Music Experience in Early Childhood: Potential for Emotion Knowledge?
Most cultures carry an idea of music being connected to emotion. New research suggests that we may also acquire emotion knowledge from our music experiences. This article investigates music experience as a mediating tool for emotion knowledge in early childhood, as revealed through qualitative interviews of adults. The interviewees describe music experiences from their early childhood or adult experiences together with young children. They also reflect upon the experiences, relating them to emotion knowledge and early childhood learning cultures. Thus, the article has a hermeneutic-phenomenological approach, and the analysis is mainly a content analysis. The results are discussed in relation to learning and learning cultures, but also in relation to music therapy and emotion psychology. The article reveals implications for early childhood learning cultures in pointing towards the importance of the relationship between caregiver and child, and of music as a mediating tool for emotion availability and interaction.
KeywordsMusic experienceEmotion knowledgeEarly childhoodLearning culturesEducationInterviews
La plupart des cultures relaient l’idée que la musique est liée à l’émotion. De nouvelles recherches suggèrent que notre savoir émotionnel pourrait aussi s’acquérir à partir de nos expériences musicales. Cet article explore l’expérience musicale en tant qu’outil de médiation du savoir émotionnel dans la petite enfance, à travers des entretiens qualitatifs réalisés auprès d’adultes. Les personnes interrogées décrivent leurs expériences musicales en tant qu’enfants, ou en tant qu’adultes avec de jeunes enfants. Ces personnes font aussi part de leurs réflexions sur ces expériences, en relation avec le savoir émotionnel et les cultures d’apprentissage enfantines. De fait, cet article adopte une approche phénoménologico-herméneutique et l’analyse est principalement une analyse de contenu. Les résultats sont examinés en relation à l’apprentissage et aux cultures de l’apprentissage, mais aussi à la musicothérapie et à la psychologie des émotions. Cet article révèle ainsi une série d’implications pour les cultures de l’apprentissage infantiles, soulignant à la fois l’importance de la relation entre l’enfant et les personnes qui s’en occupent et le rôle de la musique en tant qu’outil médiateur pour la disponibilité et les interactions émotionnelles.
En la mayoría de las culturas se mantiene la idea de que la música está conectada a la emoción. Nuevas investigaciones sugieren que también podemos adquirir conocimiento emocional desde nuestras experiencias musicales. Este artículo investiga la experiencia musical como una herramienta de mediación para el conocimiento emocional en la infancia temprana, como se reveló a través de entrevistas cualitativas con adultos. Estas entrevistas describen las experiencias musicales desde sus experiencias de infancia temprana o como adultos, junto con los niños pequeños. También se reflejan a través de las experiencias, relacionándolas a un conocimiento emocional y a culturas de aprendizaje de infancia temprana. Así, el artículo tiene un acercamiento hermenéutico-fenomenológico, y el análisis es en su mayoría un análisis de contenidos. El resultado es discutido en relación al aprendizaje y a las culturas de aprendizaje, pero también en relación a la terapia musical y la psicología emocional. El artículo reveló implicancias en las culturas de aprendizaje de la infancia temprana, apuntando hacia la importancia de la relación entre el cuidador y el niño, y de la música como una herramienta de mediación para la apertura emocional y la interacción.
The main reason behind most people’s engagement with music is probably some sort of emotional experience (Juslin and Sloboda 2001a). For a long time, music has also been considered to help develop human personality (see Aristotle’s Politica and Plato’s The Republic). Nielsen (1994) claims that music may strengthen both the possibilities for having differentiated emotions and the ability to express them (ibid, p. 69). Gardner (1985) writes that music can be seen “as a way of capturing feelings, knowledge about feelings, or knowledge about the form of feeling” (ibid, p. 124), and according to Reimer (2005) “the claim about music (and music education) as an education of feeling can now be made” (ibid, p. 93).
Can music experience be considered to be a mediating tool for emotion knowledge in early childhood? If so, what kind of emotion knowledge is revealed, and what learning cultures may encourage such knowledge?
