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Education

What’s the Right Age to Begin Music Lessons?

A boy gets violin lessonsWe’ve all heard the stories of famed musical prodigies, from Mozart writing his first symphony at the age of eight to Stevie Wonder signing with Motown at 11. Even if your child isn’t performing with the New York Philharmonic or the Chicago Symphony by age 11 (like violinist Midori and Herbie Hancock, respectively), your family is undoubtedly exposed to talented children in the neighborhood. Whether it’s the church preschool choir or an elementary school band concert, it seems as if parents must immerse their children in music lessons from birth if they want them to succeed, and in a way, they’re right.

That being said, parents often hear complaints from other parents that influence them to postpone music lessons until their child is older, such as “My parents forced me to play an instrument when I was young. … I hated it then and still hate it now.” In order to avoid this negative attitude, parents opt to delay music lessons until their child is older and can choose their own instrument or make the decision that they even want to play an instrument. They too are right.

These statements may seem contradictory. In reality, the issue is how you define music lessons. To better understand this, it’s important to look at the underlying reasons a parent might want their child to take music lessons.

There is a growing (and convincing) body of research that indicates a “window of opportunity” from birth to age nine for developing a musical sensibility within children. During this time, the mental structures and mechanisms associated with processing and understanding music are in the prime stages of development, making it of utmost importance to expose children in this age range to music.

The important question then is not when to start lessons, but what is the goal of music lessons for young children? For instance, very young children are not exposed to instruments in order to master them, but to gain experience and learn to develop meaningful relationships with music at a young age. If this is your goal, then the “lessons” can and should start soon after birth and certainly within the child’s first year.

These “lessons” do not have to be—in fact, at first probably shouldn’t be—very formal. A parent can serve as guide by immersing the child in a musical environment. You should help your child focus on the music with simple movement activities such as musical games, swaying or dancing while holding the baby, or singing or playing an instrument for the child.

Once the child is around age three, it may be time for more formalized “lessons.” Again, the goal is not to learn to play an instrument but to further develop skills like identifying a beat in music, identifying melody, or identifying instruments. These parent-child lessons might be any number of preschool classes run by private individuals, universities, or community centers. To decide whether or not a class is suitable for your child, make sure your goals and expectations coincide with the teacher’s.

By age five, most children have built a foundation that has prepared them for formalized music lessons. Even now, the goal of the lessons is not to become a great performer on the instrument but to further the understanding of music. Piano and violin are the two most common instruments played at this age, but others have tried the recorder, guitar, or ukulele with success.

By age 10, the child will have a variety of skills associated with their instrument of choice. They’ll also have the physical strength to try a different, bigger instrument, such as a brass or large string instrument that requires a higher level of strength and stamina. Around this time, the goal of lessons appropriately transitions from gaining experience with music to improving performance ability.

In summary, there are three answers to the question, “What age should children begin music lessons?” Informal activities with music should start soon after birth, followed by more systematic classes around age three, and lessons with the goal of learning the instrument should start between six and nine. Keep in mind that these are only guidelines; exceptions will undoubtedly occur based on the child and/or teacher. Musical experience at an early age is extremely important in a child’s developmental process. Like riding a bike or learning a language, these skills can be learned later in life, but they will never be “natural” in the way that is so important for fluid musical performance.


  • Pingback: Time for Music Lessons . Education . PBS Parents | PBS

  • tyler agent

    I think I started taking piano lessons when I was about 4, and at first I hated practicing I thought it was the worst punishment ever. But I’m so glad that my mom pushed me and that she made me stick with it. Because now almost 20 years later, my piano playing was able to get me into an amazing college on a full ride scholarship, and it’s an amazing experience to be able to travel and perform. So all of that practicing has finally paid off.

    • BrS

      Being forced to play the piano gave me a lifelong dislike of the instrument. Also when I finally got my way and quit playing I didn’t go back to music for nearly ten years. My brother was the same. Things might have been different if my mother had allowed us to play an instrument of our choice instead.

      • Chris Clements

        It probably has a lot to do with how you were “forced”. And the neurological benefits (in terms of your musical fluency and language or math skills) don’t care how much you like piano.

        • wordwar

          The science behind the presumed benefits of music education are shaky at best. Most experts now discourage music education solely for the purpose of increasing IQ and academic performance.

