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Musical Development in the Early Years

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Because aptitude for music seems to stabilize around age nine (Gordon, 1990), the early years are considered critical to the development of the child’s potential for comprehending and producing music. In a rich musical environment with appropriate guidance from adults, four- and five-year-old children learn to perceive, initiate, and discriminate among rhythm and tonal patterns with increasing precision. They form concepts of musical syntax while assimilating music concepts into personal music making, beginning a lifetime of understanding, performing, and enjoying music (Gordon, 1990).

Rhythm and Movement Develops

The random movements of the infant and the spontaneous swaying and bouncing to music of the toddler develop into the fairly complex dancelike movements of the three-, four-, and five-year-olds.

Three-, four-, and five-year-olds are motivated to move to music, but their movements are not always synchronized to music in response to a steady beat, rhythmic qualities, or overall musical effect (Stellaccio & McCarthy, 1999). They can move fast or slow and stop and turn with some smoothness and control over their bodies, but they still have difficulty understanding that a relationship exists between the sounds they hear and what their muscles do. When left on their own, children tend to limit their movements, repeating a few patterns.

Three-year-olds are just exploring what they can do with their own bodies (Westervelt, 2002). Developing body awareness and image, three’s movement explorations are spontaneous and generally uncoordinated. Four-year-olds can manage to keep a beat with clapping or rhythm sticks but still have difficulty with simple motor rhythmic tasks at a fast tempo, or with simultaneous tasks, such as moving and singing.

Five-year-olds have learned to move to music with more smoothness, refinement, and rhythm. They have a greater understanding of height, weight, distance, and depth and can skip, run, and catch a ball or even something as delicate as a soap bubble without breaking it.

Expressively, five-year-olds are able to use movement in symbolic ways. They can express an idea, a feeling, or an emotion through a movement. They can create a dance, a skit, or a play to symbolize their feelings and experiences. Together the imagination and thinking involved in moving creatively, along with control of motor skills, permit symbolic expression (Seefeldt & Barbour, 1998; Smith, 2002).

Listening to Music Develops

Everyone, at any age, can enjoy listening to music. All they need to do is attend, perceive, relax, and enjoy. If three- and four-year-olds have had sufficient background experiences with music, they can listen attentively, picking out sounds of specific instruments from a recording if they have been introduced to the instrument. They enjoy making their own sounds as they listen to music, applying concepts of loud, soft, happy, sad, light, heavy, fast, or slow.

Five-year-olds advance from making gross discriminations in sounds to making fine discriminations. They are able to listen to a story song, piano selection, or recording of an orchestra and can discuss the performance and their listening experience as well (MENC, 1994).

Young children seem to enjoy listening to all musical styles. Some have found that five-year-olds prefer popular music to classical. This preference has been related to social learning theory (Stellaccio & McCarthy, 1999). Repeated exposure to music, social learning, and the qualities of music seem to affect children’s preference for music. Just hearing a specific type of music over and over does not seem to affect children’s listening preferences, but the approval and support of adults and teachers does seem to have a positive influence on children’s musical preferences (Callihan & Commings, 1985).

Singing Develops

Singing seems natural for three-, four-, and five-year-olds who, skipping along, break into song, chanting, “Skip, skip skip, up, down, up down,” or digging in the sand, accompanying the activity with “Sandy cup, sandy cup, filling up, up, up!” These chants are not true songs but consist of a repeated tone or begin with a repeated tone and end with a descending third. The rhythm begins in 2/4 time and ends in 6/8. Their chants are generally accompanied by physical, rhythmic movement, such as walking, hopping, pounding, rocking, or splashing water, and are reminiscent of those of Native American dance rituals, Haitian voodoo chants, or the early litanies of the Christian Church (Moorehead & Pond, 1941).

Even though they break into spontaneous chants, children still have difficulty carrying a tune. Generally, they are midrange singers and will be able to match some of the pitches. Some do so with ease, whereas others need further experiences and sometimes hard work to “find” themselves in terms of singing. Some can sing alone and seem to carry a pitch better when singing alone than with a group.

Fostering Children’s Progress in Creating and Making Music

Fostering and making music includes the following:

  • Knowledge of national standards in order to select appropriate goals and objectives for music in an early learning classroom
  • Designing music activities in moving, listening, and singing that promote children’s skills, knowledge, and attitudes toward music
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