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Music Education

Music is found in every culture throughout the world.   And, according to Steven Mithen in his book,  The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music,..., as well as Daniel J. Levitin in his book, The World in Six Songs  evidence suggests that music may pre-date humans' use of language. Why is music so universal?    Why can listening to sounds, organized as music, have the potential to create "goose bumps or bring people to tears?"   Why can Alzheimer's patients who can't even remember their own names remember songs and lyrics?    As   Researchers attempt to answer these questions, they are accumulating significant evidence that points to the value and importance of music.   As Daniel J. Levitin points out, music is not just "Cheesecake."   As a result of significant discoveries, the Library of Congress has been offering a series of "lectures, conversations,  and symposia about the explosion of new research at the intersection of cognitive neuroscience and music."   This series can be found at:   http://www.loc.gov/podcasts/musicandthebrain/index.html.   You may also subscribe to the series through iTunes (Subscribe via iTunes).   Dr. Levitin's lecture on "The World in Six Songs" is particularly recommended as a starting point in listening to the lecture series.

The Goal of Music Education

A review and reflection of research on music leads to a realization that music is a basic, fundamental human capacity.   Just as we are born with capacities for language and movement, humans are born with a capacity for music.   We used to think that the development of human capacities were automatic.   When sea turtles are born, they can scamper toward the sea and swim.   They don't have to learn to walk or swim.   However, humans are more adaptive.   They are not born being able to walk, run, or swim.   They have the capacity to do those things, but humans have to develop those abilities through learning.   It has become clear through research over the years that humans don't develop their abilities automatically.   If the conditions are not right, if the young don't have opportunities to learn, the inborn capacities do not develop.   Scientists have been surprised to discover adults who never learned to walk.   These adults still walk on all fours.   In the study of feral children (children raised by animals or without human contact) it has been found that these children do not develop normally.   A girl in Russia, for example, was raised by dogs and walked on all fours, barked like a dog, and had the behavior of dogs.   A child discovered in Los Angeles tied to a potty chair and isolated in her bedroom had not developed language.   It has been discovered through intensive efforts to help these older children develop normal abilities that their ability to do so is severely limited.   Humans appear to have sensitive periods for development.   Most of these sensitive periods occur within the first six years.   If a child doesn't develop their ability for language when they are young they will be very limited in their ability to develop language when they are older.   As any adult knows, even though a person develops one language well, as an adult it is difficult to learn a second language.   On the other hand, we don't know the limit of how many languages a young child can master without conscious effort when they are young.   If you ask a young child how they learned to speak, they won't know.   Just think how amazing it is that a young child has mastered a complex language by the age of five.   Some children in Europe, having been exposed to multiple languages, have mastered several languages by the time they are five.   So, development is not automatic.   It requires learning and learning requires opportunity.    And, since children today are living in an environment created by adults, the children are dependent upon the adults around them to provide the conditions and opportunities they need in order to develop fully.   This means that we as adults have a responsibility to learn what children need to develop and make sure that they get what they need.   See FrameWork for Development.

Since music is a basic human capacity, it, like the other capacities (listed in the FrameWork of Development), has the potential to be developed, but will not develop automatically.   In order for this capacity for music to fully develop, it is necessary for adults to make sure that children have an opportunity to engage in music when they are young and in their sensitive period for music development.   And since research is now documenting the innumerable benefits of music development, we are coming to the realization that it is critical that we have to make a conscious effort to make sure that children have an opportunity to develop their musical capacity.

It turns out that music is a language and it is ideally learned by being absorbed in the way that children absorb their spoken language when they are young.   However, this is difficult to accomplish.   Children are immersed in spoken language from before they are born.   Today, on the other hand, fewer and fewer adults have developed their musical abilities and are engaged in music.   Therefore, children are not immersed in an environment of music like they are immersed in a world of spoken language.   This means we have to organize children's experiences in music to facilitate their development.   This means we attempt to optimize the conditions that will enable children to absorb music.   In order to do this, it is helpful to reflect on how children traditionally learning the language of music.  

Music as a Language

Music is a language that traditionally was learned in a fashion similar to spoken language.   Pete Seeger calls music the "Language of the Heart."   At one time, for many families, music was an integral part of family activities and children were immersed in a rich heritage of song and dance.   Evenings would be filled with song and family members enjoyed playing various instruments, singing and dancing.   Music was a way to enjoy time together.   It was an important part of social gatherings.   According to Daniel J. Levitin,   singing and performing music together produces the hormone oxytocin which is sometimes referred to as the "Love Hormone."   This results in positive feelings of trust, empathy, bonding, and being part of a community.

