If It Sounds Good, It is Good: The Benefits of Music for Children

June 21, 2021


I played Bach for my son when he was a baby. In the early months of his life, I held Julian in my arms and moved my body to the strong, regular beat of the Brandenburg Concertos. Then when he got a little bigger, he’d say, “Play Bach,” and we’d prance together through the house. Sometimes we’d flap our arms and sway to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet. But we didn’t confine ourselves to the classics of the past. Outings with him in his stroller brought out my creative bent—though I’m not much of a musician—and I came up with own take on the Supremes’ great song, “Baby Love.” My version went something like this: “Baby love / My baby love / He’s small and sweet, my little baby love / And even if he likes to drool / I still will say, that boy is cool / Baby, baby, baby,” I belted out to my audience of one. And he seemed to like it though I didn’t exactly sound like Diana Ross. Julian was also a keen fan of “Rockin’ Robbin,” the Bobby Day hit I crooned to him when he first came into the world.

At the time, I thought I was just keeping my son entertained. But now I’ve learned that music has many other benefits for babies and young children. A music-rich environment that includes listening, singing and moving helps children progress into formal learning. This is because children who engage in activities related to music tap into a wide variety of skill sets at the same time. Music helps small children build the brain networks that support visual perception, memory and self-expression—qualities that play a key role in learning.

Is our response to music nature or nurture? It’s probably both because music may be our native language. Many studies from neuroscience suggest that the brain processes speech like a special form of music. It’s also likely that music has deep roots in human development since people have been making music since prehistoric times. Archeologists have found remnants of a primitive flute from the neanderthal era, and psychologists have found evidence of links between music and human evolution. Judging by the ways that our brains and bodies respond, we may be wired for music.

Even babies got rhythm, as solid research points out. Lullabies lower their heart rates and put them into a deeper sleep. Two- and three-day-old babies recognize drumming patterns, according to brain scans, and are surprised when a drummer misses a beat. And after a few years, they can have perceptive views on what they’re hearing, says Nicola Benedetti, a renowned Scottish violinist who campaigns for music education in underprivileged schools. “On many occasions,” she says, “I have learned more about the pieces I’m playing from critiques of a four-year-old listening to me playing than from years of studying and professional learning.”

But children like to do more than play second fiddle while someone else performs. When kids engage in music-based activities, such as singing, moving to music or playing instruments, their minds, senses and muscles all go into gear, advancing their overall growth. And music also strengthens their social skills in a group setting. For example, when preschoolers learn an action song, they use their eyes to see the teacher and move their bodies to mimic what the teacher is doing. They listen to the music with their ears and try to repeat what the teacher is singing. They watch what their classmates are doing and get attuned to the vibe of the group.

Want to help children begin their day with good vibrations? Play them some oldies but goodies, according to Lori Anderson, Senior Marketing Manager at the Council. “As director of a summer camp at my church, I would start every day by playing music for the children,” she recalls. “The campers were mainly children of color, and I wanted to introduce them to legends of their community. So, I’d play them singers like Aretha Franklin, Nat King Cole and Billie Holliday, and I’d tell them a little bit about what they were listening to. They especially loved Holliday’s “Ain’t Nobody’s Business if I Do,” and whenever I played it, I’d let them get up and dance.” That would get them jazzed up for all the activities ahead. “Then, later on, we’d chat about what they had done that day and I’d play them something soothing, maybe a gospel tune, to get them ready to go home.”

The children also had the chance to hear music performed live since the camp brought in special guests, including a violinist who played classical pieces and a group of musicians who played steel drums. “Music was well entrenched at the camp,” Lori says. And it also played a role in how she grew up and how she raised her daughter, Joy.

When Lori was a little girl, her mom played her a lot of golden oldies, and Lori did the same thing with Joy. “Whenever we were in the car, my husband and I would play Joy the music that we loved, Lori recalls. “It could be the Jackson Five, James Brown, Earth, Wind & Fire or Elton John. She got to know the lyrics and know what the singers looked like.” And Lori was the one who said to herself “Good Golly” one time when Little Richard appeared on TV. “I’ll never forget the time that PBS aired a show on Little Richard,” she exclaims, “and Joy recognized who he was.”