          If your family can afford to rent or purchase your instrument then you are not likely to be from a family on the financial edge. Children in poverty endure a level of stress, fear and anxiety that makes it hard to focus on long term objectives like succeeding in school or pursuing a career that matches their passions. Instead they grow up concerned about getting through that day or that week. Skipped meals, evictions, and doubling up in the households of relatives all take an emotional and mental toll.

          Factoring in the socioeconomic factors, coming from a household where time and money spent on music education doesn’t threaten the financial stability of the family is the key factor. So kids from the same types of households have similar outcomes, whether there’s music education or not. A balance of extracurriculars where the middle or high school student is choosing at least one of their own preferences is probably more helpful than being pushed into one single activity you dislike the most.

          While I wasn’t raised in poverty, all through middle and high school I had a fear of ending up poor as an adult (probably because many in my extended family were poor). This motivated me to focus on academics, get a STEM degree and a career that would not leave me on the financial edge. Given my generation’s struggle with student debt and the number of college grads working jobs that do not or didn’t use to require a degree, I think I was right to have the concerns I had and made the right call.

          In America today financial survival has become polarized – most are either struggling or thriving, and fewer people have the luxury of getting by with modest comforts. In all cases, rich or poor, most have to work longer hours and fewer days off. The 35 hour workweeks and six weeks of vacation in NW Europe don’t even seem believable to most Americans. In spite of Obamacare and a mismatched fabric of social safety nets, illness and disability can take an entire family down a full rung on the socioeconomic ladder. If most people are consumed by economic fear and struggle then even those who might otherwise enjoy learning music might not be able to derive the pleasure it is said to offer.

          But in any case, music is not like eating your peas or brushing your teeth. Lack of music lessons won’t threaten your health or survival, and if you only study music so you can fill in a space on a college application, aren’t you missing out on what music is meant to be?

  • Miss PBC

    This is exactly what we do with our daughter in our Musikgarten classes!! What a great article

  • MooneyDriver

    When I was a little boy, my mother made me take piano lessons. Typical of her home-spun psychology, she assured me that, if I practiced every day, I would grow up to play like Paderewski (that was 11 years after his death). It was 30 years later when my wife and I (on a trip to Paris) noticed a larger-than-life reproduction of the signature pages of the treaty on a wall in the Palace of Versailles. There among the signatures of Lloyd George and Clemenceau, clearly written in beautiful script was “I. J. Paderewski.” The fact that a piano player could also become Prime Minister of Poland shows how important it is to include music in the lives of every young child. Keep practicing!

    • wordwar

      A single anecdote and a single correlation does not yield proof or even supporting evidence for a cause and effect relationship. Maybe less piano practice and a deeper study of logic is required.

      • Elisha

        Sassy.

  • newschoolofmusic

    Piano lessons are definitely great for younger children as they develop skills that will transfer to other instruments as they get older. There is a great article on the benefits of piano lessons at http://www.newschoolofmusic.com. Go to the explore tab and scroll down until you see the piano tab.

  • Modern Violin Instruction

    This is an interesting read. I have 4 students right now under the age of 6. All are doing remarkably well. A successful lesson program is truly a team effort, and relies heavily on parental support at home during practice sessions. I’m a firm believer that a good teacher can make or break a child’s experience with an instrument and music in general.

  • MasterYodan

    Hi,

    I’m more than 40 and I have started to learn piano this year.

    I didn’t know anything about piano and music before so I have searched on the web to learn by myself.

    I have decided to share on my website what I have learned.

    http://www.piano-tutorials.com

    Hope it can help other beginners.

  • southern hospitality

    i love me some cranberry pie

  • N8

    I first started out with music in my early teens playing classical guitar. Not a wiz at reading sheet music or particularly insightful at remembering scales, chord progressions, etc. But for guitar kids its E-D-G NOW go start a band!

  • wordwar

    I had six years of private piano lessons during middle and high school. In spite of the fact that I made it clear that I had zero interest in playing music (I hardly even listened to music back then), the lessons continued.

    I cared more about my academic success and always knew I wanted a STEM career, so I knew that the music study was a waste of time from day one. If I didn’t care much for music and if it wasn’t going to be my career, my so much focus on it? I had interests in other worthy activities, but the piano lessons meant that the time and resources were never available for those activities. The lessons were one-on-one with a few recitals scattered through the years, so there was no social benefit to the lessons.

