Updated: May 7
From a very young age I have always been drawn to music. I do not recall many experiences before the age of five...but the ones I do remember, are my first involvements with music. At the time I didn’t realize, of course, that these would have a long-lasting impression on me. I’ve always had this feeling inside that music has the power to do wondrous things for us as humans. If I think back and look at my musical path from those early years until now, I can ascertain the factors that contributed to music becoming a life long skill that I can enjoy, and share with others.
Unfortunately, our public education system does not prioritize the importance of musical development, nor recognize the period between birth and age 5 as the crucial time for developing the early foundations of music.
Children enter kindergarten ill-equipped for learning what is outlined in the government curriculum. The expectations of keeping a beat, matching pitch, and enjoying music as a whole should be well underway, if not attained by the age five. As a former Kindergarten teacher, I witnessed first-hand how many four and five-year-old children are very uncomfortable even with singing a simple song such as “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star!” They struggle with finding their singing voice, or look at me with wide eyes wondering ‘what is she asking me to do’?
It seems that gone are the days where music and movement is a large part of the Kindergarten classroom. Many classroom teachers feel uncomfortable with their own musical abilities (another indication of the upsetting state of music education) and therefore will not even attempt to integrate music throughout their day of teaching and learning.
In addition, there are those who believe music education is not as important as math or language. Then there are the added challenges of popular music with dramatic or obnoxious lyrics, questionable body movements, and basically (what I call) - noise pollution.
Not too long ago, music was infused in the daily living of families, such as families singing around a piano, weekly singing in churches or regular participation in choirs. Unfortunately, some assume a child can develop musical literacy simply by listening to the pop songs of our culture. Yes, listening is the first step in the process of early “music language” development, however… the quality, and variety of what children listen to, makes all the difference.
The Music Learning Theory for Newborn and Young Children (Gordon 2013) is a revelation to my own experiences and a proof in point about the types of Early Childhood Musical experiences children need and deserve.
Edwin Gordon, a leader in Music Education and Research, explained how the processes for learning language are very similar to the processes for learning music. He stressed that in order for young children to develop an understanding of music, they need to experience music as early as possible, in as similar a way as they experience language.
Here is some of what we know about Music Learning from Edwin E. Gordon’s “Music Learning Theory for Newborn and Young Children,” 2013
We are ALL born with a certain aptitude or potential for learning music, some higher, some lower, but majority are average
This potential begins to decrease immediately at birth, as it is affected by its new surroundings
Our music aptitude can fluctuate, grow stronger (back to its original birth level or close to it) or atrophy (like a muscle) before becoming fixed at the age of 9
The critical period for change in aptitude is between birth – 5 years, hence this is the most important time to expose children to rich, musical environments
Musical Achievement is what we are able to do with that potential
As you can see, Music Aptitude then is determined by nature (biologically at birth) and nurture (rich music environments). This is why music learning during the early years of life is developmental, or open to change.
Now we must not confuse Music Aptitude with Music Achievement. After age 9, when music aptitude has become fixed, a person who continues to learn music (musical achievement) will be limited by their fixed potential. Environmental exposure will have little, if not zero effect on their musical aptitude. Therefore, music potential is no longer developmental, but rather stabilized or fixed.
One of the most important goals for me as a music educator, is to bring this awareness to parents, educators, and caregivers about the essential role you play in nurturing your child's musical development, just as you would support their development in other skills.
In a post, from McMaster Institute For Music and the Mind, Laurel Trainer writes “Why Music Education is Good for Our Children.” She comments how it is during the early years (infancy to childhood) when the brain is wide open and connections between neurons are being formed. Research shows that these connections are greatly influenced by the experiences a child has at this stage.
As young children, we all learn a language that we are exposed to regularly, yet informally. The same has been discovered when a child has been exposed to the structure of a music system.
Trainer's studies have shown increased brain responses in infants as young as 6 months who participate in parent-child music classes, compared to those exposed to an equal amount of music without active participation. She goes on to say that one of her favourite findings is the effects of synchrony when making or moving to music with others. Children demonstrate more prosocial behaviours, such as empathy and sharing, simply by moving in sync (ex. dancing or making music) with those they feel connected to. *
These findings reaffirm how tremendously important it is that parents, educators, and caregivers be the ones to create and provide an authentically rich, musical environment for their child, regardless of what they believe their own abilities are.
After reading this, some of you may realize why you are uncomfortable with your own musical abilities. It is likely because you did not move through musical development in the early years yourself. While this may be true, do not let this hinder you from sharing in the joy of making music with the ones you love the most!
*Trainor, L. (2014, March 11). Why Music Education is Good for Our Children: Guest Post by McMaster University’s Laurel Trainor