My son (in red) and his cousin having fun at my childhood piano.

A, B, C, Do, Re, Mi: The Role of Music in Early Childhood Development

Does music make you smarter? How important is music in general education? These questions have been hotly debated for decades. Some claim music makes you smarter, more disciplined, and overall a better person. Some claim music is just a nice pastime with little to no real world application. Some claim music is valuable in and of itself and doesn’t need any other justification.

I don’t have any aspirations of resolving this debate, but I want to share some interesting observations regarding the role of music in my toddler’s development. Specifically, I have noticed several ways in which music is factoring into the way my 3 year old is learning to talk. My son seems to be somewhat atypical. His speech is significantly delayed for reasons that are currently unknown. He may be slightly autistic, he may have an auditory processing disorder, he may simply be focused on learning other things. I don’t know yet. What I do know is that he is constantly learning and growing, even if in a slightly different way than other kids, and that music is playing an important role in his development. In our house we listen to and sing lots of music. I personally enjoy the simplicity of most folk and children’s songs, so we spend a lot of time listening to and singing along with the Pandora radio station “Family Folk Songs.” I have noticed five ways music is helping my son grow and learn.

1. Vowels

Vowels are typically the first sounds children learn how to produce. When a child has a speech delay one of the big signs is lack of vowel babbling or inconsistent vowel usage. Teaching vowels is typically one of the first things speech therapists work on with little ones. Music has been very helpful in my son’s informal vowel practice. Most singing consists primarily of sustained vowel sounds. One song that’s been especially fun in this regard is “I like to Eat Apples and Bananas” which cycles through all of the vowel sounds. He also loves to sing along with the song “Home” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. He can’t say many words, but he gets all the vowels right: “Alabama, Arkansas, I do love my ma and pa!”

2. Rhythm

Researchers have observed a definite link between rhythmic skills and language skills. Those who are better at keeping a musical beat are also better at reading and listening. This makes sense when you consider that rhythm and speech both involve the ability to coordinate sounds with physical movement in a regular and predictable manner. Not only is rhythm the musical skill with the most clear general benefits, it’s also the most fun part about music — especially for toddlers. My son’s favorite songs all have salient rhythmic events that he anticipates with glee, whether it’s the perennial toddler favorite “If You’re Happy and You Know It” in which he gets to clap, stomp, and shout hurray, or the more modern “Ho Hey” by the Lumineers in which he laughs with delight at each shout of “Ho!” and “Hey!” throughout the song . Learning to get the timing right in these songs has not been easy for him and has taken a lot of time and practice, but I can confidently say he has enjoyed every second of it.

3. Pitch Contours

Matching and sustaining pitches is a uniquely musical skill. It’s not exactly something that generalizes to other life skills. However, paying attention to pitch contours correlates with sensitivity to emotional cues in language. Telling the difference between a sincere “Really?” and a sarcastic “Really?” is important, and this difference shows up as much in the pitch contour of how these words are spoken as in the facial and physical gestures accompanying them. Most people do not need musical training to be sensitive to these differences. If my son is indeed autistic, though, he may naturally have a harder time discerning these emotional cues than most people. Perhaps by learning to carry a tune, my son is also staving off some degree of social awkwardness. Of course one of the first songs he learned to sing with relative pitch accuracy was the ever present “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” He’s also gotten pretty good at the hook for “Little Talks” by Of Monsters and Men.

4. Exact Repetition

Repetition in music often gets a bad rap (no pun intended), but we tend to overlook just how crucial it really is. In fact, Diana Deutsch demonstrated the only difference between music and speech is repetition. If you repeat something enough, it becomes musical. The reverse is also true: if you put something to music, it becomes much more repeatable. This is why music is such an amazing learning tool. It makes repetition fun. If you need to memorize something you must repeat it over and over, and music makes that infinitely easier. This also makes music a spectacular learning tool for my son, who seems to need a higher level of controlled repetition to learn words than other kids. He especially enjoys cumulative songs like “And the Green Grass Grew All Around” where he can tell me what new word comes next — limb, branch, nest, egg etc.

5. Shared Joy

Perhaps the main reason why music is such a great learning tool for my son is because we love singing, listening, and dancing together. Our enjoyment and learning is amplified by sharing our joy with each other. This element of shared joy was highlighted in a recent article arguing that music is comparable to reading in the benefits it provides to early childhood development. But it’s important to note that I don’t make music because I think it’s good for him, even though I certainly believe it is. I do it because I enjoy it! I love singing and I love that having a kid gives me more opportunity than ever before to sing. Also, being the music nerd that I am, I love how much I’m learning about music and people by watching my son and his toddler friends. As with most things, your kid picks up and emulates your attitude about things. The beautiful thing about music is that because it’s not a core feature of most curricula, there is no cultural agenda. There is no pressure to make sure your child can keep a beat, sing in tune, or read a staff by first grade. The pressure is off which makes it more fun for everyone. And the funny thing is, you learn more when you have fun.

My son singing along to the intro of “Home” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.

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