Music’s Notable Nurturing

Early exposure is linked to staggering brain development — but for kids, it’s just pure fun

COLIN HUNTER, Reporter for the KW Record, Kitchener, ON

<<< Ten-month-old Lily Baker, who has Down syndrome, delights in a Kindermusik class in Cambridge with her father, Nathan. Her parents hope it helps her language skills.

CAMBRIDGE (Apr 14, 2007) — Grace Baker toddles to the front of the room, picks up a wooden mallet and begins to play. Ting. Ting. Ting . . . She gently, rhythmically strikes a metal tone bar — similar to a single note of a xylophone — in beat with the song, Sweetly Sings the Donkey. Around her, a dozen parents and a Kindermusik instructor sing the lyrics while fellow toddlers wait their turns to play the tone bar. Two-year-old Grace taps the final ting, squeals with glee and scrambles into the waiting arms of her mother, Jane.

“Did you hear that steady beat?” Kindermusik teacher Hannah Hastings-Fuhr asks the parents. “At this age, it’s remarkable for them to be able to accompany music like that. It’s a way for us to discover their internal beat.”

Grace, of course, doesn’t know or care about her internal beat. Nor does she have a clue about the mountain of scientific research that indicates early exposure to music is helping her cognitive, motor and social development. But that’s why her parents, Jane and Nathan Baker of Cambridge, enrolled her in Kindermusik when she was just four months old.

The Kindermusik method, which is taught by thousands of licensed instructors around the world, focuses on music and movement as fundamental factors in early childhood development.

“I think Grace’s communication is amazing because of it,” Jane says. “At two and a half she’s singing songs, speaking full sentences. For her, it has definitely done a good job.”

Grace’s 10-month-old sister Lily, who has Down syndrome, is now enrolled in weekly Kindermusik classes too. “I’m looking for language and communication skills,” her mother says. “I’m hoping that, by singing to her a lot, and by her seeing the movement of my mouth and sound of my voice, it will help her to learn to speak sooner and more.”

Apart from any developmental benefits the program may have, Jane sees a more immediate payoff. The kids love it. If Lily is crying in her crib, a CD of Kindermusik songs invariably settles her. And as soon as Grace notices that her mother is pulling into the driveway of Kindermusik’s Sheldon Drive building in Cambridge each week, she squeals “music!” and claps her hands. “They’re so happy when they’re here,” the mother says, “and I’ve seen both of them grow with it.”

For parents wondering when they should introduce their child to music, Prof. Lee Willingham, coordinator of the music education program at Wilfrid Laurier University, has a quick and easy answer: “There is no wrong time, except too late.”

Perhaps just as important, he is father to twin girls — “three-year-old guinea pigs we do musical experiments on,” as he puts it. Three or four times a week, Willingham and his daughters, along with mother Eva Mezo, have “music time” — an hour or so to play rhythmic games like patty-cake and sing simple songs. For the girls, Leah and Nora, it’s pure fun. For Willingham, it’s science at work. “It’s amazing that a child’s brain seems to be hard-wired to respond to music,” he says. “You don’t have to infuse kids with music — it’s already there, waiting to be awakened.”

Willingham says there has been a flood of public and scientific interest in the cognitive benefits of music since the Mozart effect became widely known in the late 1990s.

Though the Mozart effect itself refers to a study in which university-aged students seemed to fare better on spatial-reasoning tests after listening to Mozart, many studies followed, examining more specifically the effects of music on children.

Music, combined with rhythmic motion (especially playing two-handed instruments such as guitar and piano), has been shown to aid development of the corpus callosum, the connection between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. “I find this pretty staggering,” Willingham says. Other studies have shown links between playing simple instruments at an early age and development of spatial reasoning and language skills.

Researchers at Hamilton’s McMaster University recently used magnetoencephalography brain-scanning technology to determine that children aged four to six who took music lessons showed more changes in brain activity than those who did not. Even the act of bouncing babies to the rhythm of music has been shown to help children compartmentalize and make sense of the world around them.

“I think we have enough evidence to say that a child who doesn’t get music is being deprived — I will say that boldly and unapologetically,” Willingham says.

