Young Children's Harmonic Perception


Address for correspondence: Dr. Eugenia Costa-Giomi, The University of Texas, School of Music, 1 University Station E3100, Austin, TX 78712-1435. Voice: 512- 471-2495;


Abstract: Harmony and tonality are two of the most difficult elements for young children to perceive and manipulate and are seldom taught in the schools until the end of early childhood. Children's gradual harmonic and tonal development has been attributed to their cumulative exposure to Western tonal music and their increasing experiential knowledge of its rules and principles. Two questions that are relevant to this problem are: (1) Can focused and systematic teaching accelerate the learning of the harmonic/tonal principles that seem to occur in an implicit way throughout childhood? (2) Are there cognitive constraints that make it difficult for young children to perceive and/or manipulate certain harmonic and tonal principles? A series of studies specifically addressed the first question and suggested some possible answers to the second one. Results showed that harmonic instruction has limited effects on children's perception of harmony and indicated that the drastic improvement in the perception of implied harmony noted approximately at age 9 is due to development rather than instruction. I propose that young children's difficulty in perceiving implied harmony stems from their attention behaviors. Older children have less memory constraints and more strategies to direct their attention to the relevant cues of the stimulus. Younger children focus their attention on the melody, if present in the stimulus, and specifically on its concrete elements such as rhythm, pitch, and contour rather than its abstract elements such as harmony and key. The inference of the abstract harmonic organization of a melody required in the perception of implied harmony is thus an elusive task for the young child.