    Fact is there are a lot of kids that were “forced” to participate in activities that they had no interest in, and for many, even far into adulthood, their negative experience has left a dark place in their lives. Sometimes it was sports; for others music; often it was being pushed toward or away from a particular career or interest; sometimes it was unrealistic academic expectations and excessive studying.

    A variety of experiences all through elementary school is important, as kids that age are still discovering their world. I don’t resent my 5th grade recorder lessons, for instance, though I can’t say I enjoyed the experience either. But by middle and high school most kids will have developed their own personal interests, tastes, goals and aspirations. Parents need to realize that it is not their place to set their mature student’s interests, tastes, goals and aspirations.

    Educators are finally beginning to realize that some kids are different and that different is not evil. For instance, Asperger’s is considered to be a disability, and it can be for certain situations, but if a kid has nurturing parents who understand and accept their Asperger’s kids then the child can pursue their non-social endeavors without self-loathing. Same is true for introverts, lefties, LGBT, ADHDers, autistics, and kids with other differences, be they disabilities or not. Not that these kids don’t need some special direction learning essential skills to get through life, but at the end of the day it has been the “different” people who have had the most effect on our civilization. If Edison, Picasso, Newton, Hemmingway, Van Gogh, Einstein, Nietzsche, Poe, Rachmaninoff and other influential intellectuals were “mainstream”, “well-rounded”, “balanced” and were not lacking in their mental, emotional or social health, well-being, or character, would we even have their works today?
    Of course, we would want to help cure someone suicidal from their depression and intervene when someone cuts off and mails their body parts, but someone who is really focused on their passion while showing little interest in socializing does not need intervention if they are happy and aware of their situation.
    It’s time to let people be comfortable with who and what they are and allow them to hone their own unique strengths and talents rather than to bog them down and make them miserable and feeling inadequate with mastering skills like how to work the room at a cocktail party or dance at a wedding. Life won’t end if we skip the party or stay seated at the wedding. We are not helpless and can make our own success and find our joy in life without following the mainstream, without needing to express ourselves at social events, and without needing to pursue activities that we do not enjoy or cannot excel at. We tend to be masters, even savants, at those tasks that we do take on, yet most of us are not trying to shame the rest of society for lacking the skills we have acquired.
    Point is, yes – make kids work hard at mastering something, make the resources available to them, give them a wide exposure, but pushing a kid to put special focus on one particular activity they do not enjoy and do not show much potential for ends up causing more harm than good. A kid that is not even trying to be popular is not doomed to fail at life. A kid that does not share the same interests as the majority of extroverts on this planet isn’t condemned to suffer for it unless those around him are constantly making him feel weird or ashamed of his own personal preferences. A kid who pretends to enjoy hanging out in crowds, pretends to enjoy making music, pretends to enjoy engaging in small talk, pretends to enjoy receiving attention, and pretends to be something he knows he is not will become a very unhappy and unsatisfied adult.

    • Chris Clements

      Musical training helps with language and math, if you get it early enough. A lot of kids may not be interested in physical exercise or reading, but it’s still good for them to be forced into it, as long as you aren’t forcing them in an abusive way.

    • MWS

      Is this post serious? Certainly you are not implying that learning to play the piano is paving the way to mainstream extroversion? Performing and learning music is not about mastery or career prep, as most never reach that level. It is 100% about personal growth and development, to which it is absolutely crucial. Would you say your tendency toward STEM caused you to walk the halls during any other class irrelevant to your career… History? Art? Language Arts? If you don’t like a subject, but have to take a course, it is probably slightly dramatic to liken it to a dark spot in one’s life.

      • wordwar

        MWS – please elaborate on how intensive, long-term music lessons are crucial to personal growth and development as opposed to either a less-intensive, shorter term study of music (maybe a music appreciation class) or the pursuit of non-musical alternative activities. I know a lot of people that never studied music at all after 5th grade. Most of them grew up to be satisfied, independent and capable adults. Some of them say they wish they learned to play an instrument in their youth, but when faced with the busyness of their daily routine they admit that even if they had, they wouldn’t have much time to play an instrument in their adult lives. My own wife, who has the opposite of the STEM mindset in every way, is very intelligent, hard working, and quite knowledgeable about topics such as literature, ancient Greek, proper use of English grammar and the meanings of a wide variety of words. But she also never studied music outside of church choir and casual singing. She decided one day to take up the cello. Her enthusiasm and interest fell away within a few months of purchasing the cello.

