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Tuning Kids into Music

by Robert Cutietta

Robert Cutietta

Robert Cutietta is a music educator who specializes in learning theories and the psychology of music. Read more »

As a musician, music educator and researcher, parents often ask me when they should begin introducing their children to music. As with most easy questions, there’s an easy answer that is incomplete and a more nuanced answer that is correct.

The easy answer is: You should begin age-appropriate music “lessons” soon after birth, or maybe even before birth. That being said, please read this entire article before giving your six-month-old a trumpet.

There is a great deal of research supporting the notion that musical ability develops during a critical period from birth through age 9 (or 10 or even 11, depending on the research). However, it seems clear that after age 11 the window for developing certain musical abilities is shut and shut forever.

This makes sense. Our brains seem to be “wired” for learning and processing the patterns we hear. This is most obvious in how young children develop language. They hear the patterns and inflections in their native tongue and their brains internalize them. Language learning seems natural, and they learn the language of the culture they’re living in. A child can also learn multiple languages at this time and being bi-lingual seems natural. Yes, an adult can learn a second language, but it will rarely be as natural as the first language or without an accent.

The same is true with music. At its most basic level, music is made up from a surprisingly small vocabulary of rhythm and pitch patterns. These basic patterns vary by culture, (which is why Japanese music sounds different from Canadian music), but the basic principle of music being comprised of patterns is true of all music. These patterns can be considered the basic units of music…much like words are the basic units of speech. The individual notes are like letters…they only take on meaning when combined into a word. Likewise, the individual notes only take on musical meaning when they are combined into patterns.

A child learns the musical patterns of the music they’re exposed to during their formative years. The patterns are internalized and become the child’s natural musical language. So, early music “lessons” should have as its goal engaging the child with music in a way that will help him or her focus on, and learn, the basic building blocks of music.

This internalizing of musical patterns is most often accomplished by singing and movement at an early age. Like language, it is best learned if the entire environment is immersed with music.

This takes us right back to our basic question. While weekly “lessons” or “Mommy-Baby Classes” are worthwhile, the fact that they only meet once or twice a week makes them enhancements to the process, not the core of the process. Imagine if your child only heard language during prescribed classes once or twice a week and the rest of the time the child experienced no language. The chance of a regular development would be remote.

So, providing basic music experiences is really up to the parents. Now, before you start protesting, “I can’t carry a tune in a bucket” or “I haven’t played my instrument since I was in middle school,” there is some good news. You don’t have to be a musician! The key is to help your child focus and internalize the basic patterns of music - to engage her in music. Here are a few ways in which you can go about it:

  1. Sing with your child. The reason many children’s songs (for example, the Itsy, Bitsy Spider or Row, Row, Row Your Boat) have lasted through generations is that they have the basic patterns we’re trying to instill.

  2. Download songs to your iPod and do the movements along with the song. The purpose is to focus attention on the music.

  3. Hold your child and sway while singing or listening to music.

  4. March around your living room.

  5. Clap a rhythm. Any rhythmic “dancing” to music at this age will fulfill this purpose.

  6. Have music as a constant “soundtrack” in the home. This will be especially helpful if there is repetition of certain pieces.

The musical learning that you build in your child will last a lifetime. If later in life (whether it’s age 7 or 52) he or she decides to learn an instrument, they will already have the basic “musicality” developed in their brain. Even if they don’t, they will have an enhanced appreciation of the music they hear for the rest of their lives. These basic active and passive musical experiences early in life are not just beneficial for the future musicians. They lead to an enhanced quality of life for anyone, regardless of calling.

So, the answer to the original question is: Start your child’s musical development as early as you can, but do it in an age-appropriate way, with age-appropriate goals.

How are you engaging your child in music?


Nicole writes...

I love the ideas for music at home. As much as I'd like to have my 2yo in classes, it's just not in the budget.

I'm always looking for ways to encourage his love of music. Thanks.

Rob? writes...

Hi Nicole

You can certainly do everything you need to do at home with no budget. Just set a time for music activity and "go for it!".

samantha price writes...

Hi I am A junior In High School In Nebraska and Would love to major in music. Such as singing Opera and Classical Music. I am currently enrolled in classes with a private vocal coach that is teaching me to play piano and learn vocal techniques is there any advice you could give me on where to go to school and what to study?

Rob? writes...

Hello Samantha

Congratulations on your talent and following your dreams. Regarding what college to choose let me tell you how I usually respond to questions such as "What is the best school of Music?". My answer is "For what student?". Every student is different and different schools are better or worse for each one.

Questions you need to ask yourself are: What type of singing am I interested? Some schools feature operatic, others Broadway, others vocal jazz, and still others popular music. Few schools do all of them. So, this is your first decision.

