How can you encourage music skills and appreciation in little kids?
May 21, 2010 9:56 AM   Subscribe

How do you encourage the development of musical skills in a 3 or 4 year old?

Here's the thing: my 6 year old has always loved looking at pictures and coloring and drawing and so it has been easy to facilitate her in her artistic development.

My 3 year old son loves listening to music of any kind. He just loves it. So what is the corresponding activity for him to pursue? I don't want to sign him up for formal lessons or anything (he's only 3 for goodness' sake! I'm not trying to make him a famous composer). I just want to give him the tools to explore something that he clearly loves and I don't know what those tools might include.

So far, I've come up with:
1) let him listen to music of all kinds as much as he wants
2) let him play with cheap toy instruments

The problem with 2) is, why would you settle for plinking around with a ukelele you can't play when there's real music available?
posted by Quizicalcoatl to Education (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
When my boy was that age, I just listened to regular "grown up" music with him. He would dance and sing and all that kind of fun stuff. He also got hold of a pair my drumsticks, and is quite the drummer.
posted by ducktape at 10:03 AM on May 21, 2010

Best answer: Take him to concerts and other music performances - preferably free/informal ones in kid-friendly locations. With summer coming up, there are a lot of possibilities. Seeing other people play music is awesome, and if it's free, you can stay until you get bored and then leave. Street musicians/buskers can also be great for this.

Are you comfortable singing/playing with him? Then play rhythm games with him - clapping, tapping, making noises with your mouth. Kids at this age can start imitating sounds and rhythms, so try call-and-response stuff. Google "rhythm games" or some such for ideas. You local children's librarian might have some good ideas, too.

And sing simple songs together, or sing to him. In the car or during other activities is a great time for this.
posted by Knicke at 10:08 AM on May 21, 2010

I don't know if they make them anymore, but when I was his age my Mom got me one of those little Magnus chord organs. The accompanying music books were color-coded and made it easy to match the notes on the page to the keys on the organ. Looks like you can still get the organs and books on eBay.
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:08 AM on May 21, 2010

You may want to hold off on stringed instruments until he's a little older. Percussion instruments seem a good place to start: bongos, xylophones, piano (!), etc. Or maybe some basic wind instruments like tin whistle or recorders?
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:14 AM on May 21, 2010

why would you settle for plinking around with a ukelele you can't play when there's real music available?

Why would I??
You're right, it would hold limited appeal. But not exactly no appeal...
But we're talking about a 3-year old. Yes, he loves music. He's not exactly the greatest music critic, though. Yes, he might love the [insert your favorite band from college here] album, but I bet he loves that even more if you're playing air-guitar and singing along with it slightly off-key. Involvement is crucial.
At 3, he's not necessarily old enough (especially without lessons) to be frustrated that he's "not doing it right", and in my opinion, that's something I'd want to maintain as long as possible. Early art is about making a lot of visual images, not about learning that flowers are red or blue and never green or black. Similarly, music is about making noise, and not about playing exact tunes.

Clap hands and use percussion instruments, and he'll eventually get the idea of rhythm. Sing songs and he'll eventually get the idea of melodies. Have toy ukeleles, pianos, accordions, or whatever available, and he'll use them as noisemaking tools, but eventually the idea will occur to him that those noises can have melodies too. Don't rush it, have patience with racket, and try to ignore the concept of "sounds terrible".
posted by aimedwander at 10:31 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Japanese method of Suzuki starts musical instruction at ages 3 and 4. Teaching to play by ear and get familier with music until they are old enough to learn to read it. Also, Kindermusic and Music Together are fun, group instruction for little ones that you can look for. My children loved them! Don't be afraid of age appropriate formal settings or instruction. Young children who already love music will thrive and surprise the hell out of you with what they can accomplish. Have fun!
posted by pearlybob at 10:41 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

What about making your own instruments? There is something very powerful about creating sounds from stuff you put together yourself.
posted by CathyG at 11:09 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

A piano would be good. It's tough to screw up if you stick to the black keys, and it will let him explore on his own.

