Category: Music and Dance

The Musical Playground: Global Tradition and Change in Children's Songs and Games

By Kathryn Marsh. 2008. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 448 pages. ISBN: 9780195308976 (hard cover), 9780195308983 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Tyler Bickford, Columbia University

[Review length: 1273 words • Review posted on August 25, 2009]


The clapping games played by children around the world are an enduring tradition, passed down through successive generations. In an era when the global children’s music industry is dramatically expanding and educational discourses and practices are increasingly globalized, games like “Miss Mary Mac,” “Patacake,” and “Down Down Baby” incorporate texts and tropes from the classroom and the media into a rich oral tradition. On multicultural campuses, clapping games bring traditions from various languages and cultures into interactive and competitive contact. Continually changing through performance and improvisation, these games represent a sweet spot of contemporary folklore: they combine oral tradition, mass media, education, and globalization in the dense interactivity of children’s everyday expressive practices. But despite the rich interest of these performance traditions, they have been largely neglected by the last generation of folklorists and ethnomusicologists.

Music educators, on the other hand, have quietly filled this void. In The Musical Playground, Kathryn Marsh reports on a massive international study of children’s playground music at schools in Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Norway, and South Korea. Building on her own sustained research at a multiethnic elementary school in Sydney, in each location Marsh collaborates with scholars and educators who have long-term musical connections with communities of children. Working from an enormous body of ethnographic data, The Musical Playground presents a comprehensive account of the remarkable, but too often unremarked, global tradition of children’s musical play.

Marsh introduces the volume by reviewing the theoretical literature in music education, focusing on the key terms of “play” and “creativity.” Educators’ interest in play, she argues, too often stands in for evolutionist models of children as musically deficient, leading to pedagogical approaches that strip musical materials of complexity and interest. Educational approaches to musical creativity, meanwhile, focus on the production of a final compositional “product,” constructing models of musical development out of binaries—long since critiqued by ethnomusicologists—of composition versus improvisation. Marsh poses the complexity and innovativeness of children’s musical play as a challenge to these assumptions, and points to alternative conceptions of composition and creativity in studies of oral traditions. While specifically an argument about the norms of musical education, this literature review is a powerful ethnomusicological essay in its own right, scrutinizing the discourses of music education and critiquing the institutionalization of its unexamined expressive ideologies.

After a discussion of the ethics and pragmatics of the musical study of children and an outline of each of the research sites, the third section, on “transmission processes,” begins a fine-grained analysis of children’s musical play. It explores the wide variety of factors that influence children’s maintenance and innovation of their musical traditions: gender, age, social status, membership in friendship groups, and sibling relationships; interactions between minority and majority ethnic groups and the uneven status of immigrant groups from one school to another; relatively strict disciplinary regimes, the involvement of teachers and school administrators, and children’s access to materials from both educational publications and popular media; and the micro-level adjustments and adaptations children make during performances to accommodate one another.

At the Sydney school, Marsh relates an example of the dense, improvisatory, and intercultural richness of children’s musical play. An Anglo Australian girl had taught her friends a bilingual Greek/English game she had learned from Greek Australian students at her previous school. When Marsh elicited a performance of this game from the girl’s friendship group, which included native speakers of Cantonese, Mandarin, Romanian, and Tongan, they separated into pairs and “broke into spontaneous performances of the game by different children in their first languages.” Their partners “joined in with the movements, listening to the unfamiliar text for cues,” while the Cantonese- and Mandarin-speaking girls “actively co-constructed the game in Cantonese, even though it was less familiar to one of them” (159). Though this example is extraordinary, it highlights a social framework common to children’s musical play around the world, in which children from different backgrounds sort out their linguistic and cultural engagement through performative interaction. In parallel with such intercultural engagement, children voraciously incorporate texts and tropes from media—pop songs, television, advertising jingles—as material for continually refashioning and enriching traditional games.

The core of the next section, on “composition,” is a chapter about a game genre Marsh calls “Sar Macka Dora,” which appeared in some form in all of the research countries except Korea. In this game children sit and pass a hand clap around their circle as they sing, eliminating one participant with each round. This counting-out circle, with minor variations, is common in each of the sites, but the texts vary from “sar macka dora” and “son macaroni” that Marsh first encountered in Sydney, to the very similar “slå makaroni” in Norway, “way down south in the hanky pank” in the U.S., and “down in the jungle where nobody goes” in the U.K. Marsh provides a richly detailed analysis and comparison of the performance practices in each location in terms of text, music, and movement, but she does not address questions about how the genre traveled around the world. I wondered, for instance, why the text of the Australian versions is especially similar to the Norwegian version, despite closer historical connections to the U.S. and U.K. With “transmission” a central theme of the book, I had hoped this chapter would attempt directly to trace the genre as it circulated and changed in these geographically and culturally varied locations. Instead Marsh’s close focus on the particularities of local practices may have precluded a broader historical and geographic analysis. Indeed, she comprehensively accounts for the processes within each location that move songs among children, adults, media, and books, and it is a tribute to the richness of her research that it so provocatively suggests further questions about the specific mechanics by which media, education, and migration conduct these games from location to location.

Divided between the volume and an accompanying website are ten appendixes of songlists and transcriptions, along with video clips of over forty performances, that help make Marsh’s exceptional data available to the reader. The videos nicely complement Marsh’s lively descriptions, but the real jewels here are the transcriptions. Marsh has developed a remarkably effective staff notation for depicting hand claps that is clearly the outcome of a lot of thought and creativity. While the low-resolution video clips can at times heighten the sense that these games are indecipherably dense, the transcriptions are surprisingly clear, easy to follow, and helpful during analyses of complicated routines.

Marsh concludes by arguing for new approaches to music education pedagogy built on ethnographic study of children’s own musical practices. She writes that “it is time for educators to peer out through the windows of the classroom and notice children’s musical play. By incorporating observed manifestations of this play into the classroom, it is possible to develop a ‘playful’ rather than ‘playlike’ pedagogy, one that takes account of the cultural nuances and realities of children’s musical capabilities and preferences, providing cognitive, performative, creative, and kinesthetic challenge” (318). Regrettably for other disciplines interested in childhood and contemporary performance traditions, Marsh does not extend her conclusions to explore the rich meaning her research has for ethnomusicology or folklore. Earlier in the book, Marsh suggests that her study’s ethnomusicological interest lies mostly in its perspective on oral transmission and composition. But ethnomusicology and folklore are increasingly interested in globalization, media, and cultural policy institutions, and on these topics The Musical Playground has much more to offer than just an examination of one more oral tradition, with its comprehensive and detailed accounts of children’s everyday musical play right in the thick of global networks of circulation, migration, media, and education.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.