The analysis is based on individual interviews of adults discussing music and emotion. The interviews reveal descriptions of, and reflections upon, the interviewee’s own early childhood and their pupil’s, children’s or grandchildren’s early childhoods. Thus, the article has a hermeneutic-phenomenological approach, and the analysis can be called a content analysis. However, some discursive elements did appear, particularly in the investigation of learning cultures. Being part of a larger project on music experience as a mediating tool for emotion knowledge (Vist 2009a, b, 2011a, b), this is the first article to present and relate the interview material to the learning cultures of early childhood, as well as discussing findings on early childhood in relation to some aspects of self theory, emotional intelligence theory, cognitive music psychology, communicative musicality and humanistic music therapy.
It is not the work of art, but the individual and contextual experience of art/music that is the focus of attention here. Wertsch (1991) says that: “Only by being part of action do mediational means come into being and play their role. They have no magical power in and of themselves” (ibid, p. 119). “Music alone” will not suffice; we need to include an experiencing human being (Vist 2008), with both body and mind (Johnson 1990). Music experience can include peak experiences (Gabrielsson 2001; Maslow 1987), aesthetic experiences with music (Reimer 1989, 2005; Dewey 1980) and music experiences in everyday life (DeNora 2001, 2002). It is not limited to any particular genre, and can include various activities such as listening, playing, singing, composing or dancing.
Most of us are raised in learning cultures that separate experience and learning from context (Hodkinson et al. 2008). I support Ruud (2010) when he claims that the way we experience music, and the way it influences us, depends on the context, our background and the music chosen. Hence, the music, the person and the situation interact in a mutual relationship. This also takes us closer to the concept of communicative musicality, which was originally formulated in terms of the parameters pulse, quality and narrative, but focusing on communicative and relational aspects of music experience, and understood as the musicality in human communication through voice, gesture and movement (Malloch 1999).
A Mediating Tool
The socio-cultural term mediating tool (Säljö 2004, 2006; Vygotsky 1981, 1986; Wertsch 1991) is used despite the emphasis on verbal language in this tradition. Vygotsky writes that… “the following can serve as examples of psychological tools and their complex systems: language; various systems for counting, mnemonic techniques; algebraic symbol systems; work of art; writing; (…)” (Vygotsky 1981, p. 137). According to Vygotsky, intersubjective understanding is not possible without a mediating tool. Säljö (2006) claims that the ability to act and learn primarily entails mastering something outside our bodies. This article stands closer to a phenomenological (Giorgi 1985; Van Manen 2001) and embodied (Johnson 1990; Merleau-Ponty 1986) perspective in that it seems meaningless to talk about the world outside as long as we all are living in it. Nonetheless, to notice ourselves, a “mirror” is quite helpful, whether it consists of glass, sounds or movements.
Knowledge is understood to contain theoretical knowledge, practical skills and ethical attitudes (Hanken and Johansen 1998; Vist 2009b). It is also closely related to body and action, making it clear that knowledge goes far beyond the propositional and verbal. Both music and body are relevant mediating tools for reasoning and learning (Johnson 1990, 2007). Denham et al. (2003) define emotion knowledge as one of several emotional prerequisites to social competence, more similar to emotional understanding. Garner (1999) includes expression, regulation and role-taking abilities in his definition of emotion knowledge.
In this article, emotion knowledge is a translation of the Norwegian term “følelseskunnskap” (Vist 2009b), which is intended to include any knowledge in/about feeling and emotion, tacit or conscious, intellectual or embodied, individual or social, useful or not. In earlier publications (Vist 2009b), music experience has been considered to be a mediating tool for emotion availability, consciousness, empathy, understanding, reflection, expressivity, regulation and interaction, although this list should not be seen as complete. The list also underscores that both social and individual aspects of emotions are important, “striving to bridge” the cognitive and situated/socio-cultural theoretical positions (Hodkinson et al. 2008). In this article, these connections become even stronger because of the finding’s focus on emotion availability and interaction. Availability is understood as an embodied and often pre-reflective consciousness which gives openness towards one’s own and other’s emotions (Vist 2009b). Emotion interaction is defined as emotional collaboration and influence between individuals (Vist 2009b), and covers even more socially related knowledge (incl. skills) in the emotional actions between people. In the same way, Saarni talks about “Awareness of Emotional Communication within Relationships” (Saarni 1999) as one aspect of emotional competence.
