While there is a lot of information about the benefits of music education, sometimes it is harder to find what parents should be seeking for their young child’s music development. Opinions vary greatly according to the source, and often parents have misconceptions about musical development. For example, parents may not consider the child’s musical development until that child seems interested in the piano around 3 years old, then parents wonder WHEN a child should start taking piano lessons. Answers range from about 3 years old to 10 years old. Developmentally, that is an extremely wide range. There are many that advocate that a child, at SEVEN years old, is likely to be developmentally ready for private instruction on an instrument. But … questions remain for younger children.
Perhaps, the better question for parents to ask is, “What is the most appropriate music education for a child at each age?” Why wait to start a child’s music education until they are able to benefit from private music lessons? The capability of building a strong musical foundation starts at birth, and some would argue that it starts prenatally. To truly nurture the musical nature of a young child, music should be an integral part of family life, and the primary teachers are the child’s parents. This continues to be true as a child progresses into and through elementary school. Music educators provide sequential instruction on knowledge and skills on a weekly basis, which is best developed through activities that engage the child throughout the week. View MUSIC as a continuous personal lifelong learning experience, at whatever level that feeds your passion, seeking guides as needed.
“Research shows that the strongest foundation for music literacy is a music education that includes singing, dancing, playing by ear, and inventing ways to represent familiar and original songs, and that skill in representing music symbolically may transfer to tasks in other domains as well.” (pg. 28 of Child Development and Arts Education: A review of Current Research and Best Practices; Prepared by the College Board for The National Coalition for Core Arts Standards January, 2012)
In this article, we explore the musical development of children from 5 – 6 years old, as they have entered a stage where they have better control over their physical abilities, and are cognitively ready to benefit from structured learning experiences, but are not necessarily ready for formal music instruction on a specific instrument. (The age range may be flexible by about 6 months depending on the child’s capabilities and musical life experiences.) After reviewing multiple sources on standard child development progression, as well as music education specialists, the following elements of quality music education for this age group seem to be most important.
- Learning through Multi-sensory, hands-on music making to develop musical thinking
- Developmentally Appropriate Teaching Techniques
- LEARNING through PLAY
- Learning as part of a SMALL GROUP, rather than as an individual
- Open Windows to the Wide World of Music, Find the Passion
- Focus on the Process of learning Music, rather than Performance
- Parent Involvement
- Preparation for more intensive musical lessons
Multi-sensory, hands-on music making to develop musical thinking
Between the ages of 5 – 7 yrs, the young child learns music best when he or she is actively engaged in MAKING MUSIC. Multi-sensory experiences (seeing, hearing, feeling, and doing) are recommended for all early childhood education, but as their abilities are increasing so much at this age, we sometime believe and expect they are ready to settle down and learn with the same techniques as older children. It is extremely important to remember that 5 & 6 year olds are still in the concrete learning stage, in which they must SEE the individual elements of concepts and practice manipulating them… BEFORE they can effectively understand and learn through more ABSTRACT methods. Reading sheet music is a very abstract concept. Reading music at the same time as playing the music on an instrument is not a developmentally appropriate expectation for a 5 – 6 year old. Some may be able to take on this task, but this may hard-wire the brain to think about music in a different way.
“As we learn to use our minds, we process information through certain conditioning. If, for example, we learn music as a logical/mathematical exercise-such as learning to play an instrument through reading, decoding the relationships of symbols, and hence using the instrument to hear music-we establish pathways that will understand music only from this intellectual framework. If, however, the musical mind is engaged in early stimulation through such activities as hearing and responding to music through singing and movement and playing by ear, then we stimulate music intelligence. Stimulating music intelligence appropriately from the earliest experiences is necessary if the pathways are to be built to understand musical phenomena from a musical perspective. An individual who can read a piano score with few errors but cannot express music by ear on the keyboard has learned to use his/her logical/mathematical intelligence rather than his/her music intelligence to understand musical phenomena.
