Introducing Your Child to the Arts: Making Music Together

— National Endowment for the Arts
Updated on Mar 14, 2011

"The trouble with music appreciation in general is that people are taught to have too much respect for music; they should
be taught to love it instead."

- Igor Stravinsky, composer

Musical sounds permeate our environment, shaping the way we experience different aspects of life. We wake up to music on the radio, identify our cell phones by personalized musical tones, wait patiently in offices surrounded by soothing melodies, and select favorite CDs for pleasure and inspiration. A child’s world is equally inundated with musical moments. From the sounds of a parent’s lullaby before bedtime to the colorful tunes accompanying favorite television shows such as Sesame Street, children experience and respond to music with joy.

Beyond the simple pleasures associated with music, it is important to think about the other benefits music provides. Research tells us that music plays a vital role in the learning process and strengthens skills in other areas. Educators believe that engagement in music supports academic achievement. As early as preschool, playing music helps children acquire knowledge, skills, and attitudes that influence them throughout their lives. All those involved in watching a child develop
musical skills and knowledge have long known that, in the midst of learning music for its own sake, children also learn coordination, goalsetting, concentration, and cooperation. In addition, a growing body of research shows that music study can lead to real and measurable benefits in mathematics and reading. Most of all, children who make music gain the self-esteem that comes with personal achievement.

Outside of the academic reasons, however, there is the simple fact that making music is fun. Children intuitively start making musical sounds from an early age, banging on the table rhythmically or attempting to coo or call out in a sustained musical way. They listen to favorite songs on CDs and tapes and begin to sing independently as they mimic familiar tunes. As they grow older, children enjoy the act of sharing and playing music with others.

Engaging Young Children in the World of Music 

There are many ways to nurture your child’s love of music and encourage his or her musical talents. Listen to musical programs and recordings together. Attend musical events and make music as a family. Acknowledge your child’s efforts and achievements in musical activities. It is as a result of these active listening and music-making experiences that children develop musically, advance in other skills areas, and acquire a sense of accomplishment as musicians.

Listening to music, moving to rhythms, singing, and playing musical games are best for small children and good for elementary students as well. Have your child participate in musical activities by:

  • Listening. Sing to your child, even when the child is an infant. Let your child listen to short, recorded selections that offer diverse styles. Whenever possible, give your child a wide variety of listening experiences by including music of all genres—and be certain to encourage him or her to talk about the music. Young children show preferences for specific types of music through their responses. Acknowledge your child’s musical interests, but continue to expand his or her repertoire of listening as well.
  • Singing. Invite your child to sing along with you. Sing favorite songs with your child while you’re getting ready for school, cleaning up toys, or riding in the car. From about three years of age, singing with children builds on their natural ability for spontaneous, free-rhythm singing, encouraging them to sing more structured songs. Additionally, you can turn reading with your child into a musical game. Many books are written to be read with a hint of rhythm and rhyme, and some are meant to be sung. Sing them!
  • Moving. Notice the way your child responds physically to music. Even young toddlers can be caught swaying to the music from a CD or moving rhythmically to the background music of advertisements and television programs. It is often the musical melody or rhythm that is most appealing to a young child. Encourage your child to develop his or her spontaneous desire to move to music by being a model. Move your body, clap to the rhythm, or create a dance that reflects the feeling of the musical selection. Your child will soon join in the fun.
  • Reading. Young children love to listen to stories. There are many appealing stories that relate to music that might spark a child’s interest in music making,musical instruments, or song and dance. Some of the most popular children’s books are those that use the lyrics of a favorite children’s song and add illustrations.
  • Expanding storytelling through music. Introducing music in storytelling can be a powerful experience for a young child. Read a story like Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain by Verna Aardema or The Great Kapok Tree by Lynne Cherry. Talk about and then plan music and sounds with your child to accompany the story you select. Shaking rice in a plastic container could make the sound of rain. Tapping two wooden spoons together could represent a woodpecker’s pecking. Let your child use his or her imagination with simple objects that are commonly found at home or in the classroom. Children love the challenge of making music in this way.
  • Exploring the musical sounds of instruments. Start by getting a few good quality instruments. Together explore the sounds the instruments can make. Percussion instruments such as drums and xylophones, blowing instruments such as slide whistles and recorders, and stringed instruments such as guitars and ukuleles all offer fertile ground for musical experimentation. Regardless of your level of aptitude with an instrument, just playing along with your child spurs interest and offers encouragement.
  • Making musical instruments. Everyone can’t afford to buy musical instruments for exploration. But everyone can make simple instruments at home. Something as simple as a rubber band can be turned into a musical instrument by stretching and plucking it. A pan can become a drum by turning it over and slapping the bottom. Rice or beans in a plastic container with a lid can become a maraca. You don’t necessarily need an expensive instrument to have fun musically with your child––use the resources around you.
  • Attending live performances. Share music that you love with your child and expand your own range of musical experiences by attending programs at local festivals, art centers, museums, community centers, and parks. Remember to choose performances that are more informal for preschoolers. Music at outdoor festivals, parks, and family days offered by museums provide the flexibility needed with small children. Older children are apt to handle longer productions and can even enjoy a Broadway-style musical if the subject matter is appealing and appropriate.
  • Exploring music from around the world. Music is a universal language, evident in the wide array of musical expressions created by nearly every culture around the world. Experience the music of other cultures available on labels such as Smithsonian Folkways and Putumayo World Music. Many artists offer cultural selections specifically for children. Listening to a variety of different genres enriches your child’s understanding and enjoyment.
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