Terms such as emotion, feeling, mood and affect are used interchangeably in many languages (Nyeng 2006; Sloboda and Juslin 2001). In current English literature on music and feeling/emotion, the term emotion is the one most frequently used, and is therefore also chosen here (see Juslin and Sloboda 2010). Scherer and Zentner (2001) write that there is an increasing convergence in seeing emotions as involving components of physiological arousal, motor-expressive behaviour, subjective feeling, motivation (in the form of action tendencies) and cognition (as emotion-constituent appraisal and reappraisal). I would like to emphasize social aspects as well, in addition to a need to see emotions as changing processes rather than steady states.
Due to this project’s focus on experience and intersubjectivity, a phenomenological approach to emotions is also relevant (Nyeng 2006; Zahavi and Christensen 2003). Moreover, emotion knowledge is inspired by Stern’s (2000) theory of self, Saarni’s (1999) theory of emotional competence and the more cognitive theory of emotional intelligence by Salovey and Mayer (1990) and their successors. The interviews show that emotion knowledge can also include knowledge not mentioned in these theories, knowledge which is not useful, observable or seen as valuable in a certain learning culture. Vist (2009b) demonstrates that music experience can even be considered to increase anxiety, make us less social, more egocentric or appear to be in an almost “autistic” state.
Learning Cultures in Early Childhood
According to Hodkinson et al. (2008, p. 34), a learning culture is “a particular way to understand a learning location as a practice constituted by the actions, dispositions and interpretations of the participants”. A key task of investigating learning cultures is to understand how particular practices impact upon the learning of the participants.
Hodkinson et al. (2007) further claim a need to integrate the two sides of three common dualisms: mind–body, individual–social and structure–agency. This article will mainly focus on the integration of the individual–social dualism. Some potential for integrating both body and mind in music experiences will be disclosed shortly in the excerpt below, as aspects of the structure–agency dualism. This is because in the article’s view, learning cultures can also be seen as the result of processes of thoughts, emotions, actions and attitudes in an interacting group of people. It therefore has much in common with the concept of discourse (Winther Jørgensen and Phillips 2002), though more explicitly revealing the site and culture’s specific features in relation to learning.
In the same way, different aesthetic theories and discourses may be seen as cultures of aesthetic experiences, and thereby also as aesthetic learning cultures. If any learning culture will permit, promote, inhibit or rule out certain types of knowledge (Hodkinson et al. 2008), this will apply for aesthetic cultures as well. For instance, with higher levels of education the emphasis on aesthetic values (l’art pour l’art) seems to have decreased teachers’ awareness of the potential for emotion knowledge. In early childhood learning cultures, music is more acknowledged to enhance learning in a variety of fields (Malloch and Trevarthen 2009; Young 2011; Trehub et al. 2010; Dissanayake 2000).
The project which this article is part of has a hermeneutic-phenomenological approach, seeing experience as reality, though acknowledging that you cannot avoid interpretation, either in recalled experience or in descriptions of it (Van Manen 2001). It is based on ten semi-structured, individual interviews of five women and five men from Norway, aged 20–80, with different musical genre preferences and education level, varying from secondary school to PhD studies. The interviewees were found through a keyword search of the internet and other media or through random conversations on public transport and elsewhere. Due to limited space, this article mostly presents interview excerpts from Frida, followed by Bjørn (the only male) and Hanne (all three working in the humanistic or social sciences), Gunn (a music professional) and Janne (a housewife with secondary school).
The interviews began with a question asking whether the interviewees could describe a music experience related to emotions. The descriptive part was followed by questions such as: “Did you learn something from that experience, for instance, about emotions?” This allowed the interviewee’s reflections and interpretations of learning to emerge. For this reason, not only lived experiences, but also the knowledge gained from these experiences was considered relevant data. In educational research, the interviewee’s opinions can tell about their learning culture and what type of mediating tool music experience is considered to be in that culture.
All the interviews were conducted and transcribed by the author of this article. Due to the research question’s focus on early childhood and learning cultures, a new sequence of analysis was deemed necessary. It can be called an ideographic content analysis, inspired by van Manen’s (2001) hermeneutic-phenomenological and Giorgi’s (1985, 1989) phenomenological–psychological methods. A closer look, however, will reveal that in investigating learning cultures, small discursive tendencies appear a couple of times. Winther Jørgensen and Phillips (2002) define discourse as special ways to talk about and understand one part of reality. They claim that discourse analysis requires a critical attitude towards a culture’s habits and customs, which is highly relevant in relation to learning cultures.
