Making Music with Your Young Children: It’s Easier Than You Think!

by Missy Strong February 19, 2014

As we begin to consider building a “musical environment” for the family, it seems logical to start with our youngest family members. Did you know that infants are able to attend to, and even store, musical information in both their short and long-term memory? God has created them in such a way that they can process music as they receive it from their environment. Infants are able to distinguish differences between two melodies, and they even show a preference for what has conventionally been labeled as a “good” melody. As evidenced in the work of researchers studying infant brain development, babies process musical information in ways that are not that different from adults.

While any process involving understanding brain development is difficult to grasp, a basic principal concerns the synaptic connections that take place to form the neuronal network for music. Babies' brains create thousands of synapses for different activities, of which only those made strong through repetition survive. This repetition is a result of sensory stimulation received over and over again from the environment. Just as visual input shapes the wiring of the visual cortex, early stimulation from the ears builds neuronal pathways in the auditory cortex. Bottom line? Children’s brains will create and solidify neural connections for music when they are receiving musical encouragement and input from their caregivers.

Edwin Gordon, a leading music education expert, states that the ages between 0-18 months are a crucial time in which informal exposure to music has the most impact on these neural pathways for music. He goes on to discuss the "music babble" stage of music processing that takes place during this time. In music babble, infants respond to pitched musical examples with speech-like imitations. As is the case with language babble, infants need the intuitive guidance of their caregivers to successfully navigate this period. If a baby eventually receives little or no musical exposure or structure before 18 months of age, music may be relegated to a place of insignificance in the brain of the child, especially when they are reaching the new, prelingustic phase and parents become (rightly) absorbed in listening to them talk.

Are you panicking? Don’t! Extensive musical training for caregivers is not necessary, but rather, the simple act of singing throughout the day to (and later, with) your baby will serve to build these neural pathways for music. This is good news—providing a good musical environment for your newborn or very young child has little to do with being an awesome musician yourself, buying the right Mozart CDs, or even sending them to the best music classes. While these things are helpful and worthwhile, it is enough to make sure that you are bonding with your infant, toddler, or young child through the basic and natural act of singing to them whenever the opportunity presents itself, and noticing when your child is being musical and encouraging them in the process. Better than enough, it is crucial that babies experience live music-making with their primary caregivers.

Take a moment this week to see if your child is doing something that, in the past, you might have considered random, but now think might be musical. For example, if you are singing and you hear your child babbling or humming during or soon after, figure out if their sounds are an approximation of one or more of the pitches in the song. When my own children were babies, I noticed this over and over again: they were responding to my own singing or humming with musical responses that I wouldn’t have otherwise recognized as such! When this happens, reinforce those sounds, singing and babbling with your baby as long as he or she is responsive. The same goes for playing recorded music for them and letting them listen while you hum along, or even better, as you pick them up and move to the music. These simple and wonderful things will go far in helping your baby to grow musically at the most important point in his or her musical development.

Most of all, enjoy the sweet experience of using God’s gift of music to care for and bond with your baby!

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