Outside of the (Media) Box: Music and Kids' Imagination

These days we hear so much about the debate over whether too much screen time cuts into kids' ability to imagine. There's not much research about this - after all, how could you go about measuring imagination? - but it remains a hotly contested topic, nonetheless. That got me thinking about issue of children's imagination outside of the various boxes.

On a recent afternoon I was driving around somewhere and heard a fascinating segment on Boston's classical NPR station, WCRB. Host Lynnsay Maynard runs a feature on her afternoon show she calls, "What They're Saying." She goes up to a random person on the street or in Trader Joe's, plays a piece of classical music and asks the person to describe it. She tries to get their "abstract, instant response."

People go on at great length and often in great detail about the pictures they see in their heads or the associations they make with a piece of music. Usually this is in response to music they have never heard of; sometimes it's with regard to a piece written by a composer whose name they do not know. Maynard's interviewees are not necessarily the same people who listen to her show.

I called Maynard to ask her about the impetus behind this amazing segment that links music and people's imagination. "It's very isolating being on one side of the dial," she said, "so I decided to go out and ask people what they think about when they hear music."

Maynard has found that many of the people with whom she speaks talk of how music makes them think of childhood in some way. "People have very strong associations with childhood and I find that music takes them right back." She related how often, when she plays a piece of music that is "baroque and formulaic" people tell her stories. "One time I played a piece by Bach and a person said, 'this piece makes me think of having dinner at my aunt's house when I was a child. She had a lot of marble in her house and it was very regal. Just like this music."

Maynard believes that every time she runs this segment it's well received precisely because it takes so many of her listeners back to their childhood. As a child, she stated, " you're much more aware of your setting, you're into textures. I believe that music is like a sensory aspect of childhood and we associate sound with place."

It turns out that Maynard's belief is supported by research.

Professor Siu-Lan Tan teaches courses in psychology and child development at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. Her research focuses on the relationship among children, music and creativity. Tan confirmed that people's associations with music begin early, and change as children pass through different stages of development.

She points out that babies' reactions to music seem to center on movement: "Very young babies respond by slowing down and even "freezing" their movements when they hear music, especially someone singing to them. But after they are 6 months old, music often evokes a lot of movement of the body and babbling. It's like we shift naturally from a "listener" to "participant" of music."

By the time children reach early elementary school, she says, kids begin to form real pictures in their heads when they hear music. "Sometimes single images, sometimes storylines, suggested by features of the music. As they've been exposed to countless images to music in the media, and thousands of stories, no doubt this conveys their cultural repertoire. But at the same time, the drawings from child to child can be quite different."

Professor David Henry Feldman, a developmental psychologist and chair of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University, also believes that the associations children make between music and images begin to form early. "My own completely intuitive sense is that music is evolutionarily so deep that it underlies virtually every other domain, even speech. That is, music was there before speech or drawing or any other broad domain of activity." Feldman suggests that because the ways that parents speak to babies is inherently musical much of the time, that "the emotions that music would stimulate [in children] can serve as inspiration for drawing."

Dutch researchers Mark Reybrouk, Lieven Verschaffel and Sofie Lauwerier have tested this out empirically. They found that a child's developmental stage seems to matter more than the extent to which she or he had any formal musical training with regard to the types of graphical representations they make of music they hear. The results of a large study they conducted with over 400 children aged 8-13 found a "rich variety" of ways in which children spontaneously depicted music in drawings, and clear differences between the drawings and subjects of younger and older children.

Teachers know this intuitively. Laura Deutsch is a music teacher at the University of Hartford Magnet School in West Hartford, Connecticut. She is also my aunt, and for years we have spoken about the many creative ways that she tries to connect music with other art forms in her classroom. Deutsch regularly has her elementary school students "draw the music." She picks pieces she thinks are "very descriptive," like Debussy's "L'après-midi d'un faune" or Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite" or Rossini's "William Tell Overture" and asks her students both to draw the pictures they see in their heads and also to write descriptions of "what the story of the music is." Sometimes, she says, children will tell a story about a piece of music that is related to something from their media consumption - it will remind them of an ad, a movie, a video game. "That's what they connect with in their worlds, but I think it's fine because it makes them more into the music," she says.

She finds that getting children to draw pictures of music or tell stories about it "is a great way for kids to connect with music, it expands the umbrella of their understanding of music in ways they can't always articulate." Because Deutsch works in a school whose philosophy embraces Gardner's Multiple Intelligences theory (the idea that children learn in different and multiple ways), her own instincts to combine music, art and writing connect with other teachers'. But they also clearly connect with her students. "Kids love to do this; these activities are among their favorite things we do in music class."

Tan, who was a music teacher before she became an academic psychologist, says that when she taught music she would regularly explain to children, ""Music is like a kaleidoscope - there are so many parts that make it beautiful and spectacular. So we have to find MANY ways to express music."

Doing the research for this article made me think about my own childhood and the ways in which I have strong associations between music and images. I recalled that when I was in 2nd and 3rd grade at the Grace Ave. School in Great Neck, New York, I had a wonderful teacher who knew about the connections between music and art kids make. She also had the pedagogical sense to ensure that her students regularly had opportunities to express these connections. She used to put on LPs of classical pieces none of us had ever heard. She'd turn off the overhead lights, give us paper and crayons and ask us to draw the pictures that formed in our heads. This was such a formative experience for me I never forgot it, and, as I grew up and studied music seriously, I thought of it, often. So I decided to try to track down my elementary school teacher and find out what her inspiration had been.

Patrice Bolgen, who will turn 88 next spring, still believes that "to connect music and art is a very special way of tapping into the imagination." Bolgen recalled that all those years ago she would put on the records and turn off the lights so that "young imaginations wouldn't be distracted by anything else and children could focus on drawing what they heard." Though Bolgen had never read theories about the connections between music and graphic depictions, she instinctively knew that this would be a powerful way for children to express themselves.

And she was right. More than four decades since I sat in Bolgen's classroom drawing pictures of the music she played, I'm still thinking about the connections between music and imagination. As an academic, I'm glad to know there's research that helps to explain this. But as a parent, I'm even more glad to find ways that kids can make connections between music and images, outside of the many images they see on screens every day.