Little known fact: I have a degree in music education. You’d probably guess, then, that I couldn’t wait for Oliver to reach three months old so that I could enrol him in baby music classes with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra or the Vancouver Academy of Music. After all, “music makes kids smarter,” and when it comes to stimulating our children’s intelligence, there’s no such thing as too much or too early, right?
There is no evidence** that enrolling your tiny tot in structured music classes will make him smarter, more musical, more cooperative or more linguistically capable. But at $150 for 10 classes of 30 to 45 minutes in duration, it will definitely make your wallet lighter!
For some babies, especially those who are particularly vulnerable to sensory over-stimulation, these classes could actually be harmful. Think: bright lights, dazzling colours, loud sounds, strange objects and crowded rooms. Classes for the youngest learners usually encompass babies from three months of age to as old as 18 months. What is fun and exciting to a toddler is likely to be completely overwhelming to an infant. And when babies get over-stimulated and overwhelmed, they shut down. They are not learning.
In my opinion, there is limited musical benefit to beginning any sort of formal music classes before preschool age. The benefits actually derive from the fact that a structured program forces parents to spend a half hour or more of focused, quality time with their children — free from the distractions of cell phones, computers, televisions and housework.
At the age of three or four, however, many children are capable of learning basic musical concepts that can form the foundation for later vocal or instrumental study. This is the age at which classes for the most established early childhood music education approaches — Orff Schulwerk, Kodály, Dalcroze Eurhythmics and Suzuki — begin.
What’s important in the earlier years is exposure, and this can be easily provided by even the most non-musical of parents. Here’s how:
Sing to your baby. Your baby doesn’t care if you’re tone-deaf or have a horrible voice. He thinks your voice is the most beautiful sound in the world. Babies love the repetitive, predictable nature of nursery and folk songs, but you can also make up songs about your activities, members of your family, or other topics relevant to your baby’s daily life. Using singsong (“parentese“) is a great way to get baby’s attention when emphasizing new words and concepts.
Read to your baby. The rhythmic language of children’s books and verses helps to develop your child’s sense of musical meter.
Play recorded music. This need not be limited to Classical music. Expose your baby to music from different eras, different cultures and different styles. Sing, hum or tap along. Point out interesting sounds or patterns. Children like what is familiar, so the more frequently they hear something, the more they will enjoy it. Research on infants has demonstrated that babies elicit strong positive responses to music that was regularly played to them in utero. Share your favourite music with your baby, and it may become his, too.
Dance. Children are kinaesthetic learners, and movement helps to internalize music. It also makes music fun and enjoyable! Sway around the room with your baby in your arms or a sling. Sit him in your lap and move his arms and legs to the music. Have a dance party with your toddler. You don’t have to be a good dancer. Just move however the music inspires you, and encourage your child to do the same.
Take away the musical toys. By musical toys, I mean those that play electronic songs or tones in response to your child’s actions and touches. In addition to driving parents crazy, these toys serve no function in the development of music appreciation, musical skills or creativity. Also remove toy “instruments” that are out of tune (the notorious Fisher-Price xylophone comes to mind).
Let your baby play with real instruments. I’m not suggesting that you give your two-year-old a violin, but percussion instruments — those that are played by being shaken, struck or rubbed — are the perfect tools to pique your little one’s interest in music. Help your newborn hold and shake a rattle. Let your older baby bang on a drum. Sit your toddler on your lap and allow him to press the keys of a piano. Remo (a manufacturer of professional instruments) makes a great line of kids percussion. If those are not within your budget, B Toys makes an inexpensive set of carousel bells that are beautifully in tune, and are even fun for adults to play! Jingle bells and plastic egg shakers can be purchased from most music stores for only a few dollars. Melissa and Doug makes a “band in a box” set that contains several percussion instruments for a very low price. Remember that children under the age of three will need to be supervised when playing with instruments.
Make your own instruments. Make shakers out of rice and empty plastic water bottles. Fashion a hand drum from a discarded tin. Use sticks to drum on cardboard boxes or pieces of scrap wood. Make a rainstick from a cardboard tube, aluminum foil and lentils. Fill large jars with varying amounts of water and help your child to gently tap them with a spoon.
Take advantage of community programs. Many libraries and community centres offer free drop-in story and song times. These are a fun way to connect with other parents in the neighbourhood, and to learn nursery songs and rhymes that you can sing at home with your baby. Some of the facilitators even bring folk instruments and props!
If you and your baby enjoy music classes and they’re not breaking the bank, by all means, keep attending. But if you’ve agonized over the possibility that not enrolling your baby in expensive lessons is somehow putting him at a musical disadvantage, fear not: YOU can be your child’s best early music educator.
**Note: I realize that research abounds in support of the “music makes babies smarter” theory, but there have been no studies (that I can find) that prove the benefit of expensive baby music classes over simple musical exposure in the home by parents and caregivers.
How do you expose your children to music? Have you attended baby music classes and found them beneficial?