Interviewing adults about their childhood appears more commonly in music psychology than in current research on early childhood (see Sloboda 2005; Juslin and Sloboda 2001b; Gabrielsson 2001; Vist 2009b). Of course, the original lack of focus on early childhood in the present interviews creates disadvantages when it comes to the amount of material and the degree to which the content covers the main aspects of the topic. One’s memory of the experience also changes over the years, although such changes may also be relevant to the learning and knowledge in question.
The music experiences described in the interviews seem to be concentrated among specific phases of life, with early childhood being one of them. Despite no focus on any particular age, the word child/-hood (barn/-dom in Norwegian) appears 174 times in the material, in all the interviews, and from 4 to 49 times. Eight (out of ten) interviewees explicitly tell about experiences related to early childhood and emotion knowledge, resulting in 30 excerpts, 19 primarily about emotion interaction, while most others are also social/relational in their character, even when describing availability. Experiences with early childhood educators and caregivers do exist, but are by far outstripped by close family relationships, whether the site is at home or elsewhere. The following results present some of these experiences and reflections, thus showing that music experience can be considered to be a mediating tool for emotion knowledge in early childhood, although some learning cultures and some aspects of emotion knowledge seem more salient than others.
From Experience to Knowledge: The Case of Frida
To demonstrate what adults can have to tell about early childhood in a transparent and coherent manner, the first excerpts are from one person in one interview, linking together the described experience, the interviewee’s interpretation of it and the reflection related to emotion knowledge in early childhood. In the discussion afterwards, previously published excerpts from other interviews will accompany the theoretical discussion to give further substance to the findings.
Frida: Neither my father nor I knew there was going to be a choir (…). They came up, they had similar coats – that I’d never seen before – and they sang two or three songs, and then I remember thinking: This is how it is in heaven (…). It is such a combined experience, I sat next to my father whom I loved above everything on earth, holding his hand, and then I see this beautiful tableau and these amazing sounds, mmm.
T: What does it recall in you now?
Frida: [sounds of sniffle] (M10)
Frida: Yes, I believe it has helped me to hold on to, and remember, an emotional availability which I have in relation to music and which opens other doors inside me than other things. (M13)
Frida: If you have been allowed to experience a family or childhood or a culture where thinking “inwardly” is as accepted as thinking of the world outside, I believe the music will create something else in that person. (M53)
In that case: Not only does music experience mediate emotion knowledge, but emotion knowledge mediates music experience as well. According to Frida, the child’s learning culture or family discourse will inflect upon the possibilities of music experience, and vice versa.
Frida: I believe the most important thing for growth, if you want to help children and others, is to give them time, let them be “in their own” [“i sitt eget” in Norwegian], both in tempo, level of experience and openness. I believe you have to be very sensitive and careful promoting this in children. (…) When I think of my grandchildren, and my strong wish that they shall get some of this, it is first and foremost to sit together with them, maybe watch or smile, but hardly say anything. (M26)
Frida: I believe it has to do with devotion. And let the others devote themselves, but not to direct too much. Because I believe that when that door opens, and if it is allowed to open many times, I think it will create an inner space for availability and susceptibility. (M27)
T: Now you are actually talking about empathy.
Frida: Mm. (…) an empathic sphere you enter.
T: Yes, but still you think music is there as a foundation, opening up?
Frida: Convinced. No doubt. In my soul. (M28)
Frida reflects upon education and care in a way that point towards important relational aspects of both emotion knowledge and music experience. This will be discussed further below.
Emotion Knowledge in Early Childhood: A Bridge towards a Discussion
In the interview, we can follow Frida from the described experience in early childhood, and her reflections upon that experience, through her descriptions as a grandmother and reflections upon them, to claims related to early childhood education and care.
Gunn: And then he said: “It is crying in those sounds”. So that’s what the little boy felt. And he said it so beautifully. “That it is crying in those sounds”. (M74) (see also Vist 2011b, p. 331).
Sloboda (2005, p. 375) confirms this by describing how specific recordings spoke to him “as no human being I knew had spoken, certainly by the age of 5”. He says that being into these pieces was about learning who he was, about self-knowledge and growth among other things.
