30 October 2012
Knowledge regarding children’s ability to perceive changes in Western harmony is continuously developing. It is still becoming clear exactly how and when a child begins to demonstrate harmonic knowledge. In Jourdain’s book, Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy published in 1997, an approximate timeline is given for the development of harmonic perception in children. Jourdain states that, prior to age five, a child has little sense of harmonic relations. Children become sensitive to key membership (the notes belonging to a particular key) at age 5, but lack any sense of consonance and dissonance relative to other keys (Jourdain, 112). Therefore, they do not yet process harmonic chords and chord progressions. Recently, a study by Trainor and Corrigall (2010) has found that children as early as 4 years old display some knowledge of Western harmony, and it is possible that an ability to perceive Western harmony could begin to develop even earlier.
Researchers seem to agree that harmonic perception is one of the latest musical skills to fully develop (Jourdain, 257; Corrigall, 195). This is because it is significantly more difficult to detect harmony than it is to detect pitch, rhythm, amplitude, metre, or phrasing. Increasing ability to perceive harmony involves both the ability to predict how chords might appear in sequence and the hierarchy of stability (Corrigall, 195) of particular chords within a key. For example, the ability to differentiate between tonic and dominant chords is necessary to detect a cadence at the end of a piece. It is believed that a general ability can be and is developed throughout childhood “through mere exposure to Western music (Corrigall, 195)”. A study by Trehub, Cohen, Thorpe, and Morrongiello (1986) found that infants could detect a change in both tonal and atonal melodies while 4 and 5 year olds could only detect a change in tonal melodies (Corrigall, 195). This would seem to suggest that already at the age of four and five, children are beginning to develop implicit knowledge of Western harmony. This is due to the fact that, as we passively experience music in our daily lives, “incoming sound is [still] extensively processed in the brain stem (Jourdain, 245)”. Our brain constantly processes sound often on a rather unconscious level. When we are actively listening to a piece of music, whether classical or popular, our brain searches for familiar devices and patterns we have previously experienced in order to anticipate the next note or harmony in a piece of music (Jourdain, 246). This knowledge develops as we get older so that “adults with no musical training have extensive implicit knowledge of Western harmony (Schellenberg, 553).”
In 1994, Trainor andTrehub tested children ages five and seven as well as adults on their ability to detect a change in a 10-note melody presented repeatedly in transposition (Schellenberg, 553). This study was intended to test the various age groups’ sensitivity to implied harmony since different notes within a melody imply specific harmonies (Corrigall, 196). Therefore, the test included two different types of stimuli, changed notes not part of the implied harmony and changed notes part of the implied harmony. The test discovered that adults were faster to detect a note change in the melody if the note was not part of the implied harmony. Seven year olds responded similarly to the adults. This seems to suggest knowledge of implied harmony for seven year olds, however five year olds did not respond. These findings are in line with Jourdain’s statement that,
[although] young children can detect key changes, they lack all sense of near and far keys – that is, of relative consonance and dissonance. This understanding does not set in until seven or eight (Jourdain, 112).
However, if tests are simplified, it becomes apparent that children younger than seven are influenced by harmonic changes. For example, Schellenberg, Bigand, Poulin-Charronnat, Garnier, and Stevens (2005) discovered that six year olds respond faster in identifying timbre in the last chord of a harmonic progression when the progression follows Western harmonic rules by ending on the tonic chord. This does not demonstrate a verbal understanding of what tonic means, but it does prove that six year olds have already developed a preference for the tonic chord simply by being exposed to Western music.
Furthermore, Costa-Giomi (1994) proved that five year olds are able perceive changes between tonic and first inversion dominant seventh chords as well as tonic and subtonic chords in an unfamiliar piece of music. The test presented both four year olds and five year olds with four different stimuli: En la torre (containing I & V) presented with just the accompanying chords or the melody with the accompanying chords and Drunken Sailor (containing i & VII) presented with accompanying chords or the melody with accompanying chords. The results showed that neither five nor four year olds were able to discriminate between chords when the melody and harmonies were played at the same time, but five year olds could perceive harmonic changes when just the chords were played apart from the melody (Costa-Giomi, 77).
So far, an increase in harmonic perception for five year olds has been shown. Corrigall and Trainor (2010) take this a step further in their discovery that even four year olds are sensitive to harmony in a familiar piece, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Children used hand- held happy and sad face signs to show whether a puppet played the excerpt correctly or incorrectly. The children were tested on three deviants: out-of-key, in key out-of-harmony, and in-key and within harmony. For example, in playing the melody, out-of-harmony deviants ended the piece on C# and within harmony deviants ended on F#. Similarily, when the melody was accompanied by chords, out-of-key deviants ended on a d minor chord and out-of-harmony deviants ended on a G major chord. The results showed that both four year olds and five year olds detected out-of harmony deviants. The difference in development was that while five year olds could detect out-of-harmony deviants when only the chordal accompaniment of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star was presented, four year olds needed both the melody and chords to detect out-of harmony deviants.
These results correspond with Trainor and Trehub’s 1994 study stating that both adults and seven-year olds are faster to detect out-of-harmony deviants than in-harmony deviants. Through Corrigall and Trainor’s study, it is possible to observe that five year olds also have the ability to detect out-of-harmony deviants when the piece is familiar. In addition, four year olds have the ability to detect out-of-harmony deviants when presented with both the melody and the chords to a familiar piece. It is interesting to compare this to Costa-Giomi’s 1994 trial of the same age group where the students were presented three 15 minute harmony training sessions and still did not perform well during the test. This would seem to suggest that harmonic perception in four and five year olds largely depends on the familiarity of the music. In conclusion, Corrigall and Trainor’s study proves that children do have some level of harmonic perception earlier than what has previously been considered, and tests could be developed to detect smaller amounts of harmonic perception at an earlier age.
Corrigall, Kathleen A. and Laurel J. Trainor. "Musical Enculturation in Preschool Children: Acquisition of Key and Harmonic Knowledge." Music Perception 28, no. 2 (2010): 195-200. http://search.proquest.com/docview/858125331?accountid=14771.
Costa-Giomi, Eugenia. “Recognition of Chord Changes by 4- and 5-Year-Old American and Argentine Children.” Journal of Research in Music Education 42, no. 1 (Spring, 1994): 68-85. http://www.jstor.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/stable/3345338
Jourdain, Robert. Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1997.
Schellenberg, Glenn E., Bigand, Emmanuel, Poulin-Charronnat, Benedicte, Garnier, Cécilia and Catherine Stevens. “Children's implicit knowledge of harmony in Western music.” Developmental science 8, no.6 (2005): 551-566. http://journals2.scholarsportal.info.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/tmp/6035240536070998679.pdf