Song Selection reflects Cultural Background

Singing is a natural and universal way of self-expression. Researchers from different continents are looking for a universal theory on teaching singing and learning to sing. Source: pixabay.com
Singing is a natural and universal way of self-expression. Researchers from different continents are looking for a universal theory on teaching singing and learning to sing. Source: pixabay.com

Estonians are known as the singing nation because of the Singing Revolution and the tradition of Song Celebrations (SCs), which dates back to 1869. Music lessons with professionally trained music teachers are part of the national curriculum from kindergarten to upper secondary school. The analysis of children’s favourite songs revealed that although Estonia has a rich and vibrant national singing tradition, influences from Western popular music dominate the everyday musical soundscape.

In her doctoral thesis[1], Marju Raju (PhD) together with doctoral student Laura Välja interviewed 43 children who were 2–12 years old and, among other things, asked them to sing their favourite songs. As the research was part of the AIRS (Advance Interdisciplinary Research in Singing) project, the results will be published in a book on the project[2].

Influence of Traditions and History

Raju said that the songs were primarily sung in Estonian but also in English, French and Russian. In addition, several of the songs performed are known in many languages, for example, Happy Birthday to You, The Big Old Deer and Hickory Dickory Dock.

“The educational system and the SC tradition probably influenced the choice of favourite songs because many songs collected in this study are included in the national syllabus for music classes or belong to the SC repertoire. The historical span represented by the songs was extensive, reaching from the 18th century to the present,” Raju explained.

However, no songs from the 1940s and 1950s were chosen according to Raju. She said that this finding reflects Estonian cultural history. “At the beginning of the Soviet occupation, the children’s repertoire from previous periods was not allowed to be used in music education, and there was a severe lack of new songs. Composers worked under strict restrictions regarding subject matter and used defined compositional techniques to achieve the required socialist realism in their works. These circumstances improved somewhat during the 1960s, and a number of songs from that period were present among the songs collected in this study,” she noted.

Raju finds it somewhat surprising that children had trouble with understanding the concept of a favourite song. “The process of choice was not easy for everyone. In some cases they named the song but did not want to sing it or they said that their favourite song is in English but they do not speak English,” she explained. Also, older children named adult songs as their favourites. “It reflects some kind of desire to be closer to adults,” she noted.

The Universality of Music

Marju Raju started her studies in the field of psychology at Tallinn University but music has always interested her and so moving towards music has been a natural step in her research career. When asked why music as a research topic attracts her, she explained: “Singing is such a spontaneous and common way of self-expression, it is very universal and human.” She also named some questions in the field that interest her a lot: “What is the main part of a song’s identity? Is it the melody or the words? Should we ask these questions at all?”

Raju and Välja’s aim is to map and describe the situation in Estonia and, as their work is part of the aforementioned international project, they are curious what the comparison with other countries will show—are there some universal similarities or does it all depend on the cultural background of the country. What is more, all the data gathered will be available in a digital dataspace, so it could be used for further research.

Raju and Välja interviewed children who speak Estonian as their native language. Now Laura Välja continues the research by interviewing children whose native language is not Estonian. Thus, in the future it will be possible to compare the results.

Välja said that the Estonian research group focused mainly on three questions: is the development of singing ability connected with a specific age, are the development levels universal, and are there any connections between the development of singing ability and intelligence. “I believe that the results could be used for improving music education, but before making any changes we have to collect and analyse the data thoroughly,” she noted.

[1]Marju Raju defended her thesis “Some aspects of singing development, the song creating process and favourite songs of Estonian children” in 2015 at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre. URL: http://www.ema.edu.ee/vaitekirjad/doktor/Marju_Raju.pdf

[2]You can find the project’s web page from the following link: http://airsplace.ca. The project was initiated in Canada but also involves 15 other countries on six continents. Aiming to understand individual, cultural, and universal influences on singing and the impact of singing on individuals and societies, the AIRS researchers focus on three topics: development of singing ability, singing and learning; teaching singing and using singing in teaching; and the enhancement of health and well-being through singing.

This article was funded by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.