Mayer and Salovey (1997) include the ability to stay open to feelings in their reflective regulation of emotion branch, thereby defining it as a rather advanced mental level or stage in emotional development. The ten interviews also describe this endurance of emotions, but availability is primarily understood as something you already have, which the music can help you not to lose (Vist 2009b, p. 272).
Frida also describes emotion interaction. Emotion interaction may be defined as emotional collaboration and influence between individuals (Vist 2009b), revealing how emotion knowledge can overlap with social competence. Frida talks about music as affording an ability to “blossom” that seems to be independent of age and related both to herself and her grandchild. If this “blossoming” is understood as a kind of well-being and growth, and the discourses of music afford a special space for this, it underscores the importance of “musicality in communication” with small children—or the caregivers use of their communicative musicality.
Hanne: It is this song, a special song, which makes me feel things I still can’t manage to describe. (…) and then mom could explain that they often sang this song when she was pregnant with me and until I was about 18 months. (…) and I got to hear the song, and I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. I wanted to cry. (…) I felt safe that this was a good song. (M3)
I realize more and more now that in a way, the family, the safeness I had as a child, that’s the ultimate sense of safeness, and a feeling of intimacy and community. (M4) (see also Vist 2009b, pp. 135–136)
Knowledge about feeling safe seems mediated by this special song. In addition, she has learned something about the potential qualities of intimacy and community in family relationships, partly because of the same song.
T: What did it do to your relationship with your father, would it have been different if he had not sung (…)?
Janne: You got a lot of physical contact because you sat in his armpit and in his lap, wherever you managed to get close to him.
T: Did you do that more often when he sang?
Janne: Oh yes!
T: Was it more accepted to sit in his lap when he sang?
Janne: Yes, it was, [laughter], it was time to be cozy. (…) That’s what I feel today too, time to be cozy. When I hear nice music, it is cozy. (M11) (see also Vist 2009b, p. 280)
To share affective states is the most pervasive and relevant feature of intersubjective relationships (Stern 2000). Here, the (context of) music experience also affords special opportunities for physical care and contact. The emotional interaction in the parent–infant dialogue can be seen as revealing a kind of emotional knowledge in both the parent and infant. It presents the child as contributing to the context or learning culture as an equal partner. Memories of such relationships can have a strong impact on life afterwards, helping to connect music interaction and emotion interaction, as in Frida’s transitional situation.
Because of the need for attachment, the infant is born with a sense of patterns, pulses, tone/voice and timing as well, which is perceivable in many modalities (Malloch and Trevarthen 2009; Stern 2000). Stern’s concepts of vitality affects/forms, as well as affect attunement, are especially relevant here. Vitality affects are explained as “dynamic shifts or patterned changes within ourselves or others” (Stern 2000, p. 156), while affect attunement in the parent–infant dialogue “is based on matching and sharing dynamic forms of vitality, but across different modalities” (Stern 2010, p. 42).
T: When you communicate with (your grandchild), you don’t necessarily use words, do you use sounds?
Bjørn: Yes, that’s true.
T: How is that communication, then—compared to music?
Bjørn: Then we are both performers. (M68) (see also Vist 2009b, p. 226)
In the grandfather–infant interaction both become performers, with both contributing to the experience, using forms of vitality, affect attunement and the parameters of communicative musicality as “the duet of movements and sounds between two people expressing motives and intentional states” (Stern 2010, p. 51). Thus, the music experience is revealing communicative musicality in both grandparent and child, confirming Malloch and Trevarthen’s (2009) claim that an infant is born with a capacity for intersubjectivity which affords an active and emotional participation in the communicative, musical interactions between adult and child.
Emotion Knowledge and Learning Cultures
Despite the rather cognitive inspiration from Mayer and Salovey (1997), the results point toward social and relational aspects of emotion as salient in early childhood and its learning cultures, also when talking about emotion availability. Even when listening alone, the context affords important memories of relationships. In Vist (2009b), being alone with the music is seen as one of the subcategories of the relational aspects of music experience. For further research, it may be relevant to ask what type of substitution or supplement to close relationships the music can afford or mediate.
