You are on page 1of 7

Word Play:

Childrens Interaction with Language Through Spontaneous Musicking

Sarah Bost

June 7, 2016


Light Ethnography Project

Its 3:00 on a sunny, breezy afternoon in mid-May, 2016; one of those perfect blue-sky

white-cloud days that is Seattles best-kept secret. Preschoolers at the Discovery School are
Word Play

seated on the stairs of the concrete playground, fueling up on snacks before their afternoon play

time. They take their final bites of graham crackersand theyre off! Speeding around the

playground, flapping their arms, shouting with glee, entering imaginary worlds just steps from

bustling urban traffic with squealing brakes, speed-walking pedestrians, city buses, and sidewalk

sweepers. A few feet from their fenced-in realm sits an ethnographer on a black iron public

bench, taking in the sounds of their play. They are making it up as they gobut what does it all



Christopher Small believes that music ought to be a verbto music is to take part, in

any capacity, in a musical performance. He coined the term musicking and defines it on a

spectrum which includes Western art music performances, which musicians tend to uphold as the

highest form of musical performance. He proposes that all activity related to music is musicking

listening, dancing, practicing, rehearsing, performing, and any humanly organized sounds

that are produced, and the space in which they are produced (1999).

The children at the Discovery School are spontaneously musicking in their natural

environment, whether they know it or not. The ethnographer knows this, and this study seeks to

explore their specific styles of musicking, to reveal themes of their musicking, and to interpret

the function of music in their lives.

Little Bits and Pieces

Word Play

Each child racing around the playground contributes to the polyphony of sounds by using

his or her innate instrument, the voice. These three- and four-year-olds seem to feel most

comfortable expressing themselves vocally through rhythmic utterances or improvised chants

(Schleuter & Schleuter, 1985), termed musical approximations by Burton (2015). The

ethnographer has recorded these musical approximations and notes that they are largely non-


A boy stands atop the playground equipment, surveying his kingdom, and repeatedly


Another boy, perhaps his friend, walks the perimeter of the playground, counting his steps with a


Kids rhythmically count each ball as they place it in a bin after a group game:

Vocally accenting beats two and four produce a rhythmic grooveonce kids get started, they

repeat their chant over and over until they find a fun distraction. One only has to wait a moment

before hearing the next improvised rhythmic snippet: a child sitting amongst a group of his peers

sneezes, and the group transforms the sound into a chant on repeat:

Word Play

A fun sound to imitate, for sure! While most of this groups musicking revolves around chants,

there was one girl who stole the show with her rendition of a sol-mi callingshe stood on the

steps as if they were her stage, holding a jacket in each hand and twirling them around her, and

she piped up:

After a bit of free play, the four teachers round up the students and explain the rules of a

four-team game. Its a race against the clock as one member from each team carries a ball and

places it in a bin, then runs back to tag their next team member in the relay. Not a musical game

by any means, but these little musicians invent rhythmic cheers (chants in spirited disguise) to

encourage their teammates. The first cheer is sounded:

When the cheering shifts to another teammate with a shorter or longer name, the rhythm of the

cheer is modified accordingly (St. John, 2006):

Speech, Rhythm, Song

Orff calls this the natural progression: children proceed from speech to rhythm to song.

Children rarely do one without pairing it with another. Any of the aforementioned musickings

Word Play

could easily be written off as meaningless without understanding the context in which they are

produced. Each preschool-aged child is a vocabulary magnet, picking up new words every day

and trying them out. Barker states, It is not enough for children just to hear language; they must

also interact with itchildren find ways to make language pleasurable and fun to speak (1982).

She calls chants heightened expressionsrhythmic arrangements of these newly learned

words. Children learn language through imitation and repetition, much like how they learn

music. These improvised chants are rhythmic interpretations of their hard-earned language

acquisitionit is their word play!

Young children lean on their ability to accurately perform vocal chants. They are still

growing, and it is difficult for children ages three and four to accurately produce clean rhythmic

content by clapping or stompingthey become accustomed to these actions by 1st and 2nd grades

(Schleuter & Schleuter, 1985).

Small asks, What is the function of music in human life? One can apply this question to

the children of the Discovery Schoolhow does music function in their lives? At least

according to this observation time period, it is the vehicle for their language practice. Children at

this age are beginning to learn syntax; in musical terms, this means they are exploring the rhythm

of words, the meter of sentences, the phrasing together of these parts of speech. They are

playing with language through music.

Indirect Influences: Setting and Activity

Setting influences childrens spontaneous musickingchildren will make music with

whatever is in their environment. If they are in a space which contains musical instruments, they

will pluck, strike, strum, and shake their way through an impromptu performance. If they find

Word Play

themselves on a playground intended for music-making (with equipment such as wind chimes,

Freenotes mallet percussion installments, various outdoor drums, etc.), then the musicking is the

priority of play. These particular preschoolers made musical offerings using only their voices,

because it was what they had where they wereit was an accompaniment to other activities.

The structured game facilitated by the teachers was a surprise activity (free play was

expected for afterschool playground time). This decision indirectly influenced childrens

musicking; without making the call to play an organized game with teams, it is doubtful that the

spirited cheers would have been created. Perhaps other rhythmickings would have arisen, but

this special flavor of chant was fortuitous. The spontaneous music conformed to the activity,

which may be the case when other activities are imposed upon children. Childrens spontaneous

music-making sprouts in the least likely places like a weed rising up through a crack in their

concrete playground.

Word Play


School name and student names have been changed.


Barker, P. (1982). Children's chants. Day Care and Early Education, 10(1), 32-35.

Burton, S. (2015). Making music mine: The development of rhythmic literacy. Music Education
Research, 1-10.

Schleuter, Stanley L., & Schleuter, Lois J. (1985). The Relationship of Grade Level and Sex
Differences to Certain Rhythmic Responses of Primary Grade Children. Journal of
Research in Music Education, 33(1), 23-29.

Small, C. (1999). Musicking the meanings of performing and listening. A lecture. Music
Education Research, 1(1), 9-22.

St. John, Patricia A. (2006). Finding and Making Meaning: Young Children as Musical
Collaborators. Psychology of Music, 34(2), 238-261.