With all of the evidence suggesting that listening to classical music early in life has cognitive benefits, an article on early listening experiences could be all about how music promotes brain development. That is not, however the topic of this piece. Instead, I want to write about the importance of early music listening experiences in developing a life-long love of a wider variety of music than many teens and pre-teens even know exists. Most children do not develop a strong preference for music of the popular culture until around age 11 years, or sometime in 6th grade in American schools. Until then, children tend to have an open mind about listening to a wide variety of musical genres, including classical music. The other important thing to remember about musical preferences is that people tend to gravitate toward the familiar. We tend to choose to listen to music we’ve heard before, or that is like music we have heard before and already know we like. The format most radio stations use to drive their playlists is based on this. Managers know that their station will appeal to a population who like the kind of music they play. Variety isn’t good business. People who like top 40 will listen to top 40 stations. Mix in too many oldies or alternative songs, and listeners will start looking for their music elsewhere.
The implications for music educators must not be lost on us. Playing classical and other genres for children while they are in the primary grades in school builds a familiarity and liking for those kinds of music. Even atonal styles of music are more readily accepted by children than by older students or even adults, who have spent a lifetime building on a preference for more conservative musical works and composers. Children have active imaginations, and they are happy and even excited to use it as they listen to new music and music that is new to them. The issue for music educators must not always be form, structure, and thematic development or variation. The value in early listening experiences is in making idioms familiar through experiences of the music. Moving to form and moving for expression are valuable activities, and certainly form can be identified through them as a manifestation of a pattern, even with five-year-old children. But far more important is letting them enjoy listening to and moving to, and imagining with the music as they listen.
Another thing children love is stories. If children know they are going to hear a story, whether spoken or sung, they are eager to listen. Songs that tell a story are great for singing to and teaching to children. And, with middle primary students, opera is a natural, because it is really a play where all the lines are sung instead of spoken. That is how I explain opera to my students. Even if it is sung in a different language, with subtitles on an opera video, students enjoy opera more when they are able to focus on the story instead of the strange way the actors are singing. The opening scene of Puccini’s La Boheme is wonderful because it is a simple story of friends with little money and big dreams trying to stay warm on a cold evening in their apartment. Everybody has friends, and here in New England, all of us know the feel of a winter’s chill on a cold, blustery night, so the students easily identify with the characters and the story.
With repeated experiences with classical music, children develop a love for it than can last a lifetime. Certainly, for many classical music will not remain their music of choice throughout their teenage years, but it will be a familiar friend that will be revisited throughout life, and for some quite often. Just as familiarity with the idiom is important, familiarity with certain works is important too, so be sure to return to the same works often. Pieces that are good representatives of a style and are naturally appealing to students are best. I find students often are drawn to Beethoven, and to pieces that have been excerpted in the popular culture, whether in advertisements or film. Building familiarity is the importance of early music listening experiences.