Just as a child starts to speak after listening to others speak, so too a child starts to sing, chant, and move after listening to others sing music. Through the voice, children develop the ability to sing and chant, which is the equivalent to speaking in a language. Because we are interested here in music, and not language, adults should sing short tonal patterns and chant short rhythmic patterns without any words, lyrics, or poetry. Even nursery rhythms and poems should not be used at this stage. Just singing on a neutral syllable, such as “bah” or “bum” is fine.
When my daughter was less than a year old, and before I knew all of this about early childhood music, I used to stand at the foot of her changing table as she lay there, and sing quick series of pitches on a neutral syllable; It never failed to bring a smile to her face—you know, the kind that makes everyone in the room with the baby go “ohhhhh.” I just thought it was great fun, making my daughter smile like that, but it turns out I was doing just the right thing to develop her musicality. So this is one thing you can and should do with infants. Sing to them without words, short phrases at a time.
From birth until around 3 years, a child will engage in the musical environment with little conscious interaction. The child will hear and remember sounds heard, and make random responses to them. This is when musical babble takes place, which is the child making sounds that don’t make musical sense to adults, but which are meaningful to the child. For pitches, the child makes singing sounds, but does so with a speaking voice. For rhythms, the child moves erratically without an apparent tempo or meter. This is a valuable stage in a child’s musical development, analogous to all the advances a child makes in language during these years. And as with language, it is too soon to begin formal musical training as long as the child is in the musical babble stage. Unstructured informal guidance is needed from birth to about age 3. During these years, there is no plan as to what the child will be asked to do, but the child is simply allowed to respond to music he or she hears, and to musically babble. From about age 3, structured informal guidance is appropriate. Now the parent or teacher says and does planned things with the child, but does not expect specific responses from the child.
Parents often wonder if it is appropriate to begin piano or violin lessons at about age 3. The answer is yes but only if the child is not required to practice and perform prescribed music. Giving the child an opportunity to explore an instrument on his or her own terms, and to make open-ended musical response to things that a teacher plays on the piano, is worthwhile and appropriate. However, as long as a child has not shown the capacity to keep a steady beat, maintain a meter or sing accurately in a tonality, traditional music lessons are not a good idea. At some point between the ages of 3 and 5 years, the child will begin to imitate with some precision sounds in his or her musical environment, especially pitch and rhythm patterns. When this change is observed, the child is ready for traditional music lessons such as piano or violin instruction. Susan Pascale wrote an excellent article on this subject. In it she makes the following suggestions, which are right in line with what researchers have told us. First, enrich the babies. “Teaching an instrument to a child under 3 is an exercise in frustration. Instead, bring them to hear live music. Give them simple toy instruments, like keyboards—kids love pressing buttons. If you ever played an instrument, dust it off and start playing again, in front of them.” Do you hear the practical ways Pascale suggests modeling and creating a musical environment for infants? Second, “There is a magic number. It’s about 3-1/2 years. For many children, that’s the age when they can begin to concentrate long enough for instrument lessons—especially if the instrument is a piano.” Pascale goes on to suggest that, “the best classes for this age are like a great big playgroup, with the instrument as the focus. Children can’t wait to see their friends.”