-on music-making and will often perform rhythmic word patterns by either clapping or playing a rhythm instrument (drum, maracas, tambourines, etc.) even without vocalizing the words. I have witnessed many times how a young child’s performance on a rhythm instrument actually becomes a screen for projecting her perception of the words even though she is not a “talker.” Although performance proficiency with instruments is usually less than perfect (due to the normal pace of muscle development), close observation reveals that children’s execution of “Word-rhythms” can be relatively accurate. This strongly suggests that young children can recognize specific sound patterns created by the words in a song.
A well known tenet of Jean Piaget says that critical early stages in intellectual development occur when young children internalize environmental structures. However, he made no reference to the significance of auditory structures found in music. Through my work as an early childhood music specialist, I see how young children internalize music patterns in equal measure to language, visual or behavioral patterns. Word-rhythm patterns in songs are FUN to perform, stimulate learning and help children achieve important developmental goals.