The easy answer is: You should begin age-appropriate music "lessons" soon after birth, or maybe even before birth. That being said, please stay with me before giving your 6-month-old a trumpet.
There is a great deal of research supporting the notion that musical ability develops during a critical period from birth through age 9 (or 10 or even 11, depending on the research). However, it seems clear that after age 11 the window for developing certain musical abilities is shut -- and shut forever.
This makes sense. Our brains seem to be "wired" for learning and processing the patterns we hear. This is most obvious in how young children develop language. They hear the patterns and inflections in their native tongue and their brains internalize them. Language learning seems natural, and they learn the language of the culture they're living in. A child can also learn multiple languages at this time and being bi-lingual seems natural. Yes, an adult can learn a second language, but it will rarely be as natural as the first language or without an accent.
The same is true with music. At its most basic level, music is made up from a surprisingly small vocabulary of rhythm and pitch patterns. These basic patterns vary by culture, (which is why Japanese music sounds different from Canadian music), but the basic principle of music being comprised of patterns is true of all music.
These patterns can be considered the basic units of music, much like words are the basic units of speech. The individual notes are like letters -- they only take on meaning when combined into a word. Likewise, the individual notes only take on musical meaning when they are combined into patterns.
A child learns the musical patterns of the music they're exposed to during their formative years. The patterns are internalized and become the child's natural musical language. So, early music "lessons" should have as its goal engaging the child with music in a way that will help him or her focus on, and learn, the basic building blocks of music.
This internalizing of musical patterns is most often accomplished by singing and movement at an early age. Like language, it is best learned if the entire environment is immersed with music.
This takes us right back to our basic question. While weekly "lessons" or "Mommy-Baby Classes" are worthwhile, the fact that they only meet once or twice a week makes them enhancements to the process, not the core of the process. Imagine if your child only heard language during prescribed classes once or twice a week and the rest of the time the child experienced no language. The chance of a regular development would be remote.
So, providing basic music experiences is really up to the parents. Now, before you start protesting, "I can't carry a tune in a bucket" or "I haven't played my instrument since I was in middle school," there is some good news. You don't have to be a musician! The key is to help your child focus and internalize the basic patterns of music -- to engage her in music. Here are a few ways in which you can go about it:
- Sing with your child. The reason many children's songs (for example, "Itsy, Bitsy Spider" or "Row, Row, Row Your Boat") have lasted through generations is that they have the basic patterns we're trying to instill.
- Download songs to your iPod and do the movements along with the song. The purpose is to focus attention on the music.
- Hold your child and sway while singing or listening to music.
- March around your living room.
- Clap a rhythm. Any rhythmic "dancing" to music at this age will fulfill this purpose.
- Have music as a constant "soundtrack" in the home. This will be especially helpful if there is repetition of certain pieces.
The musical learning you build in your child will last a lifetime. If later in life (whether it's age 7 or 52) he or she decides to learn an instrument, your child will already have the basic "musicality" developed in his or her brain. Even if they don't, kids will have an enhanced appreciation of the music they hear for the rest of their lives. These basic active and passive musical experiences early in life are not just beneficial for the future musicians. They lead to an enhanced quality of life for anyone, regardless of calling.
So, the answer to the original question is: Start your child's musical development as early as you can, but do it in an age-appropriate way, with age-appropriate goals.
How are you engaging your child in music?
This article was originally on PBSParents and was written by Rob Cutietta. Rob is the Dean of the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music. He is a noted author and popular speaker whose areas of expertise include the middle-school learner, choral education, learning theories and the psychology of music. Additionally, he is a highly-regarded musician and educator, and he has extensive knowledge about the full range of musical talent nationally as well as internationally.