Learning music as a set of facts such as: Bach was born in 1685; the lines of the treble clef spell Every Good Boy Does Fine, there are four families of instruments-brass, woodwind, percussion and strings, or there are two sharps in the key of D are examples of learning “about” music through one’s linguistic intelligence. Although such kinds of information are important to know, they are not a substitute for genuinely musical thinking. To develop music intelligence, one must develop neuronal pathways for musical thinking early in life. Then, later learning “about” music will more likely take on “real” musical meaning.” – Music and Intelligence in the Early Years, by John M. Feierabend, Ph.D. 1995
Developmentally Appropriate Teaching Techniques
As with all ages, good teaching starts with knowing the range of abilities that are expected for a specific age group, and which techniques are best for helping children in that age group to learn and succeed. Then proceed with caution, and make adjustments along the way for the unique needs of each child.
Children 5 – 6 years old are still actively developing their physical bodies and need to MOVE their bodies to learn. Most all concepts are learned best through movement based exploration of opposites, such as up/down, loud/soft, sharp/smooth. Both Maria Montessori and Carla Hannaford make this clear in their research. This also applies directly to using these concepts in musical thinking. In order to have a child effectively follow symbols to play music using these concepts, it is very effective to teach these concepts through a progression of activities from large to small movements.
Research shows that many children 5 – 6 years old are just beginning to sing on pitch, and that there is a specific range of pitches that they can sing effectively. Music educators for this age group must be careful to use a good quality voice and sing within that pitch range when singing with these children, and to structure activities that invite students to repeat their singing voice on the correct pitches. This age group is typically ready and eager to learn and remember the words to a wide variety of songs to sing. They WANT to use their voice and explore what it can do. Using our voice can be such an effective way to learn different elements of music concepts and theory, as well as connect with our shared musical history and variety of cultures.
Although the ability to keep a steady beat may occur at a younger age (with early experiences), the 5 year old is now developing many of the abilities required for ensemble work: to keep the beat along with others, to use concepts for musical expression, to wait for a musical cue to begin and stop, to listen and adjust to changes in the group, to improvise rhythms over a steady beat, and to create different beat patterns, as well as so much more. These skills are best learned on non-pitched instrument first, and then applying them to melodic instruments, and in a way that engages their imagination and emotional “fun factor”.
LEARNING through PLAY
Five year olds are still young children who are primarily engaged through play, although now their play has more shape, through storytelling and increasingly complex interactions. Through the delight of guided engaging repetitive play, more complex concepts are more deeply connected, and physical abilities flourish.
Play-filled musical interactions and hands on exploration continues to be a part of the play… with intent and guidance as we introduce new concepts, inviting on developing specific skills and incorporating teaching opportunities. Students are now developmentally ready to start learning a basic foundation of music theory, and the joy of singing, moving, and playing familiar melodies on pitched instruments through practice. Engaged play helps them build their love for the process of making music. They begin to see that it may not be so easy to learn something new, but with engaging activities and their excitement to share their music skills with their peers and teacher, the work needed to build their skills is enjoyable and fulfilling. Seeing that this effort allows them to do amazing things is the icing on the cake, building confidence in themselves and building an intrinsic desire to continue to expand themselves in this musical world.
Learning as part of a SMALL GROUP, rather than as an individual
Developmentally, most 5-6 year olds are very interested in interacting with their peers. They love to play together, rather than play by themselves, so small group lessons are fun and rewarding in so many ways. Groups that meet over time to learn something together, with guidance, can become a supportive network that makes the journey more rewarding. A group that develops the skills and enjoyment of collaboration will find the world of music a very inviting place.
It is fascinating to watch as a group of 6 – 10 students begin to meet, watching each other intently, whispering shy comments or blurting out jokes to see who will respond. Soon they are making connections and friendships blossom. It takes a little longer, but with guidance the whole group begins to bond as one and they learn to support each other. Musically, this is one of the best places to be, part of a group who is learning to become music makers, individually, and in tandem with their peers. Watching another child accomplish a challenging task encourages others to rise to the challenge and try harder. Students who have mastered a skill are eager to use that skill repetitively to teach others, and thereby increasing their own skills and understanding. And when a group of children graduate from an extended program, they feel the strength of spirit for the accomplishments of everyone, as well as for themselves.
