Friday, June 01, 2007

Lists, schmists

Yesterday a reporter asked me to make a comment on the Little Einsteins top 10 list of classical music for preschoolers. First, here is the press release with the list:

April 18, 2007 -- Music by Smetana and Bach are at the top of preschooler’s favorite classical pieces, according to the producers of the animated television series Disney’s “Little Einsteins.” For the first time, the show has put together a Top 10 List of classical music pieces that are the most appealing to kids.

The writers and producers of “Little Einsteins” conduct hands-on research for every episode at schools with kids 2 to 5, where the show’s creative team can see first-hand which music is striking a chord with preschoolers before the show goes into animation production.

According to Eric Weiner, Executive Producer of “Little Einsteins,” “Kids respond to all classical music, and are attracted to it naturally, very early in their development. However, there are definitely some pieces that are not only appealing to them, but also stays in their minds long after they hear it. Kids express this by dancing, humming and singing along, and we have monitored those reactions and which music gets the highest marks by these kids.”

The top ten list:

1. “The Moldau” from Ma Vlast by Bedrich Smetana
2. “Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor, Menuet and Badinerie” by Johann
Sebastian Bach
3. “Humoresque No. 7” by Antonin Dvorak
4. “Symphony No. 9 in e minor from The New World: Largo” by Antonin Dvorak
5. “Morning” from Peer Gynt Suite No. 1 by Edvard Grieg
6. “Symphony No. 8, ‘Unfinished’” by Franz Schubert
7. “Symphony No. 40” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
8. “Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, 1st Movement” by Johann Sebastian Bach
9. “Wedding March” by Felix Mendelssohn
10. “Triumphal March” from Aida by Giuseppe Verdi

Weiner explains, “Music is organic for kids. We went into a school to test our show and we were warned that the kids there have no music program or music exposure and cannot sit still for very long. We played a classical piece for them and they immediately stopped what they were doing and started to dance.”

About the show: “Little Einsteins” is a half-hour animated series on Disney Channel (8 AM ET/PT seven days a week; additional airing at 8:30 AM on weekends) that follows the global adventures of four young friends (Leo, June, Quincy and Annie) and their versatile shuttle named Rocket, who takes them around the world on a quest to complete important missions while learning about music and art along the way. Classical music and works of art are intrinsic to each mission, and every episode invites interaction from viewers at home who are asked to sing, hum and pat along to the featured symphony and seek a detail while traveling through a master work of art to help their onscreen friends with the mission of the day.

The show is produced and animated in New York City.

And here is what I said to the reporter (I'll wait to announce identities until after the story is published):

My first reaction is to wonder what list of works they started with to winnow down to the top 10. How many pieces did they test on the children, and what criteria did they use to select that initial list? That would reveal any biases, such as the clear bias towards tonal music and orchestral music. Second, at least five of the pieces are used regularly in cartoon music: #1, #3, #5, #9, and #10. The reactions to those pieces might have more to do with Bugs Bunny et al than with the material of the music. The criteria used to measure interest is fine, though scientific studies by Laurel Trainer and others are more rigorous in the application and retesting to check for other artifacts. #6 and #7 don't specify the movement used, even though the other multi-movement works listed do specify which movement was used. It is interesting that of the eight specific works, four are in triple meter or compound meter and the other four are in simple duple/quadruple meter. #6 is in triple no matter which movement is used, and #7 is likely quadruple if the first movement is used, so we have a perfect 50/50 split between 3 and 2. This is rather suspicious. Next, there is an interesting conflict within the producer's quote. He says he was told the children "cannot sit still for very long" and seemingly contrasts it with "started to dance." There is a big debate going on right now in classical music circles about the social expectations for audience behavior. Should audiences be allowed to clap between movements? What about dancing in the aisles? One of my colleagues, Eric Edberg, gave a recital where he encouraged the audience to get up and move. This motion is a natural reaction for young children, but frowned upon by adults, even of college age.

Finally, (much more than 2 cents, sorry!) I support the exposure of classical music to children, but would be leery of naming pieces that are universally loved. My kids were scared by orchestral music when they were 2 or 3, because the sounds were so diverse and loud. My son loves choral music and jazz, my daughter prefers solo piano and brass quintets. This despite the fact that both study a string instrument and both are exposed to the same music at home. Any teacher or parent should explore a wide range of musics with their children to find out what they like.


Kris Tiner said...

Totally agree with your final comment there, and as a new parent I've appreciated your previous observations on this topic. Ultimately it seems like common sense that we expose children to many different genres, styles, timbres, types of ensembles, etc. and "see what sticks." Too bad that most parents haven't been exposed to much diversity in music themselves so that a "greatest hits" route like Baby Einstein seems like a really good idea...

Elaine Fine said...

I really don't buy the top ten concept here either, and I certainly don't buy the "Little Einstein" gimmick as a way to teach kids to appreciate music and art. I think it teaches them to watch television.

Little kids like voices that are beautiful and instruments that are played in tune. They like a good sense of rhythm, and they like to be engaged. They like to feel like the person playing or singing is directing his or her attention toward them, and they can pick up on the quality and the sincerity of a performance as well as the most practiced adult.

Children listen with all of their senses, and I believe that once encouraged to do so as children, they continue to find real meaning in all different kinds of music through their teenage years and into adulthood. I don't buy the idea that there is a magic set of pieces that all kids respond to more strongly than others. Musical preference in kids, just like musical preference in adults, is connected to personality and maturity level. Yes, the list has 10 pieces of really good music on it, but there are thousands upon thousands of pieces that are just as "good" for kids.