In this context, children witnessed music as an integral part of life and they strove to participate.   They listened and watched.   They clapped, danced, and joined in the singing.   In this natural process, they learned the words and melodies of songs.   They learned to sing without being self conscious.   Music was something that was part of them and their family.   It was natural and spontaneous.   It was joyful and bonding.   It enabled children to feel part of the group.   They wanted to participate.   They wanted to learn to play the different instruments.   So, they would watch.   They would try to copy the adults, and adults would show them things.   Then, when they had a chance, children would practice by themselves.   They would sing songs, and if they picked up an instrument, they would try to figure things out.   They would experiment.   They would ask to be shown things.   They wanted to be able to do the things they saw adults doing.  

People would make up songs.   They would make up verses and lyrics.   They might know up to 50 or more verses to a song.   They learned from each other.   If they heard something they liked, they would pick it up and pass it on to others.   This was part of the cultural tradition.  

The Process

There is a lot that can be learned from thinking about this process.   First, it is a social process and it is participative.   Children see models and want to, and are able to, join in.   The rewards come from the intrinsic benefit of being able to join in and enjoy music with others - not from grades, praise, gold stars, or other rewards.   At first they can join in by listening. If they want, they can clap their hands and dance.   As they hear songs over and over, they pick up the words and start to sing along.   The adults may give them some rhythm instruments such as spoons, shakers, rattles, or a wash board to strum.   They are not being told to do music.   They are given the opportunity and join in through their own interest and volition.   Being able to participate in music becomes their goal rather than someone else's goal for them.   As a result, they begin enjoying music on their own and they can be seen singing songs and dancing when they are by themselves or with other children.   As time passes, they show interest in the instruments and want to try to play them.   Adults may show them how to hold a pick and how to strum.   For this purpose, it is helpful to give children an instrument tuned to an open tuning - like a dulcimer.

Building the Foundation

To support this interest, and prepare the children to be successful, it is important to build a good foundation.   This is done by providing children opportunities to listen to music, to dance and move to music, and to sing. Ideally, this should be provided in two ways.

First, children should have an opportunity to do things with others as part of a group.   Music is an important social experience.   It builds a sense of community and of belonging.   To this end, it is important that the children enjoy the activities and have positive experiences.   The adults should always be positive and enthusiastic. In this way, children absorb music in the same way they absorb spoken language.   With young children,   if things start to get out of hand, if children's attention begins to wander, or if any problems develop, it is important to keep things positive.   It may be necessary to happily draw the activity to a close or to re-direct the children.   Young children are full of energy and still have a lot to learn about social and emotional behavior.   Don't forgo your main music objective (that you want children to feel good about music) because a problem arises or things don't go as you'd like.   Instead, say something like, "We can do some more music tomorrow," and re-direct the children to something else.   Then, plan how you might do things differently next time to avoid the problem.  

The second way you can provide children an opportunity to listen to music, dance, and sing, is to provide resources for the children that they can use independently, or with their friends. Learning is both a social process as well as a process of self development.  

We want children to develop the ability to enjoy listening to a wide variety of music and to be familiar with the wonderful variety of musical styles that have developed throughout history and around the world. Music has form and structure just like spoken language.   This underlying structure of music is naturally absorbed by young children in the same way they absorb the grammatical structures of their spoken language.   However, in order to do so, children need to be exposed to music when they are young.   It appears that just as each language has its own rhythm and structure, so does the music of different regions.   Children should be exposed to these variations so that they develop the ability to distinguish, discriminate, understand, and appreciate the different forms of music.   It has been found that if they have this opportunity, that they will also be able to pick up new spoken languages more easily as well.  