Though experts unanimously agree exposing children to music is beneficial, opinions vary on how it’s best done. The Suzuki method, taught at the Suzuki String School in Guelph, emphasizes building performance skills on an instrument such as violin or piano through a nurturing lesson style. Programs like Musikgarten and Kindermusik emphasize singing, dancing and playing to help children grow mentally and emotionally. Other methods, such as Orff and Kodaly, focus on ways children can experience music in specialized sensory, regimented or improvisational ways.

The number of options might seem overwhelming to parents, but it needn’t, says Bill Labron, director of the Beckett School in Kitchener. The school’s Early Childhood Music program uses a blend of a number of different teaching styles — including Orff, Eurythmics and Dalcroze — to introduce children as young as three to music. “At that age, they can learn to carry a tune and develop a sense of rhythm,” Labron says. “It provides physical, emotional and mental stimulation. If people can make that investment in their kids, the benefits are wonderful.”

<<< Emily Matin, 9, plays a 2-string dulcimer, an instrument she built herself in a Kindermusik class. Emily is a graduate of the Kindermusik program, which she started when she was 18 months old. Her parents say music has helped develop her intellect and self-esteem.

Emily Matin clambers onto the piano bench, opens the book of sheet music and takes a deep breath. The audience waits in silent anticipation. Then she plays Boogie Number One, a simple 12-bar blues standard that would sound familiar to anyone who ever took piano lessons as a kid. Nine-year-old Emily is no child prodigy. She flubs a couple of notes, but shrugs, giggles and soldiers on. Her parents, Ed and Lesley Matin, couldn’t be happier.

When they enrolled Emily in Kindermusik in Guelph as a toddler, they had no illusions of molding her into the world’s next great concert pianist. They simply wanted her to be immersed in music, to develop a love for it and reap all the benefits it can bring. It worked. Now too old for Kindermusik, Emily takes private piano lessons — not because she has to, but because she wants to. “We don’t have to badger her about playing piano,” her father says. “She gets up in the morning before school to play piano. And she’s playing for the fun of it, to relax after school.”

Her parents say the benefits of music have been immeasurable. “Music has really helped with her self-confidence,” her mother says. Once painfully shy, Emily has become more outgoing, even playing a duet with a friend in her Grade 1 talent show. She gets straight As at school and has a creative streak — thanks largely, her parents say, to music.

Michelle Jacques, director of Kindermusik of Cambridge/KW, calls Emily’s progress “a miracle in itself. She wouldn’t play for anyone at first, she was so shy. The fact that she’ll play for everyone now is just fantastic.”

Emily herself doesn’t like to boast. When she finishes playing Boogie Number One, she sums up her love of playing music like this: “It’s really fun, and it makes a pretty sound.”

 

The right time to introduce children to more complex instruments depends on age, size and maturity of the child.

“With guitar, we usually say the child should be about nine, because of the ability and motor skills needed to reach the chords,” says Cathy King of Kitchener’s Circadian School of Music. The best plan, King says, is for the parent and child to work together in choosing the instrument that is the most appropriate and fun at the time.

“The earlier they’re introduced to music, the more they can be creative and risk-takers — they’ll experiment and learn more.” Source: Music With The Brain In Mind, by Eric Jensen.

TIMELINE: Children and Music

  • Studies have shown that fetuses respond to sounds and music in utero, though there is little evidence of positive cognitive response. Avoid loud music.
  • Newborns and premature babies studied at a Florida hospital in the early 1990s tended to have shorter hospital stays and reached an ideal weight faster when played lullabies.
  • Five-month-old babies can discriminate between musical notes only a semi-tone apart in pitch.
  • In the first two years, children should be introduced to clapping, rhythm, dancing and simple rhythm instruments such as bells. Between ages two and three, they should be encouraged to clap and drum along with recorded music.
  • A early as three, the child’s brain can distinguish notes.
  • By four, the brain is developed enough for rhythm games.

SUGGESTED READING
Music With the Brain in Mind, by Eric Jensen (Corwin Press, 2000).
Good Music, Brighter Children, by Sharlene Habermeyer (Prima Lifestyles, 1999).
Nurtured by Love, by Shinichi Suzuki (Suzuki Method International, 1989).
Raising Musical Kids, by Robert Cutietta (Oxford University Press, 2001).
Kindling the Spark: Recognizing and Developing Musical Talent, by Joanne Haroutounian. (Oxford University Press, 2002).

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