Then the next decision is to find a school where you will be in the "middle" of the talent pool. You want a school where some students are better than you and some less talented. This will give you goal to strive toward while making sure those goals are realistic. If you are the best one at the school you are not going to be challenged, if you are the worst one, you are not going to have the opportunities.

Your teaching should be able to help you with this. Good luck!

Gabby writes...

What do you think about those mommy & me music classes for babies? Other than giving my child the opportunity to socialize, I'm not convinced that they are worth the money.

Rob? writes...


I think very highly of these programs IF the person teaching it is following a plan for what he or she is doing. If the activities are age-appropriate for these young children and the children are engaged in the music, the time and money is worth it.

Rachel writes...

I have 7 and 4 year old sons. I'm interested in teaching them about music and/or the history of music. They don't get much at school. Do you have any suggestions for websites or even courses or something that I could use? (They aren't in any lessons at the moment, but I'm trying to arrange some. It may take some time.)

Rob? writes...

Hello Rachel

Your sons are in the perfect "window" for some type of instruction. I will admit that I am not up on websites that provide information for this and hopefully some other readers can suggest ones they like. (We can all learn!)
My book, "Raising Musical Kids: A Parent's Guide", offers some concrete activities that you could do with your sons regarding music history...there are age specific ways to approach this for this age group. I am pleased to say that you wouldn't have to purchase it as I have found that many, if not most, public libraries have a copy.
In the book I lay out the REASONS for the activities, but basically what you want to do with this age child is make them familiar with a large variety of musical styles and help them to identify them CORRECTLY. Research has shown that young children can do this very easily but they are rarely encouraged to do so. For example, make a game of being able to identify correctly certain styles of music such as: Jazz, Country, Baroque, Classical, Renaissance, Opera, American Indian, etc. The good part is you can find these at your local library when you pick up my book. Plus, you too, will become acquainted with these different styles. Who knows, you may find something you like and never knew it!

max Haralson writes...

?woodwind for a 4 year old?
She recognizes the instruments by sound and is quite precocious. I bought her a simi pro keyboard when she was 2.
She lays on it like a surf board and plays!!!
Woodwind is her choice no one coached her.
Thank You!

Rob? writes...

Hello Max-

I would not give your daughter a traditional woodwind instrument at this point. While she is interested in the sound, it is unlikely she has the strength to actually control it. However, a good substitute would be a wooden recorder. Her hand might be too small to cover all the holes so you might consider using tape to cover the hole on the back and let her experiment with the first three holes on the top. She could play "Mary had a Little Lamb" and even make up her own songs in this way.
You bring up a good point, however, I strongly believe that we are all attracted to certain sounds of instruments and paying attention to what types of SOUNDS your child is attracted to could help choose the right instrument for them.

Amanda writes...

Thanks for the interesting article! It's nice to see what we're on track with, and what could use some improvement.

I have a delightful 2 year old son who is quite the music lover. He learned to sing his ABCs and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star before his second birthday. On his birthday, he received a child's guitar (which he uses only with supervision, of course). I'm surprised to find that he will sing and try to strum the strings to the beat of the song he's singing.

My inquiry is this: I love that my child is so interested in music, and I'd like to continue to foster his love of it. But how can we be sure we're striking a balance? I want to continue to encourage him, but I don't want to burn him out. Music lessons are out of our budget range at this time. Is there anything else we should consider?

Rob? writes...

Hello Amanda

When you find the secret formula to striking the right balance I suggest you take out a patent. You will be rich! This is something every parent and teacher has to deal with.

I think the best way to strike this balance is to work with GOALS for the playing. I see so many parents and teachers who say a child should practice 30 minutes a day (or some number) but never say WHY. Instead, set a goal "By next week you will play (fill in the blank), by January you will play (fill in the blank), by the end of the year you will be able to play everything in this book".

Often teachers have these goals but never tell the student! Working toward a goal (as opposed to having required duties, will be motivating and will help achieve the balance.

Paula writes...

My son is (very) soon to be 7 and my daughter is 2. I "played at" music with my son from very early in his life. I'd sing and gently pat rhythms on his back or bottom while rocking to a constant beat. I still sing with him all the time. I play the guitar and trumpet for him, and he's fascinated. I bought a cheap keyboard for him when he was very young so he could play with the sound of notes and how they relate to each other.
Now he is a very capable singer (even at 7!), and he has great rhythm and coordination. This child can hear a song twice then sing most of it. He is amazing!
I did not spend as much time with my daughter, unfortunately, but she seems to be learning in leaps and bounds to catch up with big brother. It doesn't take her very many repetitions before she's caught onto the tune and even some words. Mostly, with my daughter, I sing songs, we clap hands, we sway, we dance. I worried that she would not have the musical skill (talent?) that her brother has, but I'm seeing that is nothing to be worried about at all.

So you have any thoughts on the difference between musical experiences the two? Also, I've been wondering what instrument I should introduce to my son for "formal" lessons first. I had the piano, and I am still emotionally scarred from my mother demanding I practice all the time. (Little did she know, I sight read nearly everything I played in lessons! *laughs*)

Rob? writes...

