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Music and Children: Rhythm Meets Child Development

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Music at All Ages
Music is a fundamental part of every society. It is a shared experience and invites coming together. From birth, parents instinctively use music to calm and soothe children, to express their love and joy. Through music we express the full range of human emotion—love, joy, anger, hope, despair, the pleasures and sorrows of being alive.

Music and Culture
Singing and music have always played an important role in our culture. Music is used in almost every aspect of our lives: theater, television, movies, worship, holidays, celebrations, and government and military ceremonies. Ethnic beliefs and values are often passed on to new generations during celebrations that are filled with songs, dances, and sounds of musical instruments. Think back to your own childhood. Is their a song of celebration that you remember? Music and rhythm help teach about culture and they also can help children learn.

The Benefits of Music
How do children and adults benefit from music? Music ignites all areas of our development: intellectual, social and emotional, motor, language, and overall literacy. It helps the body and the mind work together. That’s one of the reasons why music and movement programs are so popular in senior centers and nursing homes. Through music, children learn the sounds and meanings of words. For everyone, music helps strengthen memory skills. Most of us have a hard time remembering our own phone number, but turn on a favorite song from our past and we can sing every word. And most of all, music provides us with joy. Just think about listening to a good song on the car radio. Make it a beautiful day with the window down, and that’s joy.

Music and Social Learning
For toddlers and preschoolers, music making can be a dynamic social learning experience. Making music together, children learn to work as a team while they each contribute to the song in their own way. At the same time, children learn that together they can make something larger than the sum of its parts. Children also learn cooperation, sharing, compromise, creativity, and concentration—skills that become invaluable as they enter school, face new challenges, and begin to form new friendships. 

Music as Children Grow
Children of all ages express themselves through music. Even at an early age children sway, bounce, or move their hands in response to music they hear. Many preschoolers make up songs and, with no self-consciousness, sing to themselves as they play. Kids in elementary school learn to sing together as a group and possibly learn to play a musical instrument. Older children dance to the music of their favorite rock and roll bands and use music to form friendships and share feelings.

Infants recognize the melody of a song long before they understand the words. They often try to mimic sounds and start moving to the music as soon as they are physically able. Quiet, background music can be soothing for many infants, especially at sleep time, but loud background music may over-stimulate an infant by raising the noise level of the room. Sing simple, short songs to infants in a high, soft voice. Try making up one or two lines about bathing, dressing, or eating to sing to them while you do these activities.

Toddlers love to dance and move to music. They enjoy the repetition of songs, which encourages the use of words and memorization. Silly songs make them laugh. Try singing a familiar song and inserting a silly word in the place of the correct word, like “Mary had a little spider” instead of lamb. Let them reproduce rhythms by clapping or tapping objects.

Preschoolers enjoy singing just to be singing. They aren’t self-conscious about their ability and most are eager to let their voices roar. They like songs that repeat words and melodies, rhythms with a definite beat, and words that ask them to do things. Preschool children enjoy nursery rhymes and songs about familiar things like toys, animals, play activities, and people. They also like finger plays and nonsense rhymes with or without musical accompaniment.

School-Age Children
Most school-age children are intrigued by songs that involve counting, spelling, or remembering a sequence of events. Songs and musical activities with other school subjects also are effective during this developmental stage. School-age children begin expressing their likes and dislikes of different types of music. They may express an interest in taking musical lessons.

Teenagers may use musical experiences to form friendships, and to set themselves apart from parents and younger kids. They often want to hang out and listen to music after school with a group of friends. Remember those days of basement and garage bands? They often have a strong interest in taking music lessons or playing in a band, the lure of becoming a rock idol. School-agers and teenagers might need a reminder to keep the volume down, particularly with headsets. If we can hear music through an MP3 player headset when it’s not in our own ears, it’s probably too loud.

Inappropriate Music
The sharing of musical tastes between parents and kids in a family can be lots of fun, especially for us, but there often comes a time for tweens and usually teens, when they prefer music to be a part of their separate world. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Medicine, it is quite common for teenagers to get pleasure from keeping adults out and causing adults some distress, if not total shock. It probably didn’t require clinical research for us to know that, but it is reassuring to know that it’s not just our teenager that seeks separateness.

Okay, but if our teens are not sharing their music, then how do we know what our children are listening to? As a family, you don’t have to listen to “their” music together, but as a parent, you can still control what they listen to by telling your child what is inappropriate for your family, by paying attention to your teenager’s purchasing and downloading. Some super stores have stickers that indicate appropriate material. Trying an open discussion without criticism may be helpful. There are also many parental control software programs for music and internet usage.

Although a good dose of Mozart is probably not increasing our brain power, it’s still enjoyable and beautiful. From the pure pleasure of listening to soothing sounds and rhythmic harmonies, to gaining new language and social skills, whatever the setting—a quiet room at home with mom and dad, a large grassy field filled with people, or a busy classroom—music can enliven and enrich the lives of children and the people who care for them.

Originally published on Bright Horizons


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