Open a Window to the Wide World of Music
Music is not just notes on a piece of paper to learn to play. Music is not just the recordings we hear, or even limited to our favorite songs. Children at this age are ready to be introduced to the larger perspective of music in our world.
Music lives. Music has a timeless history with stories galore… it gives us a portal with which to experience the world through other times, other places, and other people. Music exists in real time as we make it and feel it. Music has multi-faceted personalities. Music evokes deep feelings. Music is for everyone. These are some of the primary sources for our joy of music, and these are part of the critical foundation that must be established so we can build more information upon them.
Immersion into the musical world through experiencing a variety of styles, from the complexity of classically trained musicians to the rich heritage of folk music, opens a child’s perspective to recognize a bigger picture of musical options. Five year olds are now more able to LISTEN actively and learn to differentiate the sounds of a bassoon, a clarinet, a Native American flute, and a pan pipe – and recognize them all as woodwind instruments. Music education at this age is best when it offers a wide variety of music and experiences that help them see the world through music, and helps them make connections to the world in which they live.
Yes, music can be written down so we can share it, and we are blessed with this process that has been developed over time, and those who have chosen to share. Learning to read music can be an additional element of joy, to learn to play the music of others… which opens new windows with which we can view and be inspired by the world.
Focus on the Process of learning music, rather than Performance
As a child begins this journey of learning music, the focus must be to nurture their joy and desire to make music, as well as to guide them through a sequential process that develops and builds knowledge and skills over time. Children who are 5-6 years old are ready to be introduced to the concepts of writing and reading rhythms and notes on a staff. They are ready to listen and sing simple melodies, to recognize how that looks on a staff, and, through sequential process, to read new melodies. Children at this age who have learned this skill are also eager to write their own melodies, allowing their musical thinking, their creativity, and their image of themselves as music makers to flourish. These are all techniques in the process of learning music and have value whether or not a child perfects a song or performs for anyone.
Developmentally, children 5-6 years old are not typically emotionally and socially ready to perform in front of others, and the focus on a specific piece of music should be on their enjoyment of developing their skills, using a variety of techniques. If a child is simply focused on getting a piece of music ready to perform, then the joy of the PROCESS may be overlooked. Focusing on the different elements of the process allows us to break down big concepts and skills into smaller attainable steps which build confidence along the way.
We reinforce, develop and and see the benefits of effective processing techniques as we work to perfect a piece of music. Examples may include:
- using good posture and position (needed for singing and playing an instrument),
- practicing only a small section at a time (when learning the words to a new song, or new measures of music to play),
- learning to enjoy playing around with the dynamics or tempo of a piece of music, and
- expanding our knowledge based on personal interest (learning more about the story behind a piece of music).
Also, it is so wonderful to realize that playing a song well is only part of the journey, as the process can be extended. If a child wants to play for others, they can choose when and with whom, rather than a scheduled date in front of strangers. Or perhaps, they will then want to record it so they can play along with themselves, or learn how to play the song on a different instrument, or learn MORE of the song. Once students understand and enjoy the techniques of the process, they can apply the techniques of their choice to make the journey best suited for their optimal learning.
The family is still the center of the world for five year olds. While many are eager to play with other children, form simple friendships, and connect with a teacher, their important emotional life is still located with the adults at home that nurture and guide them.
In order for a child to blossom musically, it must be valued and nurtured by the family. Much can be started in a short class period once a week, but the true learning comes from follow up throughout the week. That is true for ALL ages and stages of music development, and this is a great time to develop routines at home around the music making process. Good music education for this age group includes tools and information to guide the process of music making at home, such as high quality recorded music that supports the learning in the classroom, high quality instruments that allow students to explore concepts and practice skills, supporting documentation to help guide a family’s weekly follow through, and open communication with the teacher to answer questions and clarify expectations.