As far as I know the Suzuki Method involves listening to a peace repeatedly until you really know it, and only then attempting to play it. There's a lot of logic in this method.

+1 involvement is crucial. Music is, at its heart, a social phenomenon. Singing along and encouraging him to sing along is probably the best thing you can do, as well as to expose him to lots of music. More than learning an instrument, being musical is learning to trust your instincts.
posted by MesoFilter at 11:09 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think you are doing what you need at this point. Listening to as much music in all styles as possible. Seems like hearing all the different styles seems to develop the brain to make some musical connections.

I personally agree that you don't have to start him at 3 yrs. of age in "formal" training. I know some would disagree with that (Suzuki). I would wait a few more years before looking into that. When I was teaching piano, I would like the student to be able to read a bit before starting.

With my own son I tried to stay out of his way, and let him develop his own musical tastes. I was very proactive in playing as much music as possible, and as many styles as possible.
posted by snoelle at 11:28 AM on May 21, 2010

We go to "Music Together" which is a "mommy-and-me" type program (for ages 0-5 inclusive so you can take preschool siblings all together). It includes folk songs and kid songs from around the world (much more tolerable than a lot of stuff) as well as rhythm play, tonal play, etc. Each session you get 2 CDs (one for the house, one for the car, they say) and a book with all the music in it (words, notes, chords, etc., as appropriate) and instructions for parents about different age-appropriate music development stuff. (This week in class the teacher talked briefly about "audiation" (I think was the word), where you hear music that isn't there, like when you sing "BINGO" and you go B-I-(pause pause pause), which helps with rhythm development and stuff.) In class we sing, dance around, bang on instruments, etc.

I started going because *I* like music and I was bored and wanted to do some mommy-and-me thing, but we got him a bunch of kiddie instruments because he likes class so much, and I play him a lot of music at home now too. Mostly whatever I feel like listening to, but he's particularly fond of Sousa marches (strong melodies, strong rhythms) so I play those for him special.

We're going to try taking him to a local folk music jam, because he's always so delighted when he hears a live instrument of some sort. This is a very casual one where he can run around and not be a distraction.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:39 AM on May 21, 2010

Oh, PS, we also got a kiddie mp3 player (the sweetpea3 is the one we got) which has only 3 buttons, the parents control the volume, which is locked, etc. It's limited in function but VERY sturdy.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:40 AM on May 21, 2010

Just to jump in here as a part-time music teacher, mostly for young kids.

Generally - and it does depend on the kid - but lessons on an instrument are usually best started at 5 or so. If the child is especially precocious, maybe 4 on the violin or piano. It's not just that they can't cognitively process a lot of stuff like fitting rhythm into meter before that age, it's that it's more important at those young 2, 3, 4 ages to just let them be immersed and find joy in the music. It sounds cheesy, but the best thing you can do is just to listen to a lot of music (not music for kids...listen to baroque and classic music, old jazz, music that is complex and interesting but still tonal and easy to swallow - like don't, for example, play a lot of Lutoslawski's music because it is actually difficult to process on a cognitive level an his brain isn't ready). Sing sing sing and sing some. Singing will develop his ear and his pitch and embed them in him. Dance a lot. Listen, dance and sing. The pretend instruments are fine for now. When he's 5 of so, then think about piano lessons (and I do recommend at least starting with piano).

I don't have hard evidence to back this up, but from experience I've noticed that as far as developing the technical skills go, starting at 5, 6, 7, or even 8 won't make much of a difference as far as how far along they are if they stick with it until, say, college.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:19 PM on May 21, 2010

Best answer: Holder of degree in music ed chiming in here:

See if you can find something like a preschool music class. Public libraries sometimes organize them. If it's a good one, it involves movement to music, singing, playing with instruments (percussion, mostly, but that would include xylophones so there can be "tunes"), etc.

