One of the most influential voices of my childhood, and the childhoods of countless others raised alongside that omnipresent mouse, has died at the age of 86. Robert B. Sherman was a songwriter who, with his brother Richard, wrote some of the most beloved and memorable Disney songs.

The Sherman brothers were perhaps best known for writing the songs for Mary Poppins, but also wrote for The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. They also wrote It's A Small World and It's A Great Big, Beautiful Tomorrow (see video above) for the 1964 New York World's Fair, and the theme song for the Enchanted Tiki Room. Of course this is only a small fraction of the tunes they wrote for Disney and for others over the years.

Research on the effects of songs on child development is fairly sparse compared with that for television, but what the research that has been done confirms the intuition that music is hugely important. One 1980 study of American sixth-graders found that a third of boys and nearly half of girls reported listening to music for at least one hour every day. In general, researchers have found that girls tend to listen to music more than boys, but only after age twelve. And older children tend to listen to more music than younger children. But listening time is probably not the best metric to use: after all, as an activity, music listening can often be a background activity, and does not easily fall into thirty-minute increments like television watching does. In 1978, some researchers conducted a survey of two- to sixteen-year-olds and found that two thirds of those children had their own radios, two thirds had their own record players, and one third owned their own cassette decks.

The numbers today aren't entirely different. A 2011 study (PDF) conducted by Common Sense Media found that children from age 0 through 8 spend just over an hour each day listening to music. Ten percent of the children surveyed owned their own iPod or similar device (if this sample included children through age 16, there is no doubt that figure would be higher).

For adolescents, it is known that music and music preferences play an important role in the shift of identity away from the family and towards the peer group. Shared musical tastes, indeed, figure centrally in the creation and maintenance of peer relationships. For the younger children, however, who even today are still listening to the music of the Sherman brothers, it is a different story. In part, this is because their day-to-day activities are subject to more control by their parents than is the case among adolescents. Even still, audio use among children tends to be a solo activity, or one shared with siblings. In one small study, 75% of fifth graders reported listening to music alone, compared with only 15% of first graders. And those who did not tend to listen to music alone still did so without adults present: with friends, siblings, cousins, or babysitters. Taken together, these trends suggest that even for younger children, there is something uniquely personal about music. Music serves to help shape and strengthen one's own identity and sense of self, whether it is about finding one's own space within the family environment, or as they age, about identifying with peer groups and fitting in.

That music is ubiquitous in childhood is clear, and while the methods of delivery have changed dramatically over the last thirty years, the time spent listening to music probably hasn't. What is it about childhood songs that still resonates so strongly? Why do they engender such strong emotions in adults?

There are a few possibilities.

First, music may serve as a cue for recalling one's own autobiographical memories. A 2008 study had college students listen to songs that corresponded with one of five distinct periods of time in their lives: early childhood, elementary school, middle school, high school, or college. The researchers offered each participant a list of songs that were popular during the years corresponding with each time period. They were told to choose a familiar song that was associated with some sort of positive memory - one for each time period.

Then, the participants were split into groups: some would listen to the song, some were simply shown the song's title, others read the song's lyrics, and the fourth group was shown a photo of the singer or an album cover. Afterwards, they were asked to write freely about the memory, and then given a questionnaire that asked specific questions about the relationship of the song and their memories.

While there were no significant differences between those who heard the song and those who only read the lyrics, both groups experienced stronger emotions than the other groups. In addition, those who heard the song or read the lyrics were more likely to report that they felt they were "brought back" to the earlier times in their lives, compared with the other participants. The researchers hypothesized that those who read the song's lyrics may have actually "heard" the song in their heads while reading the text, effectively creating one larger group of participants who heard the song.

The most striking result of this experiment, however, was one that was barely mentioned by the researchers: it was apparently easy for college students to associate specific memories with specific songs. Not only do songs reliably stir up personal memories, but they evoke those memories effortlessly.

In addition, there may be something unique about children's music, compared with other types of music. For example, one experiment found that five year olds drew with crayons more creatively after listening to or singing children's songs, but not after hearing Mozart. There does not seem to be much consensus on what it is, precisely, about children's music that is unique. It could be the lyrics, or the use of repetition, or the simple melodies. Most likely, it is a combination of all of those things. These features are common both to lullabies, which are used to calm children, as well as to play songs, which are used to amuse children. Both of these types of children's songs are used in nearly every culture that has been observed.

To that end, it is possible that familiar childhood songs are so evocative, even for adults, because their features make them easy to remember. That is, a familiar childhood song might remain familiar over the course of decades simply because it is so simple and easy to memorize - at least in contrast to other, more complex, types of songs. Perhaps this is why music and songs play such a central role in the maintenance and transference of oral culture. In a musical survival-of-the-fittest subject to the selection pressures of human memory, childhood songs may very well be the most adaptive.

It is for these reasons, among others, that the lyrics and the melodies of the Sherman brothers will continue to live on, long after they cease living themselves.


Audio interview with the Sherman Brothers: Part 1 and Part 2

Day Old Chickens Prefer Consonant Music and If Chickens Like Consonant Music, Will They Hate B.B. King? That’s Not Even the Right Question to Ask

All videos in this post feature songs written by Robert and Richard Sherman. Richard Sherman, seen in the videos of "It's A Small World" and "I Wanna Be Like You" still lives in California.

Cady, E., Harris, R., & Knappenberger, J. (2007). Using music to cue autobiographical memories of different lifetime periods Psychology of Music, 36 (2), 157-177 DOI: 10.1177/0305735607085010

Schellenberg, E. (2005). Music and Cognitive Abilities Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14 (6), 317-320 DOI: 10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00389.x

CHRISTENSON, P., DeBENEDITTIS, P., & LINDLOF, T. (1985). CHILDREN'S USE OF AUDIO MEDIA Communication Research, 12 (3), 327-343 DOI: 10.1177/009365085012003005

Schellenberg, E., Nakata, T., Hunter, P., & Tamoto, S. (2007). Exposure to music and cognitive performance: tests of children and adults Psychology of Music, 35 (1), 5-19 DOI: 10.1177/0305735607068885

Lewis Paeff Lipsitt, Carolyn K. Rovee-Collier, Harlene Hayne (editors). Advances in infancy research, Volume 12.

Thanks to Matt Novak for inspiring this post.