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Early Childhood Music

"A child never has a higher potential to learn music than at the moment of birth."               -Dr. Edwin E. Gordon

It is no secret, nor great revelation, that the earlier we begin our musical studies, the greater our chances of becoming a superior musician. The great music educator, Zoltán Kodály, when asked when music education should begin for a child, replied “Nine months before the birth of the mother.”

Suzuki likened music education to the way we learn language. He called it the “Mother Tongue Method,” and made the argument that a child learns the language of his culture naturally, through direct contact with his parents, and that music education should be no different.

"Every day a baby listens to his mother's and father's words in his environment. Mother is the one who is the one who is with the baby most often and who embraces the baby every day. Therefore the baby's like force will absorb her voice along with every aspect of the mother. A baby will use his survival instinct to absorb everything in his environment while learning to be a human being." 
-Suzuki, Ability Development From Age Zero.

Therefore, then, even though you may not have any formal musical training, you are your child’s first music teacher.

How Do We Learn Music?

Beginning in the late 1950’s, music psychologist Edwin E. Gordon began researching that same question, and has spent his entire teaching and researching career - almost 60 years - investigating that same question: how exactly does the human being learn music?

At the heart of Gordon’s research are the parallels between the way we learn music and the way we learn language. Although certainly not a novel approach to music education, Gordon clarified the process.

If we learn music the same way that we learn language, and thinking is an important part of the language acquisition process, then there must be a musical thinking. Gordon calls that musical thinking “audiation.” Gordon codified his ideas into a Music Learning Theory. This theory, based on his research observing children learn music, is an excellent model for us to follow as parents and educators.

The Critical Age 

The most important time in a child’s musical life is during what Gordon calls the Critical Age, which is from birth to around 18 months. This is the time when our brain makes more connections, more synapses, than at any other time in our life.

The same way children are born with an intelligence quotient, children are born with a certain level of music aptitude, or, musical intelligence. According to research, our musical aptitude does not stabilize until around age 9.

"The research seems to indicate that if a very young child has no opportunity to develop a [musical] listening vocabulary, the cells that would have been used to establish that hearing sense will at best be directed to another sense, perhaps the visual, and the visual sense will be strengthened  at the expense of the aural sense. No amount of compensatory education at a later time will be able to completely offset the handicap."              

-Dr. Edwin E. Gordon

So, as parents, we can have a dramatic effect on our child's music aptitude.

Creating a Musical Environment

We all learn by a Whole-Part-Whole process. With language, we listen to our spoken language as a WHOLE. Conversations. Sentences. Complete Thoughts. Then, when we are ready, we begin to learn the PARTS. We learn words.

We begin to name things in our environment: Mommy, Daddy, cat, brother, car. Then, we takes those PARTS, and return them to the whole by figuring out how they fit into the language at large as we give those words context.

In music, the process is the same. We need to LISTEN to as much music as possible: many tonalities, many meters, many textures, many timbres. That is the WHOLE of music. Then, music is broken down into PARTS - small musical fragments, patterns. Then, the PARTS will eventually be given context once we add them into the WHOLE again.

What You Can Do

Music Babble, like speech babble, is what a child does when he does not yet understand the tonalities and meters of his culture. He may have his own tonal or rhythmic center (the same way that children make nonsense sounds in speech before they actually form coherent words).

Your goal, as your child’s first music teacher, is to help him emerge from Music Babble by slowly, gently, yet consistently exposing him to the music of his culture just like you are naturally doing with language.

The best thing you can do for your child is to sing to him or her simple songs and chants in as many tonalities and meters as possible. If you just put on the radio, the majority of the songs will be in major and duple, and will not offer sufficient experiences for your child to make comparisons.

Songs Without Words 

A very integral part of singing to your baby is to include as many songs and chants without words as possible. That is not to say that songs with words are necessarily bad. On the contrary. It’s just that the brain, being more familiar with language, will naturally gravitate toward the words, rather than focusing on the music.

The point is to acculturate your children to MUSIC as much as possible the same way that parents naturally do with language.

Singing in many tonalities and meters might seem a daunting task. However, you needn’t know any of the theory of music to sing to your baby in a wide variety of tonalities and meters. Just learn some simple songs. There are many resources available for you to learn songs in varied tonalities and meters.


I have created a few resources for you to use with your child.