The benefits of music education are far-reaching and well-documented. But like the study of language, the most fertile time to begin that education is early childhood – from birth to age 7. There is a research-based early childhood music program called Music Together® that is designed to develop basic music competence in children by providing an environment that fosters music-making with the whole family. The program views both the body and the voice as musical instruments and integrates the two to develop basic rhythm and tonal competence. If every child were enrolled in such a program we would be on our way to having a musically literate society where all could sing our national anthem (or at least Happy Birthday) in tune while being able to clap and walk along to the beat! We would also be creating a generation of people with stronger more flexible brains.
Because of the efforts of neuroscientists, we know that a brain listening to music lights up all different areas in brain scans. Playing an instrument helps create a stronger bridge between the two hemispheres of the brain. In her TEDx talk, Anita Collins, a music educator, tells her audience that learning disabilities are believed to be a miscommunication between the two sides of the brain and ADHD is believed to be caused by a mistiming between the motor, visual and auditory cortices. Music education that involves studying a musical instrument can help strengthen the communication between hemispheres and, because it involves all three of those cortices, can help keep those cortices in synch.
And all this neuroscience leads us back to early childhood. Dr. Patricia Kuhl, a professor and Co-Director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington explains in her TED talk what she’s learned from her research.
Well, babies all over the world are what I like to describe as “citizens of the world.” They can discriminate all the sounds of all languages, no matter what country we’re testing and what language we’re using, and that’s remarkable because you and I can’t do that. We’re culture-bound listeners. We can discriminate the sounds of our own language, but not those of foreign languages. So the question arises: When do those citizens of the world turn into the language-bound listeners that we are? And the answer: before their first birthdays.
And guess what happens by their first birthdays? They have figured out what sounds are important to the people around them and they “forget” the rest. Babies and toddlers don’t have the fine motor skills to play a musical instrument outside of themselves but they can learn to discriminate more subtlety in sound than they will be able to as adults or even as school-aged children and they can begin to use their own voices and bodies as their first instruments.
What does this means for us as educators and parents? We need to take advantage of these citizens of the world when they are at their most brilliant – when their minds are the most elastic and open. We need to sing to them and with them. We need to play music with unusual tonalities and rhythms and physically demonstrate and reinforce steady beat for them. Listening to music is good but watching Baby Mozart alone won’t cut it. We, the adults who are important in the lives of these children, need to show the brilliant brains of these babies that making music is socially imperative so their brains take note and hold on to all of this amazing ability to discriminate sound. When we spin with them, have them explore all the planes with their bodies as they dance to music, have them cross the midline with finger play and dance movements we are building babies with better brains. Giving adults and their young children the opportunity to attend music class together can help accomplish all of this.
And then, when these children who are now culture-bound listeners reach the tender age of 4 or 5 and are ready to hold an instrument and learn to play it, their ears can better discriminate sound, their bodies can create rhythm and maintain a steady beat. They are ahead of the game as they study that instrument and start fortifying their brains as they add skills and connections that will serve them for the rest of their lives.
Of course it is never too late to pick up an instrument and get some of the benefits and joys of making music, but if we begin that education with babies and toddlers, we will nurture a generation of people who are not only musically literate, but are smarter and able to solve problems more creatively than many of us can. Early childhood music and movement education may help to preserve some of the genius with which these children were born and make music a more integral part of our world.