CHILDREN'S PERCEPTION OF FAMILIAR MELODIES: THE ROLE OF INTERVALS, CONTOUR, AND KEY


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Abstract

Children 4 to 6 years of age and adults were trained to identify the theme of Happy Birthday or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. They were then presented with the theme or various transformations of it and were asked to identify the presentations as either the original theme (e.g., Happy Birthday) or as a “funny song.” The test melodies, which were played in the same key, a closely related key, or a distant key, preserved the melodic intervals (same or different frequencies), preserved contour (different frequencies and intervals), or altered contour (different frequencies, intervals, and contour). Both children and adults accepted interval-preserving transformations as the standard and rejected contour-violating transformations. Children, unlike adults, were influenced by key, rejecting more transformations in a distant key compared to those in the same key. Children more frequently accepted contour-preserving transformations of Happy Birthday than of Twinkle Twinkle, which contained a note outside the key. Adults, in contrast, often accepted the latter as the original theme. These results suggest that sensitivity to contour, intervals, and key is present in young children and increases with age. They suggest, as well, that there may be a developmental shift in the salience of these melodic features.

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