So, for young children under six years of age, the best music program is one that provides the conditions that enable children an opportunity to absorb music.   This is done by allowing the children freedom to listen, dance and sing to music. In 160 languages around the world, the word for music and the word for dance are the same word.   Throughout time, music and dance were inseparable. As researchers observe the brains of individuals listening to music, they see the motor areas of the brain are active.   This suggests that young children would be best served if they are allowed to listen to music with their whole body by being allowed to dance to music as they listen.   For this they need space in which to move and dance freely.   Ideally, one side of the space will contain a full wall of mirrors that stretch from the floor to above the height of the children.   In this way, the children can see themselves as they move and dance.   Of course, the children will also need a way to choose music to which to listen and dance.   One way to do this is to provide the   children a music library that they can access and explore on their own or with their friends.   Today, one way to do this is to provide a visually organized library of music on a computer or playback device such as an iTouch, iPad, or other such device.   In this way, children can point to music they want to hear and they can listen to the music in good quality through good speakers. This means the children need a designated space located where the music won't distract other children who are working. If this is not possible, another alternative is to have a designated time when children can choose to dance.    Or, an additional alternative is to provide the music library on some form of iPod such as a shuffle, nano, classic, or iPod Touch strapped to an upper arm and connected with earbuds.   However, it is really beneficial if children can enjoy dancing and moving together.   They like to take hands, and twirl, or jump, or otherwise move together.   It helps development if they have opportunities to synchronize their movements together. 

For listening, it is also a good idea to set up an area just for quiet listening through stereo headphones where the volume is preset so the children can't turn it up too loud. Children enjoy having their conscious attention drawn to sound.   They enjoy listening to the different sounds produced by music.    Children can learn a lot about music just by the way selections are organized.   However, the important thing is for them to have an opportunity to be exposed to a variety of high quality music.   A general rule for selecting music is to choose music that has survived the test of time.   In general it is a good idea to select the "classics" for any given style of music - the best of renaissance, baroque, classical, romantic, impressionistic, modern, jazz, rock, folk, and traditional music from other cultures.   It is also a good idea to focus on music that they might not normally have a chance to hear.   The music can be organized by style, by period, by composer, by where it is from, or by anything else that makes good sense.

It is also useful to provide the children access to music which they are learning or will be learning.   They love to listen to the songs and pieces they are learning. They like to put on headphone and sing along with songs they know.   It is very valuable to provide them a model and an opportunity to independently practice with the model.   There are phone jacks that enable two or more sets of headphones to be plugged into a music system so children can listen together.  

In summary then, it is beneficial to provide a music library for independent listening, and it is important to give young children a chance to move and dance to music independently as well.   For this purpose it is helpful to provide an area where they can put on some music without disturbing others, and have space to move about and dance.   Ideally, it is wonderful to provide a large mirror along a wall so the children can see themselves as they move.   They will need an audio device, computer, or simple sound system, that they can easily choose and control what they want to hear.  

Singing with Children

In singing with young children, it is important to enable children to have fun and feel successful.   Children are just developing their ear.   Their ear will develop as they have an opportunity to hear others sing and to sing along with someone in pitch.   Therefore, it is important for them to be able to listen to recordings of people singing in the children's pitch range in with proper pitch.   Their voices will begin to blend and sing in pitch if they can hear themselves together with someone else in pitch.   This can not be rushed.   It is not something that a teacher should attempt to "teach" at this age.   However, pitch is something to which children will adapt and absorb over time with practice.   This can be helped by a careful selection of songs to sing.   For information on the principles of singing with young children, and for songs that are selected for their developmental appropriateness for young children, see Singing with Young Children.

In summary

The goal of a good music education should be to help children develop their musical abilities and develop the language of music.   In this way, they can enjoy the benefits of music and are not limited in the ways they may choose to enjoy music throughout their life.   Music listening, dancing, and singing provide the basic components of a good musical foundation.  

  1. It is important for children to develop an ability to enjoy listening to a wide variety of music from throughout history and from around the world.  
  2. It is important that they feel comfortable moving to music and can enjoy participating in dance.
  3. It is important that children enjoy singing, can sing in tune, and are comfortable with their voice.
Upon this foundation can be built the ability to play musical instruments, build instruments, and read and write music.   Humans have always extended and enhanced their abilities through the use tools.   Musical instruments are among some of the oldest tools discovered developed by early humans.   A forty thousand year old flute has been found that would be playable today.   Notation has enable players to share and spread their music around the world.   Today, we have recording devices that allow everyone to efficiently create recordings of sound.

Thus, these become the six components of a comprehensive music program:
  1. music listening and appreciation
  2. dance and movement
  3. singing
  4. playing musical instruments
  5. building instruments and experimenting with sound and recording of sound
  6. reading and writing music.
For further information about music listening, dancing, singing, playing and building instruments, and reading and writing music, plus a listing of resources to support each of these components of a music program, click on   Resources.



Updated on Jun 17, 2012 by Bob Blodget (Version 40)


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