        Though in her 30’s, she has failing health from Lupus and diabetes. Most days she is functionally disabled. I also have two autistic children from a prior marriage. She is no longer able to work, but has been denied disability benefits, so I am raising a completely disabled family of four on my salary alone. I am earning “good money” that matches the market rate for someone with my position, credentials and years of experience. And while I have always had employer provided health insurance I have thousands of dollars in medical debt accumulated over the years, plus I am helping her pay off student loans. In spite of medical bills that accumulate each year, I choose not to live in abject poverty; so when my wife wants something that she really seems to care about I get it for her as long as I am not running a dangerously low bank balance. But cellos aren’t cheap, and like with so many of the various activities that schools and colleges try to convince us we need in our lives, the cost for her to learn from an instructor is just not something we can afford now, nor in the foreseeable future. The purchase price of the cello alone was a major hit to our finances, but I could pay every last penny to medical bills and more will come the next month in ever increasing amounts, so I’ve just accepted that the medical debts will grow to a point I can never repay anyway, so might as well let my wife have something to enjoy while she’s still alive. But end result is that I am staring right now at the dusty cello in the corner of the room that is never played or even tinkered with.

        People get caught up with the idea of who they are, who they want to be, what they want to do, and how they want to live their lives. I was certain that by this time in my life I would already be a seasoned scuba diver and pilot with my own seaplane to go off to explore. But reality is we have bills, we have responsibilities, we have people we are responsible for, and we have salaried careers that keep us traveling, working late, and taking work home on the weekend. Some of us have the luxury to scale back our expenses, but this is America and sooner or later you will have to pay the doctor, the modern day real-life Pied Piper.

        As for the “irrelevant” classes, to be honest I knew I needed good grades in all my classes, so I worked hard for the grade and got straight A’s. Music lessons were not associated with my school and weren’t going to show up on my transcript, so they were even easier for me to dismiss. I could have spent the time learning music studying a foreign language or pursuing an activity that I actually enjoyed instead. But the wonderful thing about “core curriculum” is that we all have to suffer through them together. Given total freedom I would have traded four years of literature classes for one year of “cultural literacy”, where the required reading would have been condensed to Cliff notes, with a greater number of stories covered with a quick summary of their plots and reasons the story was supposedly important for the culture that read it. Maybe a small selection of books would have been required reading cover-to-cover to at least familiarize the student with the process of reading a book, as well as a few essays that seem to be a rite of passage with few, if any, practical applications to life outside of academia.

        I would have been open to other non-STEM classes as long as they could be shown to have benefits worth their study. Art was always an elective all through middle and high school and never required, so that is at least a settled matter. PE classes really aren’t education so much as they are an opportunity to keep young bodies healthy. I would have taken a course in drafting and design technology, but that was not made available as an option to me. I actually signed up for an art elective my senior year because there were no other electives worth considering other than study hall. But the art instructor was teaching students who had been taking art starting back in middle school, and the grade was competitive. I was near the top of my class and needed an academic scholarship to pay for school, so risking my GPA just to have fun exploring an activity that was not going to be core to my academic or career goals just was not justifiable. Maybe I could have been more “well rounded” if we had an educational system that wasn’t driven by ultra-competitiveness. But we did then, and we still do. It’s really a struggle for survival. Had I ended up in a career that paid half of what I earn today my disabled family would be suffering much worse than they already are. I’ve sat in dental offices where children in tears of pain were sent away because their parents didn’t have enough cash to cover the treatment. There are government programs to help poor kids get dental care, but not if the parents earn too much to qualify but not enough to have a substantial sum of money ever on hand when it is needed. As a parent of two autistic children I have encountered many therapies that insurance does not cover, but I paid for those therapies out of pocket, and I can directly attribute my ability to pay for such therapies to my decision in my youth to work hard and focus my efforts on making sure I could get through college and land a very high paying job – not so I can live the easy life, but so I can survive America.

