When my firstborn was still a little guy, he earned the nickname “Jazz Baby” because he, like most kids, responded to music with bouncing to the beat, grinning ear to ear, and singing along. When he and our other sons were buckled into high chairs or car seats, they would kick their feet to the beat – so cute! All children seem to have an inborn love of music that, when it’s nurtured and encouraged, can become a lifelong source of delight.
Knowing when and how to involve your child in musical activities can make a huge difference in how comfortable they are with music, and how personally involved and skilled they become as they grow.
How old should a child be to start music training?
Researchers are finding an optimal window of music learning starting in pregnancy through about age 9 for developing sensitivities to the structures and sounds of music. The brain responds readily and eagerly to musical input during these years, so take advantage of every opportunity to “turn the beat around”!
In the womb:
Music education begins in the womb. The unborn child can hear quite well, and has been shown to have distinct musical preferences at birth. So start early with enriching your child’s environment with many styles of music. I encourage families to listen to more than just one favorite genre of music, because this boosts perception of different sounds and rhythms and personalities of songs. Classical music and classic “oldies” are good choices, because they are still around for a lot of reasons.
Be sure to sing to your unborn baby, and dance! When a pregnant mom moves in time to the music, it begins to build baby’s awareness of beat and tempo.
Keep up the music listening that was started during pregnancy by “bathing” your child in a wonderful variety of sounds. During meals and playtime, in the car and at bedtime, play quality recorded music that’s appropriate to the mood of the activity.
And keep singing to your baby, especially while you’re moving (or swaying or bouncing) to the beat; rocking your little one to sleep with lullabies is an obvious choice. If you can play an instrument, give concerts for your baby. When parents make music for their children, it builds a powerful pathway in those hearts and minds for the love of music.
When infants can sit up, you’ll probably find that they love noisy play – banging pots and pans while babbling at the top of their lungs, for example. At this age, the noisier, the better! (Well, up to a point.) Choose simple percussive instruments (safe-for-under-3), such as maracas or a toy piano, to teach your child the connection between his or her actions and the sounds being made by these musical toys.
Adding to the musical environment you’ve already created for them at home, one year olds are ready for music classes that parent and child attend together. Many local recreation programs offer these classes, and you may find a certified Kindermusik instructor in your area. Kindermusik offers music enrichment from birth through age seven. You can also enrich play dates with music-centered activities and games.
It’s not too soon to take your child to live concerts so they can connect what they’re seeing with what they’re hearing. And if you’re shopping for a preschool, look for one with a robust music and movement program.
This is the time to begin laying a foundation of musical skills. Children at this age can learn to keep a steady beat with simple rhythm instruments, and can play basic rhythmic patterns they’ve just heard. They can be taught to hear a note and sing the matching pitch with their own voice. They can begin to tell the difference between the sounds of many instruments. And they can easily memorize simple, fun songs.
Ages 3 and 4 are not too early for more formalized instruction through group lessons in a preschool music enrichment class, in a preschool choir at your house of worship, or with a Suzuki Method instructor. The Suzuki Method features a “mother tongue” approach to mastery of violin or piano (playing an instrument comes first, with delayed reading of written music), vital parental involvement, and loving encouragement.
By age 5, children have enough social and physical maturity to benefit from more structured music classes. Most schools and communities offer music enrichment programs with training in percussion instruments, piano, violin, recorder, harmonica, and/or ukulele. Many private piano instructors prefer starting keyboard lessons at this age, when hands have grown to fit the keys better.
Exuberant children may thrive when given a chance to study in a group, try their hand at auditioning, and have the opportunity to perform on stage; community children’s theatre programs offer these opportunities, often with classes in acting as well as music and dance.
Check back here for more blog posts in this series, “Your Child’s Musical Life”.
I’ll be talking about lifelong opportunities to pursue music, as well as the why and how of getting music lessons to work well for your child.