Can exposure to music help your child’s development?
Yes! Music is a fun and easy and IMPORTANT tool for enhancing childhood development and building your child’s brain!
To understand how music aids in child development, we need to know the order of normal child development and compare it to music development.
Child development compared to music development
The first sensory organ to function in the womb is the ear.
The heart of a child in the womb starts beating about 21 days after conception. At 40 days brain waves are measurable. At 2 months in the womb all body systems are functioning. At 12 weeks or 3 months is when a baby starts hearing, and studies show that a baby can remember what he or she heard as early as 20 weeks.
Dr. Susan Luddington-Hoe, the authority on infant stimulation, says “The fetal heartbeat changes significantly to different types of music. Both before and after birth, babies are really bothered by strong beat and loud music – but they love soft music and are especially thrilled by Vivaldi.” 1
One example is of a professional pianist whose baby began to thrash about violently in the womb whenever she played Chopin so that she had to stop playing his compositions, but the baby seemed to love Mozart.
Another mother, when she went to a rock concert, had her ribs kicked so hard by her agitated baby in the womb, that one of her ribs was broken.2
So babies can hear in the womb.
The ear serves two purposes – it enables us to hear and it provides balance.
Listening is the cornerstone of development.
This chart shows the stages of normal child development as compared to the stages of musical development.3
Musical development perfectly corresponds with childhood development and enhances each stage so a child may reach his or her highest potential!
Now, having this order of development before us, we can see that incorporating music into a child’s life is going to enhance normal development. We often ignore how important it is to listen because we live in a highly visual world where children and adults spend hours engaging our eyes on televisions, computers, video games, electronic devices.
But listening is essential.
A baby first orders its world through sound, since one is unable to see in the womb and since a baby’s sight is unfocused at birth. Yet a baby is able to hear and distinguish his or her mother’s voice in the womb.
In order to communicate and develop language skills, one must learn to listen. It is important also to learn to discriminate between meaningful sound and noise. Also, listening heightens development of: attention span; concentration; social skills (i.e., learning to listen to others, communication, sensitivity, compassion); impulse control.
Music enhances this foundational principle of listening, because music is sound. One must listen in order to learn to discriminate pitch, rhythm, and voice/timbre. Also, music can be enjoyed at all ages and skill levels through listening. When involved in music, the ear is being engaged and trained to listen, neural pathways in the brain are firing, and the proper foundation is laid for further development.
As the ear is the control center for the two functions of listening and the vestibular apparatus, which controls balance, it should be no surprise that motor skills are the second stage of development. There is an intimate psychophysical involvement between sound, hearing and listening (the ear’s cochlear function) and movement in terms of balance, position and posture (the ear’s vestibular function). Children by nature move constantly, so movement activities meet them where they are at.
Also, “physical movement helps children develop an internal sense of ‘beat’ that seems to correlate with reading and math abilities,” says Jane M. Healy in Endangered Minds.4 And this is not merely hearing but feeling the beat. Steady beat activities are important because they provide a sense of security (from in the womb, babies are used to hearing the sound of the mother’s heart beat and breathing), order a child’s world and provide structure, develop the aural/motor connection, and are the basis for developing rhythm.
Music obviously is a motivating factor in motor development, for the natural response to music is to move to it. When young children hear a song with a strong beat I often see them do this little dance of bouncing up and down. They are learning to develop that internal sense of beat.
Music provides structure for movement, for the beat serves as an endpoint for movement and a rhythmic cue, is an outside source of pacing and provides auditory feedback.
Music and movement activities also provide kinesthetic learning opportunities – experiencing the body move, build muscular movement memory, focus on “feeling” aspects of creative expression, aid in recall and in understanding language and events, and stimulate participation.
Further, movement activities are the foundation for cognitive learning, and aid in the development of: purposeful movement, impulse control, gross and fine motor coordination and eye-hand coordination, spatial concepts, and problem solving.
Language skills come next in the sequence of development. Children begin with nonverbal communication, then say one word at a time, “Ball!”, then connect nouns and verbs into short sentences. As they hear language spoken by adults and experiment actively with language themselves, they begin to speak in more complex sentences, modeling what they hear from the important people in their lives. Language of course is important for communication and for higher level reasoning.
Just as language has patterns of letters, words, phrases, and sentences, so does music. Music also imitates conversation: phrases include questions and answers, silence, listening, and response. So as a child is exposed to the structure of music, language and communication patterns are reinforced. For example, a child will not stutter when singing, because of the structure of the music puts the words into a predictable time format.
You should know that TV is not a good model for a child’s language development. In most programming the language is much too quick for the children to understand, and language is dumbed down, so that complex sentences are not heard nor a wide variety of vocabulary words.5
Children next develop social skills. They must learn to interact with other people, both other children and adults in an acceptable way. So they learn impulse control – not hitting the kid who has a toy one wants – and to take turns. They learn to use their words to work out conflicts and how to be sensitive and compassionate towards others needs as well as their own.
One of the most amazing aspects of music in my opinion is the social aspect of an ensemble. Other activities promote social development, such as team sports, but these are aggressive interactions (which certainly have their place.)
Music, however, is an opportunity for people to work together to create something beautiful, whether it is unison singing or diverse parts that form exquisite harmonies. Music is an opportunity to learn positive social interaction through listening and expressing.
Ensemble activities are also important because they develop creative expression, impulse control and concentration (as one focuses on one’s part), communication, and understanding of parts and phrases in music.
The next stage is emotional or creative expression. Children become more aware of their emotions and how to control them. Outlets may be sought to express emotions in a healthy way – aggressive behaviors are appropriate in competitive sports, for example.
