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Children’s invented notions of rhythms

What is your earliest musical memory? How has it formed your creativite impulse? Jeanne Bamberger’s research focuses on cognitive aspects of music perception, learning, and development, so when it came to reviewing her work, she thought of her own earliest musical experiences. The following is an adapted extract from Discovering the musical mind: A view of creativity as learning by Jeanne Bamberger.

My piano studies began at the age of 4 or 5 with the neighborhood music teacher, Miss Margaret Carlson. It was only sometime later that I learned that Miss Carlson had been a student of Jacque Dalcroze in Geneva, Switzerland. With this news, I recognized that Miss Carlson’s Dalcroze studies had actually formed the background for our piano lessons and also the Saturday morning visits to her house where I, along with her other neighborhood piano students, participated in group Eurythmics lessons. I now realize that it was through these Eurythmics sessions that I first experienced an aspect of music that has strongly influenced my whole musical development and, more recently, the direction of my research. It was the experience of participating in actively shaping musical time by expressing through movement, the motion of a phrase as it evolved towards its goals.

Much later, as a teenager, I was a student of Artur Schnabel, and looking back I can now see that these two widely separated studies had surprising and important aspects in common. Schnabel’s teaching, like his playing, also focused intensely on the motion of the phrase as it makes and shapes time. He told us, ‘Practicing should be experiment, not drill,’ and experiment meant primarily experimenting with possible structural groupings — possible moments of arrival and departure of a melody line and how best to project these structural gestures as we made them into sound moving through time.

After an excursion into philosophy, and still later, in my studies with Roger Sessions, shaping time was again an important focus. But now, it was the hierarchy of such structures along with just how the composer had generated these nested levels of organized motion. As he said, we must pay attention to the ‘details and the large design’ as each creates and informs the other.

Looking back, I see more clearly that these earlier and later musical experiences and the associated academic studies were the germinal seeds from which my present interests have grown. Without them, I think I would have failed to notice the intriguing puzzles and the often hidden clues that children give us concerning what they are attending to in listening to or clapping even a simple rhythm, or following a familiar melody. For it is eminently clear that a feeling for the motion of a phrase, its boundaries, and its goals along with its inner motion, the motive or figure, are the natural, and spontaneous aspects of even very young children’s musical experience. Indeed, I find that it is the continuing development of these early intuitions (the capacity for parsing a continuous musical ‘line’) that nourishes the artistry of mature musical performance, as well — the performer’s ability to hear and project the directed motion of a phrase and the relationships among phrases as the ‘large design’ unfolds in time.

Preschooler music class

With all this in mind, I went back to revisit the children’s invented notations for simple rhythms and melodies that I had collected back in the 1970’s. Going through the old cardboard box in which I had stored some two hundred children’s drawings, I found myself intrigued and puzzled all over again. I saw in the drawings the centrality of the children’s efforts to capture movement and gesture, but there was another aspect as well. Looking at one drawing after another, I marveled at how and why the children, like philosophers, scientists, and musicians, have continued to work at finding means with which to turn the continuous flow of our actions — clapping a rhythm, bouncing a ball, swinging on the park swing — into static, discrete marks on paper that hold still to be looked at ‘out there.’

The children’s invented notations helped me to see the evolution of learning and the complexity of conceptual work that is involved in this pursuit. Looking at the children’s inventions, I saw that this complexity sometimes emerges in comparing one child’s work with that of another’s. And sometimes complexity can be seen by watching one child as from moment-to-moment she transforms for herself the very meaning of the phenomena with which she is working. Caught on the wing of invention, the notations mirror in their making the process through which learning and the silence of perception can be made visible. The inventions become objects of reflection and inquiry for both child and teacher as together they learn from one another.

But this very reflection reveals a critical paradox. Christopher Hasty in his book Meter as rhythm, makes the paradox poignantly clear:

As something experienced, rhythm shares the irreducibility and the unrepeatability of experience…when it is past, the rhythmic event cannot be again made present…Rhythm is in this way evanescent: it can be ‘grasped’ but not held fast. (Hasty, 1997, p.12)

The paradox also helps us recognize that the serious study of children’s spontaneous productions requires taking a bold step: In order to understand another’s sense-making, we must learn to question our own belief systems, to interrogate and make evident the deeply internalized assumptions with which we make the musical sense that we too easily think is ‘just there.’

The task of reflection thus becomes one that is mutual and reciprocal between teacher and student. It follows that the most evocative situations, the most productive research questions, often occur during passing moments of learning in the real life of the classroom or the music studio. It is noticing and holding fast these fleeting moments that arise unexpectedly, puzzling events caught on-the-fly, that teaching and research, instead of being separate and different kinds of enterprises, become a single, mutually informing one.

Jeanne Bamberger is Emerita Professor of Music and Urban Education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she taught music theory and music cognition. She is currently Visiting Scholar in the Music Department at UC-Berkeley. Bamberger’s research focuses on cognitive aspects of music perception, learning, and development. She is the author of Discovering the Musical Mind: A view of creativity as learning.

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Image credit: Image via iStockphoto.

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