There are practical implications to just the impressive array of musical thinking even the youngest children are capable of. Because young brains are so musical, they must be given every opportunity possible to experience music and to grow in musicality. Edwin Gordon, a pre-eminent authority on music psychology and early childhood music, has emphatically written that if a child does not gain musical learning during the first 18 months, what would have been learned cannot be fully recovered later. Children need to have music in their environment right from the start. Parents and caretakers who sing to infants are doing great work. Infants love it, and while they are happily listening to the singing, their brains are connecting with the music, and laying the neural foundations for high musical achievement later in life, and possibly greater aptitude in other areas, especially language acquisition and spatial reasoning.
Young children’s ability to perceive music intelligently soon goes beyond comparing one sound to another. Around three years, children begin to understand emotion in music. Researchers found that 3-year-olds could model happiness and sadness by moving a teddy bear into different positions upon hearing sad or happy music. While older children in the study, those up to age 6, could do this more successfully than the 3-year-olds, the youngest children still demonstrated a high level of sophistication in understanding musical emotion.
Researchers have also found that infants 6 months old preferred consonant intervals to dissonant intervals, and preferred the correct version of a Mozart minuet to a version in which many intervals were altered to be dissonant (Trainor & Heinmiller, 1998), infants detected a change in meter when the rhythm suggested a strong metric framework, and when the meter was duple, (Bergeson & Trehub, 2006), and infants detected mistuned notes in diatonic scales (Trehub, Schellenberg, et al, 1999). So yes, every baby can be a critic.
Children learn musical patterns through listening, just as they learn letter and word pattern. Dr. Gordon calls these learned musical patterns a listening music vocabulary. He made the urgency of exposure to music in early childhood clear when he wrote, “Neglect and misdeeds in informal guidance in early childhood music leave many children who enter school at five years of age bereft of a music listening vocabulary.” Gordon goes on to explain that music a child encounters through the media is not enough, because there is not enough variety, and because there is no human interaction involved. What parents would allow their child to learn language solely from recordings of spoken language, while never speaking in the presence of the child? Indeed, it is noticeable when a child’s primary caregiver is the television set. There is often an observable deficiency in literacy readiness. Neither should we accept a child learning music only by listening to recordings. Children need to see free, continuous body movements to learn timing, and see movement and breathing to attain musicality. I’ll have more to say on the use of movement later. Only through intentional encounters with music in a variety of keys and meters sung by a responsible adult can a child fully develop musically and therefore cognitively.