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The Role of Music in Early Childhood Development

In this third installment of our series on The Nature of the Young Child, we continue to explore how children learn during the first phases of life, and how the first three years in particular are critical. Based on the pedagogical philosophy of acclaimed educator Maria  Montessori to “follow the child,” there are several experiences that influence sensory and motor development for neurological organization. Caregivers and children’s music teachers can see how music has a role to play in this vital stage of childhood development.

Children Learn Through Movement

Once they have learned to walk, toddlers spend much of their time exploring the world around them. Any parent can tell you that they are constantly on the move, learning to obtain control of their body movements. As a prerequisite to cognitive learning, sensorimotor integration is one of the earliest ways that babies and toddlers learn about their world.  From reaching and grasping to crawling and walking, children are explorers by nature. Through repetition and practice, the toddler begins to unconsciously strengthen body to mind neural connections. Kinesthetic awareness, an inner sense that operates below the conscious level, contributes information about how the body feels as it moves. Such awareness is invaluable to all learning, including music – through movements such as clapping, tapping, bouncing, or dancing.

Listening is the Most Important Sensory Channel for Learning

Formed in utero, the ear is functional at four months after conception, allowing the fetus to begin hearing their mother’s breathing, heartbeat, digestion, talking, and singing. The ear is an organ that never rests, and listening is important to almost all aspects of learning – physical, social, emotional, and intellectual. Music helps children to focus their attention on familiar sounds, whether it is a lullaby sung by a parent or a children’s music class, and helps to teach appropriate interaction with adults and peers.

Shaping Language is the Child’s Great Work

 At the earliest stages of life, children understand that speaking is what constitutes communication in their world. Sounds that come from the mouth such as cooing are very fascinating to babies, eliciting excited responses that begin a back and forth form of communication. In the beginning, tone and inflection are even more important than the words themselves, and infants will imitate and practice sounds as they become excited about their own vocalizations. Music offers a very strong source of pleasure for children, as it soothes, elicits attention, and stimulates response. The rhythm, repetition, and rhyming of music all contribute to a child’s language development as they are allowed to sing to themselves, make up words, and silly noises.

Children Have a Natural Tendency for Order 

As children experience the massive amount of information coming through their senses, they begin to sort, order, classify and categorize. Remarkable because it is not based on any previous experience, this process helps children to understand their environment and how to put persons and things in their accustomed place.  Maria Montessori understood this, and once order is established around the age of 3.5 years, change is better tolerated in the external environment. Music participation and education also helps establish a sense of order through repetition and routine of familiar songs and movements.

Independence and Initiative are the Embodiment of Learning

As children develop through movement and language, they are also beginning to move from total dependence on their caregiver towards a growing sense of self. Parents fully understand the “strong will” of a toddler, and at around 2 years of age, they love to participate in self-chosen tasks. Insisting on completing tasks alone, toddlers are showing a desire to free themselves from dependency. Music can provide a valuable tool for children to explore their independence. For example, playing different developmentally appropriate instruments presents cause and effect as they see what sounds they can make with them.

Repetition is Essential to Learning 

Children love to repeat enjoyable experiences, and this is an important aspect of both learning and teaching. While allowing them to enjoy the experience over and over, the repeated action boosts both cognitive as well as muscle memory. Often with deep concentration, children repeat tasks of their own choosing until they have mastered it and established control. It is then that they look for other ways to put the actions to work. Music is a wonderful tool for providing children with both a repetitive learning task, but also a means by which to take those tasks and add their own creativity.

In the first years of life, children use these mechanisms to understand their world and grow to free themselves of total dependence on others. Music, along with movement, can provide caregivers and early childhood music teachers with powerful tools to assist in this crucial stage of child development. In our next blog, we will explore the role of adults in the child’s environment, and how to encourage these mechanisms for both the physical and psychological well-being of the child.  

 Much of the content for this post was based on the introduction to Family Music for Babies and Family Music for Toddlers, an early childhood music curriculum developed by Musikgarten.

Understanding the Nature of the Young Child in Teaching Music

Maria Montessori, the acclaimed Italian physician and educator best known for the pedagogical philosophy that bears her name, once wrote “follow the child.” The statement is acknowledgement that children have their own particular pattern, of which careful observation is key to understanding in the classroom. Many childhood music programs approach and develop their curricula based on this philosophy. But the story, however, of each child begins even before the classroom – with the family in the home. At birth, babies are immediately exposed to a world of senses, each of which influences their process of self-construction. The environment in which they are submerged has a fundamental effect on the rest of the child’s life. Over the next several posts, we will explore how those early years are so formative, what influences that growth, and how the role of parents and caregivers is so important.

Phases of Childhood Development

Throughout time, psychologists and academics have sought to divide childhood development into phases, stages, or periods. Whether it is Piaget’s 4 stages of Cognitive Development, Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development, or Montessori’s Sensitive Periods of Development, each differs slightly from each other, either in behavioral approach or developmental milestones. But all of these agree that the most formative stages occur in the earliest part of life. While there is slight variation in the exact milestones, for discussion we can identify two major phases in childhood development:

Phase 1 – From birth to age three are years of intense activity and absorption.

Phase 2 – From age three to six years is a time to consolidate the gains from the first period

Whether cognitive or social, there is no more significant phase in human development than these early years, and even more influence is placed on the first three years of life.

A Child’s First Three Years are Critical

An incredibly complex stage of development takes place during the first three years of life, as a child becomes consciousness of being separate from others and builds competencies off of stimulating experiences. In the creative process from newborn to three-year-old, a series of transformations take the child from helpless infant to becoming a confident person in his or her own right. During this time they experience a growing sense of selfhood with an ability, through language as well as mobility, to communicate their individual needs and desires.

This formation is possible at a pre-conscious level because nature directs the development in the earliest stages of childhood. These are “critical” periods, where the developing child focuses on the necessary factors in their environment that direct the work of inner construction. The first three years of human life are so critical because it is a period in which intellectual growth rapidly occurs and cognitive functions are being established. Therefore, early experiences within an interesting and stimulating environment promote optimal development physically, emotionally, socially, spiritually and intellectually.

The Senses are the Child’s Window to the World

Even before they are born, babies have some senses in the womb. They can hear their mothers voice and music being played, they can also sense vibration when their mother rubs her belly, and often engage in self-touch as their skin gradually becomes more sensitive to stimulation. At birth, they begin to absorb their surroundings with enthusiasm during every waking moment. Through exploration and manipulation, sensory information (taste, smell, touch, vision, and hearing) is confirmed though movement. This sensorimotor exploration is a way for babies to learn without language and begin to develop the symbolic system that is the basis of concept formation and cognitive learning. In just three years, babies have organized what their senses have taught them in ways that encapsulate their own understanding.

The process by which infants and toddlers learn is based on an important and impressionable phase during the first three years of life. It is during this formative period that the child organizes information that has been gathered through their senses to begin to establish selfhood and identity. During this time and the next three years of life, several factors determine how the child will learn and grow physically, emotionally, socially, spiritually and intellectually. Continuing to explore the Nature of the Child, our next post will expand on the important factors that influence these critical formative years.

Much of the content for this post was based on the introduction to Family Music for Babies and Family Music for Toddlers, an early childhood music curriculum developed by Musikgarten.

The Science of Music: Creativity Wish List – How Music Inspires Children to Compose

Our third and final set of The Neuroscience of Music serieshas begun to explore ways in which early childhood music education can help to develop skills from parents’ Creativity Wish List by teaching children to fall in love with music. This second of four installments in the Creativity Wish List set provides insight and helpful instruction on how to inspire children to compose through music.

“Just think about what it means to compose,” poses  Dee Joy Coulter, a nationally recognized Neuroscience educator, “The child must figure out how to begin, how to develop an idea, how to end it well, and finally, how to get others to join in and play it together.”

  • Through early childhood group classes, infants, toddlers, and preschoolers experience firsthand how music creates community. Performance of music through familiar songs, stories, and dances create a connection with those participating. 
  • Music almost always has a set pattern, a composition consisting of a beginning, a repeated musical idea, and a clear ending. Practicing these musical forms develops an understanding of how music is formed and created. Later in life, this understanding of structure will help guide the child in writing papers, working on a project, giving talks, and developing leadership skills.

How music inspires Infants and toddlers to begin to compose

  • Family life provides the very earliest forms of composition in how we go about the rhythms and routines of our daily schedule. Coaching these familiar “forms” develop a comfort and bond between family and infant.
  • Using traditional songs and music, that have a clear beginning, middle pattern, and end help infants and toddlers to understand the basic structure of music, and when they begin to sing along with or respond to those forms, then they are beginning the earliest stages of composition.

Using music to inspire composition in preschoolers and beginning school age children

  • As children grow from toddlerhood to preschool age, their individual aptitude for certain parts of composition start to reveal themselves. Children who show particular delight or enthusiasm about starting something new, may have a propensity for beginnings in composition. Those who love to work on creative tasks over and over until they get it right may work better in the middle parts, while others may love a spectacular ending.
  • As parents sing and move with preschool and beginning school children at home or in early childhood group music classes, pointing out the beginning, middle, and end parts of the songs or tunes with them helps to instill a better understanding of music composition.

Dr. Lorna Heyge, founder of Musikgarten reminds us that “Just as with language development skills, in order for children to learn creative thinking skills, they need to be involved in situations where creative thinking is both modeled and nurtured.” Participating in musical activities through repeated and familiar songs and dance provide an opportunity for parents and early childhood music educators to understand the patterns and forms of music composition, while inspiring them to explore and create their own.

*Musikgarten Delivers: The Neuroscience of Music collection by Dr. Dee Coulter is available for $10 in the Product Catalog section of our Teacher Portal. Username and password are required. You may also contact Musikgarten at 800-216-6864 to purchase.

The Science of Music: Creativity Wish List – How to Inspire Children to Fall in Love with Music

If you have been following along with us on this informative journey about The Neuroscience of Music, this third and final set in the Musikgarten published series will explore ways in which early childhood music education can help to develop skills from parents’ Creativity Wish List. Don’t worry if you have not read the previous posts, they all stand alone, and you can always go back and read them here. The four installments in the Creativity Wish List set will provide insight and tips into how music inspires children to fall in love with music, compose, improvise, and love nature.

“Music can bring so much joy to a child’s life that it is a wonderful gift in its own right,” affirms Dr. Dee Joy Coulter, a nationally recognized Neuroscience educator, “but it also has the most “fringe benefits” of all the art forms and activities you could give your child.”

  • Music is often thought of as humanity’s universal language. As children learn songs and dances from around the world, they learn how to connect with different cultures and become world citizens.
  • There are an increasing number of medical applications for music in healing, including the relief of pain, lowering stress and blood pressure, and reducing the hospital stays of premature newborns and surgical patients.

Here are a few facts and information on how to inspire children to fall in love with music from the first installment in the parents’ Creativity Wish List.

How to inspire Infants and toddlers to begin to love music

  • Even before birth, most infants hear and love the sound of their mother’s voice, and research shows that nearly all people who go on to develop higher musical skills in life were sung to by their parents during childhood.
  • Music classes begin with the most powerful expression of parental love cultures have developed – the lullaby. Nothing is more nourishing than this opportunity to soak up the love of a parent through music.
  • The same tonal patterns in songs and tunes are used by different cultures around the world, naturally using rising tones to create and delight infants and toddlers, while using falling tones to calm and sooth them.
  • As your infant grows into toddlerhood, explore different types of songs and music to see which delight them the most, bringing them joy and relaxation. Many parent-child early childhood music classes help parents to explore what kind of music has the most effect on their child.

Using music to build skills that will delight preschoolers and beginning school age children

  • As toddlers grow into preschool age, parents and teachers can use songs, dances, musical stories, games, and other activities to teach children about energy and emotion. Lively songs are often met with happy, smiling movement, while slower, gentler songs can help express calm and even sadness.
  • It can be helpful to match music to your child’s current mood to show how music conveys feelings. If your child is happy, then sing happy songs with them.  Inversely, you can use music selections, songs, and activities to help counter their mood, such as slower, softer songs at bedtime to help them settle down.
  • Throughout history and across cultures humans have shared in songs when working together. Explore work songs with your child as a great way to teach them to enjoy picking up their toys and helping with chores around the home.

Instilling a love of music in your child is a gift that will last their entire life. Even before birth, exposure to music has shown to provide numerous benefits in early childhood, such as improved language development, focus and memory, and fundamental math skills. Taking it a step further, group musical activities in early childhood have shown to improve self-confidence, self-esteem, discipline, and teamwork.

*Musikgarten Delivers: The Neuroscience of Music collection by Dr. Dee Coulter is available for $10 in the Product Catalog section of our Teacher Portal. Username and password are required. You may also contact Musikgarten at 800-216-6864 to purchase.

The Science of Music: Preparing Children to be Ready to Read

 The Neuroscience of Music*  series of publications explains to music teachers and parents ways in which early childhood music education will help impact the development of children. The Parent’s School Skills Wish List is the second set of The Neuroscience of Music, with this installment exploring how music helps teach children to get ready to read.

Reading is one of the most important and studied skills in education. Dr. Dee Joy Coulter, a nationally recognized Neuroscience educator points out that many of the key activities that researchers site for helping children prepare to read successfully look a lot like the skills learned in an early childhood music class, such as hearing and identifying differences in pitches, patterns, rhythms and rhymes. Early childhood music teachers and parents can use these methods and activities to help children prepare to read:

How music can offer pre-reading skills to infants and toddlers:

  • An early childhood music teacher will sing Ba, Ba to a baby and soon a response will come back Ba. Over time the response will be more precise with Ba, Ba. The echoing and imitation will progress further, leading to an early attention to language, to form and to the call and response pattern, all excellent pre-reading exercises.
  • Finally, singing simple songs not only soothes infants and toddlers, but also helps them to recognize patterns and words as they are repeated. Lyrics from old folk songs seem to be especially easy for children to recognize, as if their long history has made them more memorable.

Preparing preschoolers to read songs and music

  • The mimicking or “echoing” that works with infants and toddlers can be turned into call and response activities and songs for preschool children. Music works especially well with this exercise and has been used by pre-school teachers to teach children speech, reading, in addition to simply gaining their attention.
  • Songs are very often stories, and help preschool children to follow and understand a timeline, setting, and characters. In addition to reading them stories to begin to teach how sentences and stories are formed, singing familiar and open-ended songs help them to understand how to construct and understand written words. Many early childhood music programs go even a step further, getting the children to act out a storyline set to music in order to further reinforce these valuable skills.

From the earliest stages, songs and music are an important part of developing children’s understanding of language, and eventually reading. Babies respond to the rhythm and melody of language before they understand what the words mean. As toddlers grow into preschoolers, call and response activities such as those commonly used in early childhood music programs help them to understand the rhythm and structure of words and sentences, and how they are formed into songs and written stories.

*Musikgarten Delivers: The Neuroscience of Music collection by Dr. Dee Coulter is available for $10 in the Product Catalog section of our Teacher Portal. Username and password are required. You may also contact Musikgarten at 800-216-6864 to purchase.