Hello Paula

It sounds as if the difference in your behavior with your two children was one of "what" you did, not the fact that you "did" activities with them. The fact that they are both responding and developing to music shows that the fact a parent does musical activities with a child is much more important than what they actually do. All of the activities you provided were age appropriate and worked to focus your children on music.
Regarding what instrument to begin on, I suggest violin or piano. However, like everything else, you need to find a teacher that will understand young children and what the goal of instruction is. Later they might (will?) find the instrument they want to focus on, but working with either of these instruments will give them the foudation they will need to succeed later.

will writes...

Wow, you definitely put me in panic mode :)
My 11yo plays flute, electric guitar and harmonica (since last year) and she does well. I figured I'll wait for my 8yo to reach the same age to introduce him to musical instruments but I guess I will be missing the window. Thanks for the info!

Rob? writes...

Hello Will

Sorry about the panic mode! Actually, it sounds like you introduced (and plan to introduce) your children to INSTRUMENTS at the perfect age. Introducing an electric guitar much before 10 or so, could just lead to frustration. I suspect you have a musical home life that surrounds the family with music. So you are not missing the window at all! Those pre-instrument experiences lay the foundation they need when they eventually turn to playing instruments.

Sherry Stearn writes...

Hi Robert,
I love what you are doing here with Tuning Kids into Music!
I do believe getting kids involved with music at a early stage helps them learn faster and be more focused!
Our organization helps kids discover their talents with the help of our music abilities.
Our President, Phil Morse, went to Berklee and has recorded music for DYS kids in Boston, as well as, our organization and our partner BCCA, Inc hosted a fundraiser this summer to help kids and art education.
Best Wishes,
Sherry Stearn

Rob? writes...

Hi Sherry-

On behalf of all of us who have devoted our careers to helping children learn about music, let me thank you for your efforts to help!!!

Abby writes...

Wow, great article. As a mom of a classical saxophonist getting his PhD, who I knew by 2 years old, would be doing "something" in music. I always had music playing for the kids, and sang in the middle of the night, partly to soothe the baby, partly to soothe the momma up in the night...

I thought you would like that son's first "keyboard" teachers approach in grade 2. [a group class in the after school program] had the students learn [memorize] the popular jingle of the time "you're the one for us New England, New England telephone." Their "homework" was to play it for as many as possible and see if they could guess what they were playing. THAT was the first class! They came home playing; so excited!

After that mastery, each child chose to learn [memorize] another song... mine did "in the jungle the mighty jungle..." It was so much success, and then after a few months, THEN started teaching notes.

The other thing I wanted to "share" was I think it was wonderful that you have answered each person-especially your advice to singing major, and moms.

Rob? writes...

Dear Abby

I hope your son gives you credit for his Ph. D. because clearly you set the groundwork for his musical talent by spotting it early and then helping to nurture it.

Also, you were lucky and found the right teacher for lessons! Way too many teacher equate learning to play an instrument with learning to read music. How foolish! These are separate skills. We should learn to play our instruments from a musical, ear-based approach. The note reading can, and should, come later. Unfortunately, too many teachers start with note reading. The child can actually play well beyond their reading ability so become frustrated...not with playing but with reading. It would be as if we only let children speak sentences they could read to us. No one would do that, but unfortunately, many music teachers do.

Rob? writes...

Hi Abby again-

One more thing on this topic. I create a weekly Podcast on issues related to music for our local classical music radio station. I dealt with the topic of note reading and young children on a recent episode. If you go to the link below, listen to the October 16th, 2010 podcast for more thoughts on the topic.

Listen to the October 16, 2010 listing.

char writes...

Dear Dr. Cutietta,
My son, Cole Cuomo, is a freshman in your school at USC, so I found this link from the Thornton newsletter. After reading the whole page, I am once again near tears at the joy being associated with USC brings to our family. The article, your philosophy, and your style are all encouraging and present a man of honor and wisdom. Having entrusted my child to your group, seeing your leadership represented so transparently in your comments is promising.

PJ boasts on you... and rightly so, I see. I hope one day I have the chance to meet you in person and thank you for inspiring so many young people and enriching our world with music.


Rob? writes...

Wow, I am not sure how to respond because I am humbled by your comments. We care about music and we care about nurturing young musicians. This just comes naturally to us. I, too, hope I can meet you. Perhaps when I hand Cole his diploma (or hopefully sooner).

Irene writes...

My husband and I retired recently and live in a social housing complex. As we have a lot of free time, we wish to start a music project for young kids. We have a collection of musical instruments and wish to invite the kids in the housing complex to our home and let them use the instruments. We are trying to get a young musician to help us train the kids in the correct use of the instruments. Can anyone who already has a similar project, send me some ideas.

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