By the time they reach the age of five, children know their mother tongue, are able to use a spoon and a fork and can safely cross the street where there are traffic lights. Nothing prevents them from singing as well as they speak – in many non-European cultures the fact that children sing, play an instrument and participate in the process of music creation is a norm . However, we should not expect children to sing songs intended for adults.
If our children can’t or don’t want to sing, we should think how often we used to sing when they were small – in their presence, them and “to them” – in comparison with how much we talked to them, how many times they crossed the street with us etc.
A child “enters” the culture of the environment in which he or she lives, acquires it and finds his or her own forms of expression. Children observe and imitate us. In order for music to become one of well-mastered ways of communication, children must be surrounded by music.
Learning the first song
Within the framework of the Harvard Project Zero – an extensive research programme concerning numerous aspects of human development – a small group of children was systematically observed, starting from the moment when children reached the age of two until the end of the pre-school period. During the whole period, researchers used to sing children several “model songs for children” [2, 3]. Their observations include the following:
– Between the 12th and the 18th month children experiment with different pitches of sounds they produce. After that period, children start producing sounds which have a specific (invariable, not fluctuating) pitch, they start singing their own “spontaneous songs”, and a little bit later, they start recognizing songs sung by adults.
– When they were 28 months old, children tried to rhythmically repeat the words of a song, a month later researchers noticed that children tried to sing a model song - they mastered short melodic structures composed of several sounds taken from a song – but only those which were very similar to motifs from their “spontaneous songs”.
– It was observed that three-year olds are able to sing a song in a draft, not very precise way.
– Children at the age of four and a half were able to learn the words of a song and they identified musical phrases by referring them to thematic boundaries of a text; they also mastered melodic contours, although not all of them; they did not always sing in tune.
– In the next year of their lives children learned how to single out music pulse in its rhythm; they were more often able to sing in the key.
According to the authors, at the age of five and a half, children distinguish their own songs from the songs sung to them by others. Songs sung by 2-, 3- and 4-year olds were limited by their performance abilities rather than by imperfect hearing.
A control group involved in the research was composed of adults (students). They learned songs faster, but they made mistakes similar to those made by children, although song fragments were much longer than in the case of children, the song was more often in the key. Adults visibly used their gained experience. As the authors conclude, children at the age of five to five and a half “constructed a song”, while adults already knew many songs and simply learned a new one.
The natural development of skills at the school age
Since the beginnings of modern psychology, researchers have been interested in the development of musical abilities and skills. Research results are summarized in the Polish edition of Rosamund Shuter-Dyson and Clive Gabriel’s monograph . School students improve their results in music ability and music skill tests with age, during their first school years, they start to consciously distinguish tonal music from modern atonal music, on the threshold of their adolescence, they improve their sense of rhythm and their ability to move along with the pulse, later they develop the sense of harmony (compliance or non-compliance of chords with conventions used in music). The development of a musical taste is connected with the development of the ability to talk about music and to describe it using words. Obviously, music classes at school – during which students first listen and sing, and later familiarize themselves with terminology, and the material is adapted to their age and performance abilities – can significantly accelerate these processes. The lack of classes may lead to the loss of what has been acquired and developed in the previous period. We should not forget, however, that simple songs were written for everybody and thus the great majority of people can learn to sing!
 Sloboda, J. A., Davidson, J., and Howe, M. J. A. (1994) Is everyone musical? The Psychologist, 7.7, 349-354.
 Davidson, L., McKernon, P., Gardner, H.: The acquisition of song: a developmental approach. Typescript. Harvard Project Zero and Boston Veterans Administration Hospital. Cambridge Mass. 1979.
 Anderson, J. Dianne: Children’s song acquisition. An examination of current research and theories. Visions of Research in Music Education 16(2) Autumn 2010. Original publication in: The Quarterly, 2(4) Winter 1991, 42-29.
 Shuter-Dyson, R. Gabriel, C: Psychologia uzdolnienia muzycznego (translated by Ewa Głowacka and Kacper Miklaszewski from the English version entitled "The Psychology of Musical Ability” ), Warsaw 1986, WSiP.
Kacper Miklaszewski (born in 1949) – was awarded an MA in Piano at the Rimski-Korsakov Conservatory in Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) (1974), he also studied at the Music School, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 1984, he got a PhD in the theory of music from the Chopin Academy of Music (currently Fryderyk Chopin University of Music) in Warsaw. In 2000-2010, he lectured on the basics of the psychology of music and he conducted a seminar on music criticism at the Institute of Musicology of the University of Warsaw. He is a musical journalist working inter alia for a music journal “Ruch Muzyczny” and for Program II Polskiego Radia (Polish radio channel).