Psychological aspects of singing development in children

Dr. Graham F. Welch, Institute of Education, London

3rd February 2011

Music is always around us. Everyone can express one’s emotion with music and thankfully, everyone is born with one instrument: a voice to sing. Then, how does singing affects us? Since this ability is innate, it should be important enough to give some positive effects to people. Dr. Graham F. Welch was invited as a guest speaker for students on the Music, Mind and Brain program. Starting from psychological aspects of singing in children, Dr. Welch introduced his research on Sing-up, a program for the development of singing in children, by starting to describe the phases of the physical vocal development across the life of humans, and emphasising the effect of the program.

According to Welch, there are seven phases of vocal development: Early childhood from1 to 3 years of age, later childhood from 3 to 10 years of age, Puberty from 8 to 14 years of age, Adolescence from 12 to 16 years of age, Early adulthood from 15 to 30/40 years of age, Adulthood from 40 to 60 years of age and Senescence from 60 years of age onwards (Welch, 2006). Some important points about the physiology of vocal development are the individual differences that exist among human beings, the sex differences, the difference between biological age and chronological age and the fact that some phases overlap. Dr. Welch also described a continuum of vocal ability which can be segmented into 3 categories. From left to right of the scale, the first category is abnormal, the second is normal and the third is supranormal.

He continued his talk by emphasizing that music is an emotional experience which involves the activation of 3 biological systems: The endocrine system, the immune system and the nervous system. Moreover, brain architecture was discussed in order to point out its integrated neurological modularity. Music is an experience which is multi-sited. In a research by Belin and Zatorre (2000) it was found that voice selective regions can be found in both hemispheres of the brain. Peretz and Coltheart (2003) proposed a model of music processing which was then adapted by Welch (2005) in order to be specifically about singing processing. This model involves all the steps from the acoustic input, the acoustic analysis, the emotional analysis, the musical lexicon, the phonological lexicon to the song lyrics and melody.

Further, as far as singing and speaking is concerned, it was found that there exists a bi-hemispheric network for vocal production. The above finding was revealed through a research by Ozdemir, Norton and Schlaug (2006) who gave participants a task, to repeat a sequence of 20 bi-syllabic phrases based on a recording by a native English speaker. An fMRI study showed that in all 4 conditions – speaking, singing, humming and vowel production – both sides of the brain were activated.

Comparing the differences between actual singing and imagined singing, there is actual evidence from an fMRI study that largely the same areas are activated in the brain in both cases (Kieber, Veit, Birbaumer & Lotze, 2007). Dr. Welch also added that mental rehearsals are not at all a waste of time and that they should be used by undergraduate music students in order to rehearse quietly. Further, there are studies that examine the difference between singing alone or with others. Larry Parsons conducted an fMRI study which showed that the social part of the brain is activated when singing with others (Kieber, Veit, Birbaumer & Lotze, 2007).

Going back to the musical development, Dr. Welch emphasised that musical development begins pre-birth in utero. The voice and the emotional state of the mother while singing or speaking are encoded and perceived by the foetus. In early childhood the identification of rhythmic and melodic contour patterns begins (Welch, 2006). Children at the age of 3 are able to sing by combining familiar tunes from their culture with improvised melodies. The environment plays an important role in how every child will develop musically. Research has shown that children with a richer music environment develop faster as far as singing is concerned (Welch, 2006). Based on this evidence, the UK government created the Sing-up Program for children.

Sing-up program

This national program with the UK government’s support is applied to primary school-aged children, offering them high quality of singing experiences (see also Dr. Welch and his colleagues investigated how the sing-up program made difference across various domains; not only singing skill, but also sociability, self-concept, and even physical benefits. Schools with the sing-up program showed higher singing skill scores across ethnicity groups, and both males and females while females tend to have higher scores than males regardless of the program intervention. Having a closer look at differences among type of schools, it is clear that schools with more experience of singing, including the sing-up program intervention and special school setting such as chorister school or cathedral school, showed higher development on singing ability. (See Welch et al. (2008) for further details).

The impact of the sing-up program showed that children from the sing-up group actually developed their singing abilities 2 years ahead on average compared to those from the non sing-up group, even though its impact tended to decrease as children grew older. The overall difference between the sexes in his study made for an interesting comparison. While the female group achieving better singing scores overall, females and males from sing-up group showed parallel development of increasing singing ability across ages. On the other hand, the difference between females and males from non sing-up group gradually increased with age. This result goes with the common sense that singing becomes more gender specific activity as children grow.

Then, what are benefits of having higher singing development? Dr. Welch analysed and concluded benefits in various domains. First, children’s attitudinal data about their singing activities and self-concept were anaylsed. Overall, girls and younger children were more positive than boys and older children group, respectively. Also, children who had sing-up program experience showed more positive result than non sing-up children on singing activity at school. (Even though children normally have better singing ability as grow, they tend to less like it since the singing activity becomes more private.)

To be more specific, singing activity affects on physical benefits such as respiratory, cardiac, and neurological development. It helps children for better understanding and skills of what they learn in educational perspective. Most importantly, it benefits in social perspectives such as group works, communication, or community setting understanding. Children with higher singing ability had a more positive self concept, and felt more socially included whereas children with lower singing ability showed less effective ways of dealing with the world (see Welch et al. (2010) for further details).

A voice is one of the tools to describe who the person is. Therefore, giving children and adolescents more access to singing education will help not only to have higher singing ability, but also to have a more positive self-identity and social inclusion, eventually being beneficial to society on the whole. If we follow Dr. Welch’s argument, overall singing and engaging in musical activities will help socialization and the development of a healthy self-identity in children.

Paraskevi Bouzaki and Hi Jee Kang


Belin, P. & Zatorre, R. J. (2000). Voice-Selective Areas in Human Auditory Cortex. Nature, 403(6767), 309.

Kieber, B., Veit, R., Birbaumer, B. & Lotze, M. (2007). Neural Correlates of        Professional Classical Singing.  International Symposium on Performance Science, 335-343.

Ozdemir, E., Norton, A. & Schlaug, G. (2006). Shared and Distinct Neural Correlates of Singing and Speaking. Neuroimage, 33, 628-635.

Peretz, I., & Coltheart, M.  (2003). Modularity of Music Prossecing. Nature Neuroscience, 6(7), 688-691.

Welch, G. (2006). Singing and Vocal Development. In The Child as Musician: a handbook of musical development (pp. 311-329).

Welch, G.F. (2011). Psychological aspects of singing development in children. Invited lecture, Goldsmiths College, London (Msc Music, Mind and Brain), February 2011.

Welch, G., Himonides, E., Saunders, J., & Papageorgi, I., (2008). The National Singing Programme for Primary schools in England: An initial baseline study overview, February 2008. London: Institute of Education.

Welch, G., Himonides, E., Saunders, J., & Papageorgi, I., (2010). Researching the impact of the National Singing Programme ‘Sing Up‘ in England: Main findings from the first three years (2007-2010). Children’s singing development, self-concept and sense of social inclusion. London: International Music Education Research Centre Press.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Psychological aspects of singing development in children

  1. judithmuir2 says:

    While the title “Special Needs” does not begin to cover all the many different sorts of labels that currently exist for people, it is a very useful umbrella. Having a music therapy degree as well as thirty years of teaching experience, I have developed many ways to help these people engage in music-making that is deeply rewarding for them. Sing play Music

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s