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Learning the language of music: is it child’s play?

The Italian Reggio Emilia approach is now considered the most progressive and desirable early-childhood educational approach in the world. These schools value children’s innate abilities and nurture artistic and creative intelligences through play-based emersion in the “poetic languages” such as visual arts, music, poetry, dance, drama or photography. But how might a particular language, such as music, be taught in playful and natural ways that honor a child’s inborn abilities for language learning?

Careful observation of children’s musical development has shown that it is never too early for musical learning. Musical aptitude may actually begin in the womb. According to music psychologist Donald Hodges there may be specific genetic instructions in the brain that make the mind and body predisposed to be musical, “Just as we are born with the means to be linguistic, to learn the language of our culture, so we are born with the means to be responsive to the music of our culture.” Neuroscientists even have claimed evidence that babies are wired for music from birth. This “wiring” forms as the fetus responds to outside voices, music, and sounds from deep within the womb. These neurological mechanisms may also have an embedded relationship with language.

Careful observation of children’s musical development has shown that it is never too early for musical learning. Musical aptitude may actually begin in the womb.

During the child study movement of the early 20th century, the Pillsbury studies were the first long-term observational studies of children’s free music exploration. This classic study followed children from two to eight years of age and explored music activities, such as spontaneous improvisation on instruments, with very little adult intervention. Based on their observations, Moorhead and Pond found that: 1) all children had the ability and interest to experiment both with instruments and their voices to create music; 2) there was a strong relationship between the use of rhythm and speech; and 3) children naturally use movement and dramatization to embody their music-making. The Pillsbury studies were groundbreaking in the field of music education because they revealed that even without formal instruction, children were able to improvise and create semi-structured musical pieces.

More recently, a study was conducted involving children ages ten to thirty months where children were left alone to play with a variety of instruments. Video analysis revealed that children took great pleasure in producing sounds, displayed particular styles of performing, and used repetition and variations during improvised performances. Children’s music engagement, without adult intervention in everyday settings such as the playground or at home, has been found to contain complex expressions of children’s understandings of the world around them. These studies make it quite evident that children’s innate musical potential is often underestimated.

Musical play has been studied in music education research and has been found to be a natural way of engaging with music learning. Musical play has also been shown to increase overall auditory discrimination and attention as well as heighten musical skill development. When adults participate alongside children in musical play, the benefits are increased even further.

Adults might best support children’s music play by not considering themselves as authoritative holders of knowledge but as co-learners who are actively open and attentive to the interests of the children. For example, if some children expressed interest and curiosity in rain puddles, because a recent downpour just occurred that week, an adult might suggest playing with imaginary musical rain puddles made out of circles of string. Once such a scenario begins, children might then imagine that they are stepping around puddles and then play around with ideas for sound effects to accompany their puddle adventure. Some children might choose to walk around the puddle to the sound of the woodblock (sounding like footsteps), while others might choose to splash into the puddle with the sound of the cymbal. Some children might choose to sit down in the puddle to the glissando of a slide whistle, while others might imagine splashing their hands in the puddle with the accompaniment of a shaker sound. Together, both children and adults, play with musical sounds in playful and creative ways.

The Reggio approach emphasizes children’s innate abilities for developing “over a hundred languages.” Schools “inspired” by the Reggio approach employ arts specialists to work with children to provide high quality and intensive artistic experiences that allow children to build an artistic “alphabet” and eventually an artistic language for personal expression. One language in particular, music, is a natural fit for play-based, artistic learning. Does Mozart make you smarter or is there a little Mozart within? The answer may be both are true but the key is active engagement with music through playing and interacting musically with others. It appears that developing the language of music may, indeed, be considered, “child’s play.”

Featured image credit: “Piano Musical Instrument” by b1-foto. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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