“I can’t sing.” How many times have you heard grown ups say this? As grown ups, we tend to think of music making as a talent– something that you are either good at, or not.
Studies show that if you ask a group of American parents whether they consider themselves to be musical, only 10 – 20% of them will say yes.
However, if you ask this same group of parents whether they consider their child to be musical, 80% or more will say yes.
This is a fascinating discrepancy. Because it suggests that however naturally we may take to music as children, very few of us will carry that gift into adulthood. All too often, that musical toddler, the one who sings as naturally as she speaks, who loves to dance with abandon, will grow into the adult who one day says “I can’t sing.”
Why is this? Why do musical children grow into adults who say they aren’t musical?
The answer to this question has to do with nurture. Our musicality as children is like a seed. A seed that lands on concrete can never put down roots. A child who lands in an environment that doesn’t provide opportunities to hear and explore music making won’t have much opportunity to cultivate her musical gifts.
Did you know that musical development is “a thing?”
We know about speech development. We know about physical development. Our pediatrician is less likely to talk about musical development. But just like other forms of development, musical development also follows a path of predictable, observable milestones, just like speech or physical development.
The culminating milestone of early childhood musical development is “basic music competency”. Basic music competency is comprised of two things:
1) The ability to sing in tune
2) The ability to move your body to the beat
In cultures where in person music making happens frequently, children may reach basic music competency as young as 2 years old.
Sadly, this is not the case in our culture. These days, when most children gain most of their exposure to music through screens and other devices, we reach this milestone much later – often as late as 6 – 8 years old.
Even more amazingly, if children don’t achieve basic music competency by 9 years old, chances are they may never achieve it, for reasons having to do with myelination, the physical development of the brain.
So let’s talk about nurture. Because whoever we are, music can be a wonderful, soulful part of our life. Wherever we’re at in our musical journey, music is there to be a wellspring for us, and for our children
And when it comes to nurture, your child’s most important teacher is YOU!
Because no matter what classes or extracurricular experiences you sign up for, during the time of early childhood, your child is hard wired to learn better from you than from anyone else.
To develop musically, your child needs to experience regular, live, in person music making. She needs to grow up in a world where music is not just something that comes out of a computer, or a phone. She needs to know what it feels like to make it with her own two hands.
There is so much you can do to provide a rich musical environment for your young child. And you might be surprised to hear that none of it depends on you being someone who self-identifies as musical.
If you want your child to hold onto that beautiful sense of music that she has now, then she needs to hear you sing. She needs to see you dance. The most important place for this to happen is at home. It’s not about perfection or performance. It’s just about fun. Drum on the steering wheel. Tap on pots and pans with a spoon. Hum while you do the dishes. Sing lullabies.
And, just as importantly, find ways to make music with other adults. When grown ups sing together, dance together, laugh together, children are held in a space of ritual, celebration, and love. They learn that music isn’t for the select few. Music is our birthright. It’s for all of us.
My wish for the children and mamas in my classes, and in the world, is this… May we teach them to love themselves, and to honor the music that lives in them.
Because the world needs their song. Just as it needs yours.
If you enjoyed this post, here are a few ways to go deeper:
Wherever you live, you can download our latest album. It’s pay what you want!
Learn about Meadowlark, Noe Venable’s nature-inspired music class for children and caregivers
Learn about Mothersong Chorus, an intergenerational singing circle for women and girls.
This post draws on information compiled by the Center for Music and Young Children, and the good folks of Music Together.