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New Audiences for New Music

Preschoolers and contemporary (recently-composed) classical music – not two things one would typically put together. But a recent issue of the journal Behavior and Brain Sciences published the findings of an exploratory study I conducted with Professor Carroll Izard at the University of Delaware’s Early Learning Center. Our mutual interests in early child development and music led us to consider conducting a study of young children’s emotional reactions to music. In the pilot study, we were merely looking for the most emotionally evocative excerpts of pieces from the classical repertoire, a repertoire we chose because it was the one we knew best, and because we are both prejudiced enough to believe classical music is “good” for kids. To our tremendous surprise, three of the five pieces that consistently evoked the strongest reaction in children, even when compared to the warhorses of the concert hall, were composed in the 20th century. Neither of us would have predicted that excerpts from pieces by Steve Reich and Charles Wuorinen would have 3 and 4 year-olds clapping, laughing, and jumping up and down. But when teachers starting asking us not to play those pieces because of the problems they posed to crowd control with the kids, we knew we were onto something. Perhaps this offers a small lesson for our friends in arts outreach and education: be sure to keep an open mind when programming what children are “supposed” to like.

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