Frida’s choir experience indicates a combined visual, aural and relational, even embodied context. Although there are excerpts in which the site is at home, at church or in kindergarten, the physical site of the music experience seems less in the forefront of the descriptions; on the other hand, close family relationships are. But Frida reflects upon education and care in a manner that is not restricted to the family. It points towards important relational aspects in many potential learning cultures. To develop sensitivity and emotion availability, she suggests a learning culture that lets the children be in their own tempo and gives them necessary time to devotion. This relates to what is described as entering “an empathic sphere”. It reveals both the importance of the relationship in the learning process and the importance of its limits. She emphasizes “not to direct too much”, thereby stressing the importance of consciousness on behalf of the adult in terms of whether or not to deliberately try to alter the child’s emotions.
Goleman (1996) present another discourse. Inspired by Salovey and Mayer’s emotional intelligence theory, Goleman also emphasizes empathy as part of emotional intelligence. However, he claims that the ability to monitor another person’s emotions is the key to the art of handling intersubjective relationships. He may have a point, although looking more discursively behind the content of his words; they seem to be pointing towards learning cultures with less of an emphasis on Frida’s “empathic sphere”. The close relationship described by Frida affords a learning culture, acknowledging the way we all “manipulate” other’s, but still underscoring the responsibility that caregivers in particular have towards (knowledge about) their own emotions and actions as well.
In the excerpts above, the intimate one-to-one context is the important one. Frida’s learning culture will meet other challenges in a context with many children per adult. Is it possible for the teachers and caregivers to give each child time enough and not try to direct too much? Could close emotional relationships between children and caregivers in nursing homes and kindergartens give as strong music experience and emotion knowledge?
This material is too small to answer such questions. Vist (2009b) describes the transcendental and strong music experience when many people are together in a huge concert hall as also mediating emotion knowledge. In both contexts, music seems to afford some special relational qualities. It might be better to ask if music experience could afford an even better potential for emotion knowledge than in today’s learning cultures at home and in educational sites.
Davies (2001) claims that “listeners must be suitably qualified if they are to be capable of detecting and appreciating music expressiveness” (ibid, p. 28). He is talking about knowing the genre, understanding whether the playing is correct, etc. What if the child has the necessary strategies to create meaning that relates the music to his/her life? What if the child is “suitably qualified” in emotions—to be capable of detecting and appreciating music’s emotional expressiveness?
According to Batt-Rawden and DeNora (2005), music’s affordances are constituted through the ways music is framed or prepared for use. If children—in kindergarten or elsewhere—are in a learning culture that encourages listening strategies focusing on structural aspects of the music, the knowledge involved will differ from a learning situation in which children are encouraged to discover moods and emotions in the music. If they are encouraged to play the correct rhythm, the knowledge will differ from a learning situation that encourages them to express their own emotions when they play.
Test (2006, p. 61) concludes her research about infant and toddler teachers transmitting their culture by saying that “Through interactions they teach their culture’s ways of defining relationships with others, and teach how to interact in ways their culture values” (ibid). Through interaction, it is then up to the teacher or caregiver to afford a learning culture that mediates emotion knowledge and which gives music a role in children’s lives.
This article investigates music experience as a mediating tool for emotion knowledge in early childhood and its learning cultures. Taking a hermeneutic-phenomenological approach, the article presents experience as reality, and the interpretations should therefore be seen as potential more than facts. The data need to be further analysed, as does the topic itself, acknowledging that it could also benefit from methods directly involving children.
Even so, the article demonstrates that interviews of adults can reveal music experiences considered to be mediating tools for emotion knowledge in early childhood. Further, that the topic and method can make it hard to prove if the knowledge is developed in early childhood or afterwards. The emotion knowledge that (from these excerpts) is most clearly present in early childhood is related to emotion availability and interaction. The results also show implications for early childhood learning cultures in pointing towards the importance of intimacy and empathy in the relationship between caregiver and child, the physical site being less important.
Experiences of good interactions are said to have many similarities with the experience of music. Hence, the interviews support Malloch and Trevarthen’s (2009) description of intersubjective communication and music experiences in early childhood. “Our musicality serves our need for companionship” (ibid, p. 6). With the concept of communicative musicality, we are not only led to see the music in infant–caregiver dialogues, but may also see a relational turn in the understanding of musicality and music experience. However, music can be a mediating tool for different types of knowledge. If we are not aware of what learning cultures we are participating in, or what they are affording our children, we may not be aware of what fields of knowledge we are inhibiting or enhancing.