So it's a formal class, in that you have to take him somewhere else, and there's a teacher. But it's not like beginning piano or violin lessons. Instead, it provides developmentally appropriate opportunities to practice musical skills. Teacher might gear movement exercises towards learning to attend to different instruments in a particular piece.

They work really well. Kids love them, and their musical skills develop a bit faster, it seems.

Although, as mentioned above, the Suzuki method starts with kids at pre-school age.

Thinking in terms of what would be analogous to making sure your daughter has access to a variety of art materials:

As suggested above, the "make your own instruments" thing is fun. Provide him with a variety of things he can bang together. Don't get the ukulele just yet (although I am thinking of starting BardophileJr, also 3, on a ukulele, that's just to keep my classical guitar safe). Xylophones are awesome, as are any number of percussion instruments for kids.

I don't know how much experience you have with music yourself, but guided exploration is a very cool thing. So, letting him play with sound, but occasionally demonstrating that banging on the xylophone can be done in an ordered way, to produce specific sounds. Tap out a favourite song, for example. Play him recordings of good music, in any genre you like. Please make sure he's not just listening to cheesy children's songs, although they have their place, too.

Also, take the time to point out different sounds, or have him listen for them. At this stage, a lot of music is simply about learning to attend. When you listen to music, tap along to the rhythm. Use your whole arms, that's easier for little kids. In music lab, we would sit cross legged and pat our knees.

Lots of other ideas, too... feel free to memail if you want more suggestions. :)
posted by bardophile at 1:39 PM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, sorry, one more thing. Singing. Make up songs. Have him make up songs. The more practice he gets at using his singing voice vs speaking voice now, the easier it will be for him to do so later. :)

I love this question. I wish more parents would ask it. :)
posted by bardophile at 1:42 PM on May 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

At 3, keyboards and other percussion instruments are good things to explore as well as singing.

I don't know of any computer programs that are suited to people that young, but I immediately thought of the Walking Piano as a great musical toy/tool for anybody who's active and interested in exploring music.

It looks like there's a drum circle near you that might be worth checking out some time.
posted by thatdawnperson at 4:17 PM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'll add this to the many excellent responses already: You will not harm your child's musical development by singing out of tune. The best way to encourage your child's musical development is to engage in musical activity yourself, not as a spectator, but as a participator. If you are self-conscious about your own musical ability, take a Music Together class or something similar (full disclosure: I'm a MT teacher). But by all means DO engage in musical activity with your child.

My dad used to sing horribly out of tune (but with abandon) when I was growing up. By the time I was old enough to realize it, I had already inherited his enthusiasm, and had no trouble singing in tune.

And please do it now, while your child's brain is still deciding which synaptic connections to keep and which ones to shed.

Most of all, Have fun!
posted by al_fresco at 6:42 PM on May 21, 2010

Sing-along tapes are great. Singing is a great way for your kid to explore music and requires no equipment or manual dexterity. As a 3-4 year-old I loved my sing-along cassettes (which came with illustrated books of lyrics).

Videos of musicals are also great. I recommend The Sound of Music, which features kids and has plenty of songs that'll be in his voice range.
posted by ms.codex at 8:54 PM on May 21, 2010

Kid's "dance" classes are also a good alternative. There's always music playing, there are counting games so that kids get the idea of rhythm, and physical activity. At 3-4 "dance" is really controlled chaos to music.
posted by crazycanuck at 10:45 AM on May 22, 2010

If you want to get him into vocal training, look into the pentatonic scale (YouTube), which is something people in without any formal training seem to be capable of understanding on the fly.

Music is social and participatory. Whatever you set him up to, do it with him, and don't make him do anything you don't find interesting yourself; he will notice and be unable to follow your logic for pursuing it.
posted by blook at 5:09 PM on May 23, 2010

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