You Are Your Child’s First Music Teacher

How old were you when you started taking music lessons? Most people begin weekly, private music lessons at around the age of six years. Six years old is a good age to begin private lessons, and it is typically the age that I will begin to see students. However, your child’s music education should begin long before their first private lesson -and it is you who is their best teacher! In this article I will introduce you to the basics of becoming your child’s first music teacher. The information I offer is based on my experience as both a music educator and as an academic psychologist.
When to begin?
I recommend that parents begin their child’s music education as early as the late fetal period. The Central Nervous System (brain & spinal cord) and the Peripheral Nervous System (sensory organs) are sensitive to stimuli by the third trimester. Around two months before delivery, the fetus reacts to sound, light, and touch. Movement, rhythmic dancing, and listening are all experienced and responded to by the fetus. The fetus’s experience is completely physical in nature, but even at this early period of development, diversity of stimulus is essential. What this means for you, as your child’s first music teacher, is that a variety of musical styles, genres, and tempi should be enjoyed. This lesson remains true for the newborn as well; what enriches an environment (and thus neural development) is a diversity of musical stimuli. Think of your musical diet like eating a balanced diet. Throughout your child’s life, listening to a variety of musical styles will benefit their approach to music, as well as to the world, through flexibility.

Prenatal Music Lessons• Listen to music from different genres.

• Listen to music from different cultures.
• Listen to music with varying tempos.
• Dance and move with the music.

The Newborn Baby 

At birth the infant’s Central & Peripheral Nervous System has between 100 and 200 billion neurons. In the first two years of the child’s development, many of these neurons will either concentrate in a specific  area of the brain, make connections with other neurons, or die out. In a process called synaptic pruning, nearly 1/3 of the infant’s neurons will go unused and disappear. This process allows for the individual to achieve maximum proficiency in tasks that are introduced in their environment. For example, when we are acquiring language comprehension and production, neurons typically connect and concentrate near the surface of the front and left sides of the brain. If the child is not exposed to language, these neurons will not condense and form these dense concentrations that become centralized areas of the brain. Synaptic pruning is a “use it or lose it” function -if the neural pathways are not needed, they do not develop.

What this means for the first two years is essential. Just like language acquisition, if you do not expose your child to listening, moving to, and identifying musical elements, many of those neural concentrations may not form or will form with less neural density. Think of music listening and making as another language. As master teacher Shinichi Suzuki pointed out over 60 years ago, children who are not exposed to language will not develop language. We acquire language production and comprehension through repeated exposure and continuous interaction. The language of music is no different. Exposing the newborn, infant, and toddler to a wide variety of musical elements shapes the person, both on the social and biological level.

Take, for example, the case of what is called perfect pitch -the ability to identify a note by a name. Some adolescents discover that they can hear a given pitch and remember the alphabetical name for it (A, B, C, etc.). This ability is not a special gift, but rather a developed ability for which a critical period (essential time for learning) exists in the first two years of life. Naming the pitch with a frequency of 440Hz as an “A” is as arbitrary as learning that a visual wavelength of 620nm is “orange”. In fact, the word “orange”or the note name “A” is culture-bound to English speakers. What, then, is the difference between learning the English names of tones or the English names of colors? Exposure through teaching.

Here are some essential ways to teach your child music in the first two years of development:
• Sing and play to your child.
• Treat music like language; urge your child to sing notes back to, or along with, you.
• Repeatedly expose the child to the spoken note name and the tone.
• Dance and clap with your child to different tempos and different styles of music.
• Draw, paint, and sculpt to differing styles of music.
• By 19 months you can begin using visual flash cards to identify pitches by alphabet symbol.
• Read introductory textbooks to child development and music. These are available at your local bookstore and will give you all of the background that you need to become your child’s first music teacher.