Preparation for more formal musical lessons
“Young children who show an interest in learning to play an instrument should be encouraged to choose one whose timbre attracts them. It has been shown that children who choose an instrument to study because they like its timbre are more likely to persist in learning to play it than those who choose based on cultural biases or gender stereotyping.” (pg. 27 of Child Development and Arts Education) Students should able to experience a wide variety of instruments, both through hands-on exploration, as well as active listening to both recordings and live music. Educators can provide in-class experiences, as well as encouragement and resources to seek out more of these experiences outside of the classroom.
If at all possible, developing skills on more than one instrument expands a child’s musical thinking to include the option and interest of playing multiple instruments. The look on a child’s face the first time they play a familiar melody on a second instrument… the mind expands, and limitations are blown down.
A final key element in quality music education preparing the student for success in more formal music instruction on a specific instrument, ie. to get a sound foundation of music theory, to become proficient in keeping steady beat and changing beat patterns, develop active listening skills, develop audiation, fully understand music concepts, recognize music vocabulary and symbols, and be aware of tonality and key changes.
For families to develop routines for regular practice and parent engagement techniques are create a family culture that supports continued learning. Any private music instructor will welcome a new student who has this kind of musical foundation and support.
I invite discussion on these desired elements for music education for children 5 – 6 years old. It will be interesting to have discussions from music educators as well as from early child development specialists, so we can talk through and refine this list.
Are there music education program with these elements available to children at this age? Yes, but these programs are less common than private instruction. Music in elementary schools vary greatly from school to school, and may include some or many of these elements.
Is this new information? No, this question has been asked repeatedly over the history of teaching music, as parents of young children ask “When will my child be ready for piano lessons?” (substitute violin, guitar, etc) Masterful music educators have been developing excellent music programs for centuries. The early to mid-20th century saw many European educators developing excellent teaching techniques for young children, including the Kodaly Method, the Suzuki Method, and the Orff Method.
The History of Kindermusik for the Young Child
Interestingly, a group of music educators in Germany in the 1960s were very interested in answering this question about the best methods for teaching children 5 – 6 years old and completed their research. Instead of using ONE of the above teaching methods, they combined the best of these music education methods, alongside the instructional philosophy and methods of Maria Montessori to develop what is now known as Kindermusik for the Young Child. In the 1970s, Dan Pratt was introduced to this group and their curriculum, and brought it to the USA to publish under the name of Kindermusik. His goal was to providing quality materials to both educators and students, and training American music educators how to use these teaching techniques. Further research by the Kindermusik development team has continued to create curriculum and home materials for each of the younger age groups. AND they are on the forefront of developing music education for preschools, Spanish speaking families, and Kindermusik@Home units to allow easier access to quality materials through digital technology. Kindermusik is now being taught in over 70 countries world wide.
Personally, I have been teaching the Kindermusik for the Young Child curriculum since 2001 here in Lakeland, FL, when my son turned 5 years old. At that time, as a parent, I was asking this question, and I did the research, and studied over 6 music education programs that were available at the time. Kindermusik for the Young Child stood out as the program with the most to offer my child, AND to me as a teacher, as far as curriculum development and home materials that are well designed, high quality, and specifically age appropriate.
Is Kindermusik the only program that offers quality music education for children at this age? No. There are other individual teachers, universities, and other businesses that offer many of these elements, but it takes work to find them.
From this parent to other parents, I recommend that you ask the right questions about music education for your young child, and find a teacher who truly connects with your child to nurture their blossoming musical selves.
From this Kindermusik educator to families who want this kind of music education for their child, please know that I am 100% dedicated to connecting with each unique child, and to provide a music education for this age that strives to offer all of the elements we discussed here, as well as so much more.
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Thank you so much for this super helpful and informative article. It was very insightful and thorough! Well done!