PBS knows that music strikes a chord in kids and has given it a starring role in two famous children’s shows. Sesame Street has used music of many styles as a teaching tool since its debut in 1969. Mr. Rogers built a sense of neighborhood through the songs he composed and sang. He also brought in some of the world’s finest performers—cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Van Cliburn, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and many others—as guest artists on his show. And what did these musical virtuosos play when they dropped in? “They’d always play something by themselves and then something the kids would recognize from the show,” said Joe Negri, a jazz guitarist and music teacher who played Handyman Negri on the show. “A lot of the guests really liked Fred’s song ‘It’s You I like,’ and we wound up playing ‘Tree, Tree, Tree’ with Yo-Yo. It was just beautiful’”—exactly as Rogers intended. ‘If anyone deserves to hear our finest artists,” he said, “it’s our kids.”

That’s also the conviction behind the Bach to Baby concerts held in London and its surrounding counties. The audience at the concerts tends to be a lively bunch. Some drool and yelp. Others slurp their drinks loudly. And a few of them dance to the pieces by Beethoven, Dvorak and Vivaldi. The tone of the room is different than what you’d find at your usual chamber music performance. But that’s the whole point of the Bach to Baby concerts, geared toward babies, toddlers and their parents or caregivers. One nanny who attended the concerts with her 15-month-old charge said, “Josephine just loves the music. I am really into classical music and opera, and this is an opportunity for us to do somethings together that we both really enjoy.” To suit diverse tastes, Bach to Baby also holds concerts in other musical genres, including opera, jazz and traditional folk.

Hearing music from multiple cultures can build a sense of community, as it did in La Placentia, California, where the Even Start early education program held music workshops for recent immigrant families. The workshops used music to foster language acquisition, relationship building and fun. As parents learned ways to share music at home, it strengthened family bonds, according to one of the moms. “We like to be together more. And I stop thinking, ‘Oh what am I going to do with them?’ Now we enjoy playing and they ask me, ‘Mom, come see, now. Come dance with us and just play,’” she said. And Even Start families like hers also had a ball when they came together to share music from their different countries.

This celebration of diversity helped the children gain a sense of identity that harmonized their past and present, their own traditions and those of their new nation.

Early childhood programs can promote inclusion when they give children the chance to hear mariachi or bhangra music along with songs from Sesame Street and marches from John Philip Sousa. “When you incorporate children’s cultural dances and movements, you provide them opportunities to learn more about themselves and each other,” the Council points out in Essentials for Working with Young Children. “You also encourage them to express themselves in an environment where they feel respected and valued. Music is a part of people’s souls. Every culture’s roots include music and every important personal and social event from birthdays to sporting matches celebrates with song.” And the Council advises early childhood teachers to harness the power of music by setting aside a space with the following components:

  • Instruments used in music of the children’s home cultures, like steel drums from the West Indies or rain sticks from Native American tribes
  • Homemade instruments: drums from oatmeal boxes, cymbals from metal pie plates and maracas from shakers
  • Rhythm instruments: triangles, ankle bells, drums, rattles, shakers, tambourines and xylophones
  • Software for listening to and composing music and learning about dance
  • Props like streamers, scarves, ribbons, flags, costumes, low stilts and hula hoops for moving and marching to music
  • A wide range of recorded music—including children’s songs, music from children’s cultures and home languages, along with rock, pop, country, show tunes, hip-hop and jazz.

The more music you play for a child, the bigger part it will play in their growth. Whether a child is going to be the next Beyonce or just sing in the shower, they’re bound to benefit from exposure to music. Music learning supports all learning—and what children hear may stay with them for the rest of their lives. For instance, the Council’s CEO, Dr. Calvin E. Moore, Jr., is a singer who likes to sing and dance with his two daughters. “We’ve always had music in our lives,” he says, “and my older daughter is an accomplished singer who performs at our church.”

My mom’s love of music also made a lasting mark on me and what I did with my son. She told me in a recent chat that she, too, played Swan Lake for me when I was just a toddler, and I would wave my arms around while saying “music, music.” I don’t remember this, but decades later I go to see Swan Lake nearly every year—and it always makes me cry. Still, you don’t have to play the classics to help young children spread their wings, develop and learn. Children get benefits from music whether they’re hearing Tchaikovsky or the Jackson Five, a Bach concerto or Benny and the Jets. “If it sounds good, it is good,” as Duke Ellington said. And it’s good for children to hear.

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