Benefits of Music

You may be surprised to learn that the time to start your child’s musical education is at birth. As an Early Childhood Music Educator, I am often asked by parents what role music plays in the early years, not just regarding a child’s musical progress, but also on his or her general development. I would like to share with you some basic concepts about your child’s musical growth, along with answers to several frequently asked questions.

Music and Early Childhood Development
At birth, we have all the brain cells we will ever have for the rest of our lives (approximately 100-200 billion!). Early experiences are crucial to building a healthy brain – the more our brain cells are “fired up” the stronger they will become. A child’s brain grows to about 90 percent of adult size by five years of age – after 10 years of age the brain starts to “prune” neurons that are not stimulated – in other words, “use it or lose it.”

What does this have to do with musical training for babies and young children?
There is ample scientific evidence that learning music contributes to brain development. Music making activates multiple areas of the brain. A skilled and trained musician actually has a larger brain with more enhanced neural pathways as compared to non-musicians. Other studies have shown that children who began musical instruction before the age of seven had an increase in the thickness of the neural bridge that connects the left and right brain hemispheres, compared to children who received music lessons after the age of seven, or none at all.

Music instruction has also been linked to enhanced performance in math and language learning. Singing or playing an instrument requires the same mental activity used in performing advanced mathematical concepts such as proportions and fractions (this is called spatial temporal reasoning). Music and language learning require the ability to mentally process different pitch and sound patterns, while reading music uses the part of the brain associated with reading text.

Singing games can also help young children develop physically, socially and emotionally. Coordination and motor skills along with spatial awareness can grow through singing games and free movement to music. Singing games also have built-in rules which children will happily obey – just imagine a group of preschoolers taking turns and sharing with no tantrums! Singing and playing together also develops a sense of security, encourages independence and provides an emotional release for children and adults alike.

In short, quality music experiences can become a magic carpet for all learning in the early years.

Developing your child’s musical interest - What can you do?
In the early years, parents are the first musical role models. The one-on-one interaction of a loving caregiver who initiates some musical activity every day not only prepares the way for music education, but also adds to the quality of the child’s life.

“But I can’t sing!” is a common objection I hear from parents. It does not matter if you are “not musical” – it is your voice your child wants to hear (and yes, there are studies that support this preference). In my baby and toddler classes, my role is to teach the adults a repertoire of nursery rhymes and traditional songs, in the hopes that they will continue to play and sing with their child at home. As children approach school age and are able to attend music classes independently, I help them find their singing voices and develop musical skills such as keeping the steady beat, developing rhythmic accuracy and eventually learning to read musical notation.

Parents often ask me to recommend music recordings for their baby or young child. I actually advise parents against exposing children to recordings of symphonies and art music at an early age. Babies and very young children cannot yet experience harmony – so a Beethoven symphony would just sound like rhythmic “noise.” I also caution parents against relying on children’s music recordings as a way to encourage singing. Children have a higher vocal range than adults and most recorded songs are pitched too low for children to follow naturally. These recordings are also often sung too fast for young children who are just learning how to form words. Finally, children’s recordings often include composed songs that have too wide of a melodic range – children’s voices centre around three pitches, which is why songs such as “Rain Rain Go Away” and “Starlight, Starbright” sound so similar.

I am very particular when it comes to developing my students’ musical and aesthetic tastes. Children will like anything, so it is our job as parents and teachers to expose them to the best. Ultimately, the best musical materials for young children come from the traditional rhymes and nursery songs that have been passed down from generation after generation – all sung live and unaccompanied.

When should children start taking instrument lessons?
This is the number one question parents ask when I talk to them about music lessons. Learning an instrument is a technical skill, and children will be more successful (and more likely to “stick with it”) if they already possess solid musical competencies such as in-tune singing and rhythmic accuracy in their movements (ie. walking the steady beat, clapping a rhythm pattern, etc.). Ideally, children should also be able to read musical notation and hear the music with their inner ear. Typically, these skills develop between six and eight years of age. If children begin to learn an instrument too early, by ear, they will only achieve short-term success. Keep in mind that learning an instrument is not necessary for music education – a good music program will use the child’s own singing voice as the foundation for all musical learning.

The joy of making music is a rich and rewarding experience for young children. For Early Childhood Music Educators, the goal is to lay the earliest foundation for a meaningful connection to music and to lead children toward a love and knowledge of music.

References:

Bilhartz, T.D., Brun, A.R., & Olson, E.J. (1999). "The effect of early music training on child cognitive development." Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 20(4), 615-636.

Coalition for Music Education in Canada and Canadian Music Educators Association (2000). Achieving Musical Understanding - Concepts and Skills for Pre-Kindergarten to Grade 8. Agincourt, ON: Coalition for Music Education in Canada asnd Canadian Music Educators Association.

"First Evidence That Musical Training Affects Brain Development in Young Children.", September 20, 2006, ScienceDaily.com

Forrai, K. (1988). Music in Preschool. Wooloowin: Clayfield School of Music

Janata, P. (2005). "Brain networks that track music structure." In G. Avanzini (ed.), Neuroscience of Music II: from perception to Performance(p. 111-124). New York, Academy of Science.

Music Training Linked to Enhanced Verbal Skills.", September 27, 2007, ScienceDaily.com

Schlaug, G., Janke, L., Huang, Y., Staiger, J.F., & Steinmetz, H. (1995). "Increased corpus callosum size in Musicians." Neurophysiology, 33:1047-1055

Wilcox, E. (2000). "Straight talk about music and brain research." In The National Association for Music Education. Music Makes The Difference: Music, Brain Development, and Learning (pp. 10-15). U.S.A: author.

Wood, D. (1995). Move, Sing, Listen, Play. Preparing The Young Child For Music. Toronto: Gordon V. Thompson Limited.

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You may be surprised to learn that the time to start

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