Music can be an important outlet for expressing ourselves. As Hans Christian Andersen, the famous fairy tale writer said, “Where words fail, music speaks.”6
That is why there is a field called music therapy and why many of us turn to listening to a favorite song for comfort or to playing an instrument for an emotional outlet. By exposing a child to music, he or she may find a wonderful outlet for emotions and creative expression.
The pinnacle of development is cognitive reasoning. Children are reading, then writing, and ultimately thinking for themselves. We want them to be able to become responsible adults who contribute to society and forge new technology and relationships for our progress as a civilization. This cognitive level of development begins in the teen years.
In music, reading and writing are the means of expression. As one can read music, one can participate in higher levels of music-making, understanding not only the notes on a page but the genre of the piece, the nuances of expression, etc. One can analyze the structure of music and which notes make up the chords. Ultimately one will be able to write new music as well.
Music is Interactive:
I already mentioned that we live in an overly visually stimulating society. Another factor to consider about involvement in music is that it is interactive. While TV and computer software producers purport to offer educational programming, it is actually passive learning. Listening to music can also be passive, mind you, which is why I will give you some ideas for participating more actively, but first I want to stress the importance of interactive learning, rather than passive.
In her book Endangered Minds, Jane Healy proposes that while there is of course a genetic element to intelligence, environments can shape brains and intelligence levels.
Studies were done with rats in which some were given an enriched environment with playmates and toys such as wheels and balls, where they could explore, push, roll, climb etc., and other rats were in impoverished conditions of merely living in a cage. Those in the enriched interactive environment developed larger brain cortexes by as much as 11%.7
Interestingly, when rats were given an opportunity to watch other rats in an enriched environment, their brains did not grow any more than those of rats in the impoverished cage.8
The point here is that as author Jane Healy states, “Children need stimulation and intellectual challenges, but they must be actively involved in their learning, not responding passively while another brain – their teacher’s or parent’s – laboriously develops new synapses in their behalf!”9 (emphasis mine)
Do you want your children to have a music education but you’re not sure where to start?
Now you CAN help your child learn about classical music and great composers without hours of planning, even if your only experience with music is playing the radio!
INTRODUCING The Composer Detective: Helping homeschool moms and kids investigate the lives and music of some of the world’s great orchestral composers!
Critical periods of learning:
The moment a child is born, neural pathways are developing and there are critical periods for some types of mental development. If the right stimulation isn’t there at that time, a child will not develop in that area normally.10
Language is one of those areas – during a critical period before age two, a child’s ear can hear nuances in any language to be able to imitate those sounds later in speech. If a child is in a bilingual or multi-language home, he or she can learn to speak those languages without accents because he or she heard the nuances of the sounds during the critical period. But most of us Americans heard only English as infants, and so when we learn another language, we struggle with the correct pronunciation or accent to speak that language like a native speaker.
Music also has a critical period of learning. This window of opportunity is until age nine. Children who are exposed to music at an early age easily develop a sense of steady beat and accurate pitch, regardless of if their parents exhibit these musical skills. Musical ability is not all genetic but can be developed during early childhood.
Music educator Edwin Gordon suggests that you cannot influence a child’s aptitude for music after age 9 but can only influence achievement after this age.11
I would say that it is not impossible to learn music or develop the ability to match pitch and keep a steady beat after age nine, but it is much more difficult and unlikely that one will be able to do so. I have worked with eleven and twelve year olds who had no music experience until this age and who still cannot match pitch. (When I speak of matching pitch, I mean a call-and-response of so-mi.)
Cultural influences vs. family time
Another reason music is important in early childhood is that it promotes family interaction. We live in an age of electronic devices and visual distractions. Both parents often work, and families may spend less time together.
Whatever your family and work situation is, music can be an enjoyable activity for the whole family to participate in.
No matter what your skill level or age, every member of the family can participate in music in some way – listening, moving, playing an instrument or keeping a beat.
By spending a few minutes each day singing to and with your children, especially when they are young, you develop a bond with them as you share an experience together. This can be repeated day after day and you may build memories together.
Rather than each family member doing their own thing – each on a device or all watching television, music is an activity that brings everyone together. It is a cultural tradition we need to continue to pass down to our children in our over-wired world!
Music is something we can enjoy and participate in from birth to death. It is a great enhancement throughout each stage of development. Whether or not you want your child to be a proficient musician, he or she will benefit from participating in active music making.
Musical development correlates with every stage of your child’s development and will enhance every area! It is the perfect “pre-school” program starting right at birth.
But lastly, I encourage you to expose your children to music simply for its own sake. This quote from a parent and reader of Zero to Three magazine summarizes it:
“I can’t imagine a world without music. I’m sorry [academics] haven’t argued more forcefully for the gift of music in children’s lives simply for its own sake – for the beauty and light it brings into daily existence – rather than bowing to a pressure to tack on ‘academic’ value, as in ‘Mozart helps kids build math skills,’ etc. It’s enough that the world was graced with Mozart’s brilliant music – to play it so new generations of children hear it as part of being human.” Mary D., parent and reader of Zero to Three
1 Healy, Jane M. Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think – and What We Can Do About It. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990, p. 174.
3 Notes from Musikgarten training. Quoted by Cathy Mathia, 2002.
4 Healy, Jane M. Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think – and What We Can Do About It. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990, p. 171.
5 Ibid., pps. 88, 94, 114, 115, 210, 225.
6 Getting in Tune: The Powerful Influence of Music on Young Children’s Development, published by Zero to Three, 2002, p. 2.
7 Healy, Jane M. Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think – and What We Can Do About It. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990, p. 70.
8 Ibid., p. 72.
9 Ibid., p. 73.
11 Notes from Musikgarten training. Quoted by Cathy Mathia, 2002.