When is my Child Ready to Learn Music?
Perhaps being formally educated in music puts people like myself in a strange position when considering how and when to begin music education for our children. We feel more internal pressure to “teach” our children music, perhaps at an age when they are not yet ready. There are so many ages thrown around of when children should begin music lessons. As a parent and musician, I believe children show their readiness, regardless of age, when their interest and attention span are in alignment. And even at this age of readiness, I believe children should be given only a very gentle, gradual formal education in music that highlights the enjoyment and sharing of music. The practicing, memorization, and longer formal lessons can wait until the child is truly ready, at age 7-9.
During the years of about 3-6, all parents can assist their child in musical literacy and enjoyment, regardless of musical ability. Before I show you my approach to music learning, I will go over a few signs of music readiness in a young child.
Children who are ready to begin a more formal approach to music learning..
- Will exhibit an interest (singing songs, dancing)
- Will be able to sing simple songs like “twinkle twinkle” from start to finish without help or prompting
- Have the capacity to sit for an engaging 10-20 minute instruction session
Children from ages 3-6, who are starting music instruction, should NOT be expected to:
- Practice at home on their own
- Do any homework unassisted
- Complete any home task that is essential to their music exploration
Preparing for a Life Enjoying Music
Parents who are interested in helping their child enjoy music and the journey of mastering an instrument can do their child great benefit by spending a few “sessions” each week heightening the fun and joy of music. Children younger than 6 should simply enjoy music together with a teacher or parent. Music homework should be limited to listening to music for fun and making music for fun; no book work or timed sessions practicing an instrument.
The following advice and music activities are geared for children ages 3-6, and may also apply to children younger or older.
- Enjoy, don’t Teach. First, we must acknowledge that learning occurs best when there is interest and enjoyment. Enjoying and participating in music should not feel like a lesson, especially for the young child.
- Creativity is Key. Also, when enjoying a musical expression together with your child, set them up for success through creativity. Allow them to play along to a song using percussion instruments (see below) so they can explore rhythm and sound without interfering with the pitch of the recording or live music. Celebrate whatever sounds or dances they discover while enjoying music. There is no “wrong” way for a child to enjoy music.
- Listen. The easiest thing you can do is play music for your child. Introduce them to the classics, jazz, contemporary. Go to the library and check out a few CDs each week to listen to in the car or at home. Raffi and Charlie Hope are two of our favorite artists.
- Dance. Kids absorb information through movement and dance. Let them feel the music. You can explore rhythm through dance (stomp, slap your legs, use shakers). Your local library is a wonderful resource for music CDs. There is a lot of free content on youtube and the radio as well.
- Together. Singing and creating music together floods the brain with oxytocin, making it an incredibly strong way to bond with another person. Children who experience a childhood filled with positive experiences and connections with others are exposed to higher levels of oxytocin in the brain. Studies indicate that this may help prevent addiction and substance abuse later in life. Make Music together, even if it is just a family marching band with the music toys the kids have on hand. If you play a musical instrument, or know someone who does, encourage interaction with live music. Sing or play songs that interest your children and bring them into the music collaboration with shakers, drums, and other simple instruments.
- Invest in a group music class if possible. This is wonderful for all children.
- Explore. If you are even slightly familiar with how to play an instrument, introduce your child to that instrument. Tell your musical story of how you learned to play. Tell them that when you started practicing you sounded like this (demonstrate) and every day you practiced a little bit and began to love the music more and more and now when you play it sounds like this (demonstrate). This gives them a realistic expectation of mastering an instrument. A few times a week or month, engage with your child and have fun exploring what that instrument can do to make sound.
- Sing. This is the most important of all music learning approaches. A child who has a musical ear can sing in tune with others, can more easily collaborate with other musicians, and can enjoy all that music has to offer. Simply enjoying and listening to music and engaging with music gives children the chance to sing. Additionally, you may help develop a child’s singing interest by collaborating together. If you play an instrument like guitar or piano or if you sing, you can accompany your child as they sing their favorite song (and sing along). If you do not play such an instrument, consider finding karaoke recordings to sing along, or just sing to your favorite songs together. Make this collaboration time special for you and your child. It can be pivotal for a child to hear their solo voice accompanied by an instrument. Just be sure to select keys that are high enough for your child to comfortably sing. Children’s voices are naturally high and should not be forced to sing in registers below middle C on the piano.
- Sing in the car, sing in the shower, make up songs about what you are doing, change the words of songs your child knows to make them sound silly. All these things help children explore music and make it their own. By singing and demonstrating how to enjoy and create your own songs, your children will join in the fun. The younger you start doing this, the more comfortable your children will be to do so on their own.
- If your child becomes comfortable solo singing with accompaniment you might try adding harmony if you are able to sing along. (This is best for children nearer to age 6 or 7).
- Trip to the Orchestra. If there is a resident orchestra in your area, ask if they have a children’s program. Many orchestras tailor music programs for early childhood education programs to bring classes of students to hear performances during the day. If your child isn’t attending school yet or you homeschool, inquire about an annual pass.
Instruments for Young Musicians
Instruments that do not require the breath or pitch control are best for young musicians. By default, these are almost always percussion instruments. These instruments allow a child to explore rhythm and playing along with a song without clashing with the melodic experience.