Ella Mae sings “An American Trilogy” by Elvis Presley – YOUTUBE video
This is a five-and-a-half minute YouTube video posted on July 2013, with more than 7 million views. The clip shows Ella Mae, a 20 month-old girl, singing Elvis Presley's version of 'An American Trilogy' in the back seat of her dad's car.
To capture the performance, Ella´s father set up a camera on the back seat and focused it on the toddler's rear-facing car seat. Throughout the video Ella tries to keep the interaction with her father, calling “daddy” before and during her cover song, while enthusiastically raising her both arms, as he frequently answers her back.
During her rendition, Ella tries to sing, mimicking the pitch and melodic contour of the song, even though she is not old enough to pronounce some of the words. She also bobs her head and hand to the exact beat, demonstrating great timing. At minute 4:20 to 4:37 Ella surprisingly reveals herself as an orchestra conductor.
Nevertheless, the most interesting scene is the way she conveys emotions while singing the song´s chorus, through stirring facial expressions and movements. In those moments she is totally absorbed by music, truly enjoying and feeling it, without any need to interact with her daddy. This is Ella Mae entertaining us and capturing our attention and admiration!
The first fact that I noticed is how happy Ella feels in her father´s car. It seems to be an intimate father-daughter relationship, favoring a caring and encouraging context for learning and development. And listening is learning! When children are exposed to music, even passive listening to music (like in the car), they incorporate an implicit knowledge of tonality, rhythmic form and musical structure of their own culture. As we can see in the video, when the music starts to play, it appears to be that Ella is already familiar with Elvis´ repertoire, as a result of being exposed to her father´s musical selection and preferences. It is noteworthy that music has an impact even before the child is born. Some studies indicate that fetuses can hear and react to sound by moving (1, 2).
Ella is a 20 month old toddler who is developing in a variety of domains, including music. While listening to Elvis’ song, she uses her singing voice, elongating vowels in a musical way, and moves her hand rhythmically as a conductor. Sometimes, when the music is more arousing and emotional, Ella shows facial expression of pure enjoyment and pleasure.
According to Robert Jourdain (3), melodic contour is child´s first musical competence. The author further outlines that “the child will repeat the same melodic figure again and again, holding its overall contour, but distorting the intervals between tones by stretching them wide during one repetition, then flattening them the next”. In the second year of life, infants´ melodies are unstable as toddlers lack strong understanding of the individual tones that constitute melodies. Consequently, they have difficulties in reproducing melodies. First children need to learn how to isolate sounds, make categorizations and perceive distinct pitches.
At the perception level, Gestalt principles determine that music´s features are analyzed and grouped according to their similarity, proximity, good continuation, and common fate, in order to create a coherent and meaningful “sound object” (i.e., a mental representation of physical sound). On the other hand, there is also a Top-down processing in which the perception can be modulated by listener´s experience, knowledge, intentions and selective attention in interaction with the listening context (4).
How can we explain Ella´s facial expressions of musical enjoyment while singing?
First, we can ponder that those behaviors could have been learned previously by watching and imitating Elvis. Second, this song was familiar to Ella; and studies suggest that familiarity with a particular piece of music increases subject´s liking for it (5). By actively listening to familiar songs, episodic memory evokes what has been storage and expectation rises. As mentioned by Robert Jourdain, the listener “awaits the exact replication of the song, its exact notes and exact beats. Music generates emotion by setting up anticipations and then fulfilling them. Pleasure is the fulfillment of anticipation”. Ella Mae knew the song and could predict what followed in the music, resulting in anticipatory arousal.
In conclusion, children are born with innate musical abilities (6, 7), but infant musicality will be further developed through parental musical involvement and encouragement. Music activities in infancy are very important to baby´s brain as it will develop other domains as language, abstract thought and working memory system.
(1) S. N. Graven and J.V. Browne, Sensory development in the fetus, neonate and infant: introduction and overview. Newborn and Infant Nursing Reviews, 8 (2008) 169-172
(3) R. Jourdain, “Music, The Brain, And Ecstacy: How Music Captures Our Imagination”, Harper Perennial, New York, NY, (1997)
(4) C. Alain and L. J. Bernstein, From sounds to meaning: the role of attention during auditory scene analysis, Current Opinion in Otolaryngology & Head & Neck Surgery, 16 (2008) 485-489
(5) I. Peretz, D. Gaudreau, A.M. Bonnel, Exposure effects on music preference and recognition, Memory and Cognition, 26 (1998) 884-902
(6) S. E. Trehub, Musical predispositions in infancy. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 930 (2001) 1-16.
(7) L. Gooding, and J.M. Standley, Musical Development and Learning Characteristics of Students: A Compilation of Key Points From the Research Literature Organized by Age, Applications of Research in Music Education, 30 (2011) 32-45