How do children experience music?

    • Topic: Cognitive Development

    • Location: Discovery Center

    Even without the use of words or lyrics, music can elicit many different emotions in people. Previous research has shown that even very young chldren can identify emotions in a piece of music. We’re interested in exploring children’s ability to recognize these emotions in the context of their own experience with the music, in addition to identifying them as a characteristic of the music itself.

    In this study, children (ages 3-5 years) will be shown a series of faces, and will be asked to match the faces to different emotions. Then, they will be asked to listen to a number of short piano pieces that were written specifically to sound happy, calm, sad, or scary. After each piece, the researcher will show the child the faces again, and either ask the child which face matches how they feel, or which face matches the music they just heard.

    Previous studies have asked children to choose from a small number of emotion faces, but the differences between real facial expressions of emotions are often quite subtle. In this study, we provide children with a wider range of emotion faces, and we are interested in how this may impact their responses.

    We are particularly interested in whether young children identify emotions in a piece of music in ways similar to older children and adults. This research will help us to better understand children’s emotional experiences of music and will contribute to a broader understanding of how we experience music.

    This work is conducted at the Museum of Science, Boston by Ellen Winner and the Arts and Mind Lab at Boston College.

        » Arts and Mind Lab

    Activities to Try in the Discovery Center

    Making Music!

    On the second floor of the Discovery Center, ask a staff member to share the “Sound Box” with you and your child. There are several different instruments and sound-makers that you may use and explore with your child. Challenge your child to create and play a “happy” song using the instruments. Then, challenge him or her to play a “sad” or “angry” song. What differences do you notice between the two songs? Does your child change the instrument(s) s/he uses? Does s/he change the length of the notes or the intensity with which she plays the instruments?

    Activities to Try at Home

    Sing a Song

    At home, encourage your child to sing some common children’s songs with you (e.g. “On Top of Spaghetti”, “Old MacDonald”). After you sing each song, ask your child what emotion s/he feels when s/he hears the song. What emotion labels does s/he provide? Are they similar or different to the emotion labels you would describe feeling? Now, ask your child how s/he thinks the character in the song feels. Does s/he provide the same emotion? A different one?

    Radio Hits

    The next time you are listening to the radio with your child, ask him or her about the emotions s/he feels when hearing different songs. Do you notice any similarities between songs that make your child feel a particular emotion? Ask your child if s/he can identify why the song makes him or her feel that way. What reasoning does your child provide? For example, is your child more likely to feel “happiness” if s/he hears a fast song, or a slow song?

Research Spotlight

Contact Living Laboratory staff: