Music educators have long heralded early musical study as important because it provides extraordinary experiences for the mind, body, and spirit. In the last few years, however, social and biological scientists have joined the chorus in singing the praises of music. Rarely a month goes by without the national media reporting on the results of a new study that underscores the importance of music in the development of children’s physical, cognitive, and emotional well-being. Among this research are the following observations:
- Infants are born with the innate ability to process musical sounds and patterns. These abilities must be nurtured through musical experiences or they will be diminished, if not lost (Healy, 1991).
- Infants and young children have selective windows of opportunity for optimal learning. This is especially true for music, since the ear is so ripe for aural language development from birth to age three (Begley, 1996).
- Exposure to music exercises the brain for higher cognitive functions. Studies on the effect of early musical experiences, for example, show that selected musical activities stimulate short-term memory, problem solving, physical coordination, and creative thinking (Rauscher, et al., 1997).
Given these discoveries, it is no longer acceptable to treat early music instruction as a “take it or leave it” activity. This article will discuss several practical ideas that will enable you to bring music into your classroom, even if you are not a “music” teacher. Ideally, music in the early childhood classroom should include three main components: vocal development, movement, and listening.
A young child will first attempt to sing by isolating parts of words or selected words from a larger song. If provided a rich array of singing experiences, children will begin with spoken and sing-song inflection as toddlers, and then move to matching pitches and singing entire songs as older preschoolers. Although many children will not sing in a group setting or in front of another child or adult, they will sing during playtime. This is a perfectly normal, developmental way for young children to respond. As children become more comfortable with their singing voices, they will begin to join in group singing activities.
As you consider ways in which you can add singing to your classroom, offer songs in a variety of styles: familiar folk and traditional songs, holiday songs, nonsense songs, and classical melodies. You can introduce each song by singing it to the children, or, if you feel more comfortable, by listening with your class to the song on a cassette or CD. You can sing both with and without the recording, but children can best hear the pitches when singing unaccompanied. You might want to sing one phrase at a time, and then ask the children as a group to echo that phrase.
Remember that young children have delicate vocal chords. It’s important for you to help them learn how to use their voices properly. You will want to encourage the children to sing lightly in a comfortable range (Phillips, 1992). Guard against pitching a song too low, even if it seems comfortable for you. Most children’s voices are lighter and higher than you might expect!
Young children can be taught to develop listening skills necessary for musical, intellectual, and social development. When the children listen to a recording, ask them about the singers. Do they hear men, women, or children? Are they singing alone or as a group? Or make a game out of identifying instruments on recordings. Peter and the Wolf by Sergei Prokofiev or A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra by Benjamin Britten are excellent recordings that use a variety of instruments. Check out library books containing pictures of different instruments or invite someone who plays a musical instrument into the classroom.
Because young children’s ears are so ready for language acquisition, you can continue to refine their listening skills through discriminatory listening activities. Listening to nature or animal sounds and having the children imitate these sounds vocally are excellent ways to build subtle listening abilities and encourage vocal development.
When children move to music, they begin to make music an integral part of their lives. Therefore, encourage the children to move musically in many ways (Gilbert, 1992). You might begin with free movements that develop body awareness, such as creative and expressive motion. (“Can you walk like a bear?” “How does a snake slither?”) Young children often enjoy spontaneous, joyful dancing to music. Use recordings of classical music as background music for creative dancing. Recordings of folk or jazz music make nice synchronized accompaniments for tapping, clapping, or marching to a beat.
Playing musical instruments is another exciting way to integrate music and movement for young children. Although younger children are not developmentally ready to match their beat with the beat of a song, they can enjoy handling and playing the instruments. Older children will be able to provide synchronized accompaniments for songs.
Depending on the age range of the children in your classroom, you may want to explore homemade instruments. You can cut wooden dowels to appropriate lengths and sand them to make rhythm sticks. Older preschoolers can help glue sandpaper to different shapes of wooden blocks to make sand blocks, and plastic eggs filled with beans or rice and glued shut make inexpensive shakers. To make a drum, use an oatmeal can and add a homemade pencil or stick mallet (Hawkinson & Faulhaber, 1971). Instruments can also be purchased from a music supplier. Good choices for purchased instruments include jingle bells, native drums, maracas, triangles, and finger cymbals.
Do I Have Enough Talent?
By the time we reach adulthood, most of us have formed ideas about our own musical abilities. However, if we wish to give music to our students, we may need to rethink some of our preconceptions. We may be concerned that our singing voice is inadequate, or our rhythm is “off,” or be intimidated by our lack of formal musical training. But let’s remember not to let our inhibitions stop us from providing musical experiences in our classroom. Let’s begin to sing, even if we haven’t sung before, and let’s move to the music, even if we have two left feet.
Patty Bilhartz is an early childhood music specialist, author, composer, and church musician. She holds an M.A. in music, and is the director of Kindermusik at the Music and Arts Center in the greater Houston, Texas area. As a master teacher and teacher trainer for Kindermusik International, Bilhartz has presented music workshops throughout the U.S. and Australia.
Begley, S. (1996). Your child’s brain.Newsweek, February 19, 1996. p. 55-62.
Gilbert, A.G. (1992). Creative dance for all ages. American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.
Hawkinson, J. & Faulhaber, M. (1971). Music and instruments for children to make. Chicago.
Healy, J.M. (1991). Endangered minds. New York: Touchstone.
Music of the hemispheres. Discover, March 1994. p. 15. In Rauscher, F., et al, Music training causes long-term enhancement of preschool children’s spatial-temporal reasoning.Neurological Research, February 19, 1997. p. 2-8.
Phillips, K.H. (1992).Teaching kids to sing. New York: Schirmer Books.