        As for history, I enjoyed studying history and still enjoy reading about historical events, even if just by perusing Wikipedia. Being an engineer is more than just knowing math, designing a circuit, and troubleshooting problems. I have to interact socially with engineers and non-engineers alike, and there are a wide variety of topics individuals can make themselves familiar with in order to facilitate casual conversations that are naturally going to occur between activities. We live in a society that harshly condemns all forms of social awkwardness, even though the awkwardness emerges as a reaction to how people are treated by their peers just because they look funny, suffer from illnesses or allergies, have disabilities, or interests that don’t align with mainstream culture. When was the last time you saw an attractive person sitting at the socially awkward table at the school lunchroom? If ever, it is only because they are trying to be a more awesome person by reaching out to the awkward kids. Similarly, when have you ever seen a business executive, top salesperson, or political figure that was dog-ugly or having a funny-shaped body? I’m not saying it never happens, but the most successful just also happen to be the most attractive. We are animals, social animals, and we are programmed to place the unattractive, the sickly, and the handicapped on the lowest rung of the social ladder, while we promote the attractive, physically capable and healthy on the highest rung. We do this while we attribute success to “social skills” that are conveniently ambiguously defined. But those of us stuck somewhere near the middle see the writing on the wall and make as good of an effort as we can to enhance our social standing, as we know full well that how well we are liked is more important than how competent we may be at fulfilling our duties. So history and literature are subsets of cultural literacy, and we at least need to be familiar enough to understand allusions, references to past events, idiomatic expressions, jokes, names, places, etc. Understanding that starting an engine with a dead battery by using jumper cables from an engine with a good battery is called a “jumpstart”, helps us to understand better what is meant when someone is talking about jumpstarting their morning or jumpstarting their career.
        We need to study various academic subjects so we can more fully develop our cultural literacy so that mistakes are not made when important ideas or instructions are communicated. Scientists and engineers have to be excellent communicators both to STEM peers and to others with less STEM exposure (ie physician to patient, engineer to equipment operator or developer to investor). The proper study of various academic subjects also help us to learn how to think critically, especially if and when critical thinking skills are specifically targeted to be honed in classes such as literature, political science, law, ethics, philosophy and others. As humans we also need to make value judgments regarding the actions we take. For myself I felt that STEM fields do more to enhance the physical security of the most people on our planet. Artists and writers might make the world more interesting and enjoyable, but unless they are engaging in activism for a particular cause they are not likely to produce work that helps people to live longer, safer, efficient, productive and sustainable lives for generations. Scientists and engineers can produce products that cause more harm than good, but again this is where critical thinking and deep values development and clarification can guide an engineer to pursue work that offers a net benefit to humanity.
        I am deeply concerned about how my one life will touch those I care about and also those people who will be affected by what I do and do not do in this life. I don’t think it is enough to try to do some good, if we have an opportunity to do much good, and certainly we should not spend our lives making up for our actions that cause harm.
        But spending hours daily learning to play an instrument that after years of practice yields relatively little improvement in capability to play said instrument and while also never resulting in an enjoyable experience, such is waste. For every hour of practice, for all the multitude of songs that were part of my lessons, I have very little to show in terms of fruit from that labor. I still cannot hardly clap in unison with a crowd, and have no desire to do so. Every musical term and all the cultural literacy that could be juiced from my musical education would be the same today if I had studied the instrument for one semester. We live in an age of artistic glut, with more free or low-cost instant streaming of music, images, movies, literature, entertainment and other artistic content than any one person could consume in their lifetime. The need to add more art to the mix just does not exist, unless the individual feels compelled by desire, and only if there is desire should a pursuit such as the playing of an instrument need be considered. Likewise for many other non-essential activities, such as scuba diving, aviation, football, video games or the like.

  • Lou Iza

    There is an age that’s appropriate though. If the child is too young, their bones and mental capacity can’t handle it. The last thing you want to do is turn them off of music by being forced in to it. I’m a big advocate of the Karl Orff method – it’s fun and music! Check out this article to learn more: http://www.fcmusicschool.com/is-my-child-old-enough-for-music-lessons/

  • Tasha

    This may be super helpful for you! check it out. http://8bbeeyioyelkvsp9o4oh5zn768.hop.clickbank.net/

  • Joel Dave
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    Play Piano Tonight is an online course for people that want to learn how to play piano online. Learning how to play piano online is a really effective way of learning. With this piano learning system you get 10 books and 200 Video piano lessons with in-depth verbal piano instruction. Also, embedded directly in the eBooks, there are over 500 sound files that cut your learning time in half. http://howtoplaypianofast.weebly.com

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