Spontaneous singing and young children’s musical agency

Dr Bronya Dean, University of Exeter

Those of us who live or work with young children will regularly hear them singing as they go about their everyday routines and activities. This singing often goes unnoticed by adults and when attention is drawn to it, many adults are surprised by how extensively young children sing. The fleeting nature of young children’s creative music-making means that it is difficult to capture. Compared to young children’s visual art that exists as a physical artefact and can be preserved as such, young children’s spontaneous music-making is often under-valued. In addition, young children’s singing and music-making can sound quite different to adult music and is easily dismissed as ‘noise’. Early childhood music education research has traditionally been dominated by developmental studies, which tend to focus on how children develop to achieve adult musical norms (e.g. see here, here, and here). Music and its meaning in the everyday lives of young children has only recently become a topic of interest and studies of young children’s musical lives at home are rare (e.g. see here, here, and here).

Inspired by my earlier Master’s study of my then-three-year-old son’s music-making, my recently-completed doctoral research explored the spontaneous singing of three- and four-year-old children at home. I chose to focus on the home setting because the home is a key location for young children’s experience of everyday musical culture but most prior research had been undertaken in education and care settings. Instead of focusing on the development of singing ability, I wanted to find out how young children make use of spontaneous singing in their everyday lives at home.

What I did

Collecting naturalistic singing data from children at home is challenging. Traditionally, researchers have relied heavily on parental reporting to collect information on young children’s musical activity. However, as a parent-researcher studying my own son for my earlier Master’s study, I realised how easy it is for a parent to overlook singing behaviours amidst the general hubbub of home life. For my PhD research, I wanted to capture all instances of singing over a continuous period in the child’s day. I explored various options and settled on the Language ENvironment Analysis (LENA) system. The LENA system was developed for the study of child language development and was in the news last year due to its use in a language development project in Auckland.  The LENA system includes a small digital recorder that fits into a pocket on a research vest that the child wears. The unit can record continuously for up to 16 hours, and because it is attached to the child, picks up all the child’s verbalisations. Using this digital audio recorder enabled me to collect an unprecedented amount of singing data.

I recorded 15 three- and four-year-old children both here in New Zealand and in the United Arab Emirates (where I was resident during the early stages of my PhD). The children were recorded at home during their normal everyday routines. I collected a total of 183 hours of audio recording. Within these recordings I identified more than nine hours of spontaneous, or child-initiated, singing, with instances of spontaneous singing collected from every one of the 15 children in the study. I analysed the data using simple quantitative methods to ascertain the extent of the singing, and qualitative methods to gain an understanding of how the children were using singing.

What I found

Using a framework of musical agency based on the work of Sidsel Karlsen and Tia DeNora and drawing on theories of children’s agency from the field of childhood studies (see also here), I found that the children in my study used singing in fairly sophisticated ways to influence themselves and others and to make sense of their place in the world. The children sang in distinctly different ways when they were alone and when they were with others. When they wished to be understood, the children sang songs they had learnt or improvised using clear lyrics. When they were alone and had no need to communicate, they tended to improvise or sing songs using nonsense words and syllables. This pattern showed children instinctively shifting between ways of singing that were understandable to others and ways of singing that were self-directed.

My interpretation of the data indicated that the children used singing as a tool of personal agency to act on themselves, and as a tool of social agency to manage social interactions. As personal musical agents, they sang to manage their experiences, manage themselves (to regulate their behaviour and emotions), and to explore self-identity. For example, the children often sang while they were carrying out parental instructions. Like self-talk, the singing seemed to help them focus on the task and perhaps remember what they had been asked to do.

As social musical agents, the children sang as a means of communication, to manage relationships and to express their identity. For example, the children often sang, rather than spoke, to communicate, and also sang to provide emphasis and to seek attention. Singing was used to facilitate cooperative play between siblings and to influence the behaviour of others.

Bronya agency diagram
The social and personal forms of musical agency identified among children in my PhD study

What does this mean for early childhood educators?

Most of the singing I recorded was improvisatory. The children drew on their prior musical experiences to use singing in ways that were useful and meaningful to them. This suggests that the development of young children’s musicality can be integrated into general early childhood practice by creating an environment in which improvisational and playful singing can take place and is valued as both a legitimate form of music-making and as a means of acting in and on the world. Early childhood educators need to be aware that improvisation is a natural part of young children’s musical play and that children are able to create and adapt songs that are fit-for-purpose. In settings where educators themselves use singing in playful ways and respond positively to children’s playful singing, children may be empowered to increasingly use singing as a tool of agency. Te Whāriki, the New Zealand early childhood curriculum, recognises the arts as a powerful tool of communication and cultural expression. Perhaps the most supportive idea for spontaneous singing in Te Whāriki is the assessment approach of noticing, recognising and responding. To support spontaneous singing in early childhood settings we need to notice it, recognise that it is music and that it is meaningful to the child, and respond in an appropriate manner.

Bronya.jpgBronya Dean is an early years music educator with experience working with young children in a range of settings along with a background in music and arts administrationHer principal research interest is the spontaneous singing and music-making of preschool children. Bronya currently teaches children’s music classes in Tauranga, tutors at the University of Waikato, and participates in a range of community music activities. 

Header image © Yoshiko Tsuruta; used by permission.


  1. A teacher I interviewed for my dissertation did a Master’s project on sing-along books for early literacy. Music is essential to the learning of children in many, often understated ways.


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