In a national survey, music teachers for fourth graders reported the songs they sang with children in music class over the course of a year.
A total of 2,917 songs were analyzed.
“It was born out of my curiosity as a music teacher, and when I started to dig a little deeper, I discovered that there was a lot of debate about songs in school, but little research. “, explains David Johnson.
The collection of all they sang in a school year provided a representative picture of what, and how, we sing in Swedish schools. Questions about, for example, the choice of key, why certain songs were chosen, and the teacher’s life experience and professional background made it clear that singing is a popular subject at school, for students as well as teachers.
“The place of singing in the program has been reduced over the past 70 years. It is interesting to wonder if we still sing enough. I think we have to be wary of thinking that everything was better in the past. Research can be a way to challenge our preconceptions.
Music lessons are popular
The survey showed a very positive image of singing lessons, where the students themselves were involved in increasing engagement. It also showed that the more experienced the teacher, the more he sang with his students. This student-centered pedagogical philosophy encouraged students to discover their own voice. But despite today’s easy access to digital music platforms such as Spotify and YouTube, with their unlimited selection of music, printed materials were twice as popular as a source of song choices.
David Johnson’s analysis also showed that music teachers like to join in singing with their students, but in the lower keys. A majority of them went low and didn’t use the upper registers. Could the reasons be the educational background of the teachers, the choice of accompaniment instrument or the fact that the teacher was a man? None of these assumptions held water.
“The conclusion I came to is that it depends on the vocal ideals. It seems that the teachers sing along with the students because they think that’s how it sounds best. Vocal ideals have a tradition in Swedish children’s music, with songs like Idas sommarvisa, written 40 years ago and placed between A and B – a middle range. Lower vocal ideals have gained ground – the question is whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
Music, a bridge between cultures
School is a place where children’s understanding of others’ situations can grow. Music is something they can come together in and an unbeatable tool to emphasize the equal worth of all. David Johnson wanted to see if there were variations in the big cities that see more immigration, and if we sing more Sámi music in the north of the country than in Skåne. The study showed that there were no big differences in the song repertoires and that they mainly comprised Swedish music. These are older songs taken from popular children’s, traditional, and singer-songwriter music, no matter where you are in the country. Only one percent of the musical repertoire in the study had non-Western origins.
“The power of music in schools should not be underestimated, but this study shows that teachers are not using music as a tool for understanding culture and language. There was no variation between regions, or between large cities where many recent immigrants live, and rural areas. Our musical treasure is dominated by songs in Swedish. English was less fluent than one might expect, and not a single song was in Arabic.
Of nearly 3,000 songs, only three were Sami.
“There seems to be more anxiety in drawing from a close culture, and there is more chance of a teacher pulling out a West African djembe than picking up a Sami drum and singing a joik. “
David Johnson is also involved in the research project “Singing map of Scandinavia” which brings together researchers from all Nordic countries to promote indigenous and traditional music and to integrate these songs into higher education and schools. These singing traditions are now on the way to extinction. The Sámi song, for example, has many regional variations across Scandinavia and is considered the oldest song form in Europe. However, it was not until 2011 that Sámi musical traditions were mentioned in the Swedish national curriculum.
“If we don’t take care of our legacy, to the next generation it may be too late. Research on music education could help reduce taboos and fears, and preserve our cultural heritage.
Singing brings great benefits
What are the benefits of singing at school? What effect does the daily song have on children’s linguistic and cognitive development? These are central questions for David Johnson, who has been involved since 2021 in a five-year project, “Singing health at school – a societal necessity”, funded by the Marcus & Amalia Wallenberg Foundation. Current research indicates that singing benefits many areas of child development. A comprehensive World Health Organization (WHO) report, based on over 900 publications, shows how songs and the opportunity to learn a musical instrument improve language acquisition, reading ability, concentration and attention span. Despite this, singing and music are not a priority in schools. The research project works to produce models and educational materials for teachers and students, so that music lessons become sessions that have a positive impact on children.
“Singing can boost a child’s self-image, so they can improve their well-being and feel more secure. They also have the ability to learn to sing in a wide range of styles and contexts, if given the opportunity. This should be a central feature of primary and lower secondary education which I believe we should succeed in providing. »
So what support and what tools do teachers of today and tomorrow need? David Johnson emphasizes the importance of extensive teacher training with an emphasis on song pedagogy. Singing patterns can also have a significant impact on teacher and student engagement.
“Not everyone needs to sing loud and clear. Singing is an incredibly important universal need that communicates emotions and crosses borders. I would like to open the door to more singing role models in schools.