Children’s Music Out of Balance?

Children’s Music Out of Balance?

We are about to lose it. Even with all of our best intentions our house has been overrun with dozens of children’s videos for preschoolers. It seems like most of them are episodes of over-acting child performers poorly singing bad arrangements of what could best be called “contemporary children’s tunes.” I am getting insomnia, as the last thing I hear at night is either “Silly Willy Land” or “Brush Your Teeth” (Neither are conductive to restful sleep). Both my husband and I are going a little kooky, as we give in yet again to our daughter’s wails for the Silly People Tunes (and that is one of the better “modern collections.”)

Last evening my husband decided to take matters into his own hands. Instead of popping in the “Silly Kid Songs” again he explained to our daughter that we were going to take turns watching videos. Daddy’s was first, then Eleanor’s. Our toddler was not that thrilled, but she went along with it. Dan began with popping in a DVD of Philip Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi. What was “Daddy’s video” soon turned into “Eleanor’s video” too as my husband took advantage of the visual imagery to entice her into a new music experience. She flew in the sky as Glass’s arpeggiated riffs flew through the flutes. The music became scary as the dark smoke billows mingled with the rumbling bass lines. After thirty minutes both father and daughter were saner, each deriving a satisfaction from the DVD in a way none of us anticipated.

So, it is one thing for two classically trained composers to introduce Philip Glass into their child’s listening environment. But, what about the millions of other kids who are enmeshed in today’s popular culture? How can we recontextualize their listening experiences so that they are not mind numbing, but mind building?

Music teachers like Evan Tobias (mentioned in past Chatters) are doing this with the television show American Idol. Say what you will but, like it or not, millions of American kids and their families watch it religiously every week. Students know the names of the contestants better than the names of American presidents. Evan and others educators like him are taking this phenomenon and recontexualizing it in the music classroom, using it to help students become discerning listeners. Performances on the show are watched and discussed, focusing not on the contestants’ personalities, but on aspects of the performances. Song structures, from melodies to orchestration, are scrutinized. Through the use of one pop culture phenomenon kids are learning musicianship skills that enable them not only to listen, but to analyze music, regardless of its style.

So, perhaps there is some hope. There is now a Disney kids show where preschoolers go on an adventures to find “masterworks” in music, art, and architecture. Eleanor loves this program, in which the rocket ship gets its energy by the kids clapping and singing accelerandos and crescendos. She’s learning about Monet and Vivaldi. But, then again, it is followed by another insipid show of children’s entertainment, with poorly trained singers belting out cheap imitations of rock songs, designed for tots.

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8 thoughts on “Children’s Music Out of Balance?

  1. Max

    For me there is no hope in sitting on our asses watching TV – no matter what DVD you put in. This is where Marshall Mcluhan was absolutely right on and where ‘the market’ has fooled so many of us into thinking that if we are better consumers, and train our children to be better consumers, our lives will somehow be improved.

    I just don’t buy your assumption that Koyaanisqatsi is much better than “Silly Kid Songs” for your child. Ultimately it is the activity and not the content that has the most impact on children and adults.

    It is strange that in a home with two musicians you all are sitting around watching the TV instead of playing music together.

  2. philmusic

    It could be argued that “American Idol” which is a filmed concert, is better for children than Philip Glass’s “Koyaanisqatsi.” Thats because in “Koyaanisqatsi” the music is subordinate to the more important visual images. Attaching specific visual images to instrumental music can rob the imagination of its own designs.

  3. CM Zimmermann


    You are correct to bring McLuhan into this discussion. At the same time, however, we can make distinctions between qualitative uses of a medium, especially when that particular medium has already been fully absorbed and has become part of our ‘central nervous systems’. In other words, once a new technology has been introduced and has shifted human perception, cognition, and relations, the particular technology is absorbed into daily-life (and is really no longer considered ‘technology’), which can then open creative possibilities within that particular medium. There are works for TV (or that are viewed on TV) that question and challenge and play with the stereotypical passive activity of TV watching. McLuhan is quite clear that efforts outside of mass culture can result in creative and novel uses of the media of the masses.

    From your post, it appears that what is important is the activity of listening to (or making) music; it does not matter what sort of music is being experienced.


    Is the music on American Idol not subordinate to the more important visual images? The interviews with Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass reveal quite a bit about the process of integrating images and music into unified works of art. Glass’s role is hardly that of creating a soundtrack to Reggio’s images.

  4. MrBiggs

    Glass isn’t necessarily better than “Silly Willy Land” isn’t better than They Might be Giants. I’d be just as tired of Koyaanisqatsi after seventeen dozen times of seeing/hearing it than “Brush Your Teeth.” My kids are seven and five now, and music is extremely important to both of them both as consumers and creators. They were inspired by They Might be Giants and the Jack Black film “School of Rock” to get on my Mac and learn GarageBand and play the piano that sits in my living room. My daughter LOVES saccharin-sweet princess and ballet cartoons (Fairytopia! Augh!), and she used it as a door to discover “real” ballet and other dance, which she is in fact now performing right here in my studio as the Byrne/Eno “Life in the Bush of Ghosts” plays through the iPod. Go figure.
    What we do as parents is use American Idol, Barney, or Philip Glass to introduce our own values and interests to our kids, and just cross our fingers that they learn to recognize the difference between Mingus and Britney.
    While I’d rather clean the toilet seven times than watch American Idol, we all stayed up last week to see if Taylor beat Katherine and the kids danced on the couch in gleeful exultation when our guy won. Five minutes later, my son was standing on his bed holding a TinkerToy microphone, pointing at the crowd of his sister and dad, and singing “Rock N Roll, baby!”
    It was fun, it was entertaining, and I only had to watch it once.

  5. philmusic

    As to your first question, how so? Your second point does not refer to the work in question, but to interviews with the creators about their film. Interviews of artists, like editorials, can reveal insights but can also be mystifications or “spin”. Anyway, that integration of music and image that you mention is my point. The music is meant to be experienced in one way. Hardly conducive to the imagination.

  6. giamuse

    Children’s Music Out of Balance?
    What is most interesting to me is that your children seem to be watching a bit too much television. How about a book or two? If they read plenty already, then why not try having them watch some kids movies? The ones I’ve seen lately (Curse of the Were Rabbit, and Ice Age I, about 50 times each) have some terrific music in them, much of it remarkably similar to important concert works. I don’t think it is entirely possible to control everything they listen to, but with our vigilance and good taste, our children should eventually have enough sense to know what is worth listening to.

  7. alekophone

    A film I loved and which I think would be great for kids is R.O. Blechman’s animated Histoire du Soldat.

  8. CM Zimmermann


    American Idol cannot function without the Hollywood set and is fully integrated into the broader cult(ure) of the image. The music plays a secondary role and is entirely shaped by marketable categories and the images that purportedly represent these categories.

    I referred to the Reggio and Glass interviews because these statements shed light on the creative process and how sound and image exist in an organically mutual relationship. To me, this is obvious from viewing these films, however I brought the interviews up for those who are not convinced. I would not say that the music is intended to be experienced in a way that is not conducive to the imagination. Rather, the music and images reinforce each other and create an entirely different experience.



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