As parents, we generally understand that early exposure to music is a great thing for our kids. In a sense, a parent is a child’s first music teacher. However, this notion can quickly seem overwhelming, especially for those of us who don’t have the strongest musical backgrounds! Becoming a musical family is the most effective way to ensure that a child will learn to love music. When children see their parents enjoying and making music, they can’t help but want to get involved. Thankfully, there are a number of easy, low-cost ways to develop your child’s love of music right at home!
1. Fill your home with music.
In the same way that we try to offer our kids a variety of foods, we should offer them a variety of musical genres, and we should play music in our homes as much as possible. Music streaming apps like Pandora, Spotify, and iTunes Radio make this easier than ever. While “kid music” like The Wiggles and Mother Goose Club are wonderful options, we don’t have to stop there. At any given moment in our home, we might be playing instrumental hymns, musical theatre, classic rock, 90’s alternative, jazz, indie, piano concerti, opera, and the list goes on and on. While our girls aren’t fans of all of it, they continually surprise me with what they like and don’t like, and their tastes are ever-expanding. Our girls never fail to surprise us when we turn on something we’re sure they won’t like, such as “Hotel California” or a Bach cantata, only to have them clap and ask, “Again? Again?” when it’s over.(1)
2. Train your kids to be discerning listeners.
Related to the previous idea, as you’re listening to music, ask your kids about what they’re hearing. “Do you think this song is happy or sad?” “Does this song sound loud or quiet?” “Are they playing fast or slow?” Encourage them to think about what they’re hearing rather than just treating it as background noise.(2)
3. Use YouTube as a way to expose them to musicals, operas, and symphonies.
Those of us with very young children aren’t likely to be attending many live music events in the near future, but through the magic of YouTube, we can access innumerable recordings of popular musicals, operas, and orchestral works. One game I like to play with my girls is “Compare and Contrast”—We’ll watch a video of a musical theatre standard, such as Judy Garland singing “Get Happy.” Then we’ll watch related videos of other artists performing the same song and discuss the similarities and differences between each performance. Another game we like to play is “Pick An Artist”—We search for a prolific musician and just watch video after video of their performances until the girls decide to move on to something else. The YouTube videos of the BBC Proms are another excellent resource. They feature the BBC Symphony Orchestra performing a wide range of pieces from musicals such as “Mary Poppins” and “The Sound of Music” to movies such a “Star Wars” to beloved works by composers such as Mozart, Ravel, and Puccini. And then there is our family’s favorite Proms performance—the music of “Doctor Who,” complete with sonic screwdrivers and goofy monsters! YouTube is an invaluable resource for families who recognize the importance of live music but aren’t yet in a position to attend such events.
4. Sing with your kids!
This is probably the easiest suggestion yet, because children love to sing! You don’t have to be the most confident singer, as children are a very forgiving audience. “The ABC Song,” “Ring Around the Rosie,” “Twinkle, Twinkle,” “Old MacDonald,” “Five Little Monkeys,” “The Wheels on the Bus,” “Open, Shut Them,” and on and on—the list of songs that kids love is absolutely endless. When you start to grow weary of singing the same song over and over, play with dynamics. “Can we sing it really softly this time? What about really LOUD? What if we start singing LOUDLY and then get softer?” You can also play with interpretation. “Let’s sing it this time like we’re excited! Ok, this time, let’s sing it like we’re sad. Now we’re going to sing it like we’re really sleepy…”(3)
5. Make easy, no-cost instruments.
The other day, my girls pulled chairs up to the kitchen counter, took four large spoons out of the drawer, and began banging on the counter like it was a drum set. I gave them each a cutting board to drum on so that they wouldn’t damage the counter, and off they went! They entertained themselves like this for a solid fifteen minutes. The same can be done with pots and pans, plastic and metal bowls, and anything you’re willing to let get drummed on. Old plastic containers that are destined for the recycle bin can be repurposed as shakers, too. Fill them with rice, dried beans, or dried pasta of varying sizes and experiment with how the sound changes. We often make a “marching band,” with one kid banging on a pot with a wooden spoon, one shaking an improvised shaker, and me singing while we march around the house. The kids don’t know it, but we’re working on rhythm, ear-training/pitch matching, coordination, and dynamics while they think we’re just goofing around!(4)
6. Utilize your place of worship.
If the place where you attend religious services uses live music, make an effort to introduce your child to the musicians and ask if they would mind sharing a bit about their instruments. Our church is fortunate to have a gorgeous Fisk organ, and my older daughter enjoys running up to the choir loft to watch our music director play the postlude every Sunday. If your church uses a choir, orchestra, or praise band, arrange a mini-field trip to attend a rehearsal, and if the musicians have time, ask them about each of their instruments. You could also visit places of worship other than your own so that your child can experience different styles of church music. Children could also benefit from interviewing various church musicians—cantors, pianists, conductors, music ministers, and so on, and finding out about the training they received and the role they play in the service.
These are just a few ideas for how to broaden your child’s musical horizons, but the possibilities truly are endless! As Liam Viney, Piano Performance Fellow at the University of Queensland writes,
“Long before conventional music lessons start, jam sessions with your toddler (not of the messy sticky preserved fruit variety) can be an enormous developmental asset. You might even find it a two-way street – if children can teach adults anything, it’s how to play. So take the time, play with your child, and ‘play’ music together. Along with the newly-confirmed bonus benefits for baby, you’ll both be connected to music: a fundamental component of a happy and healthy life.”(5)
Thankfully, this “happy and healthy life” can begin right at home, using our everyday routines and resources! It doesn’t take a well-trained musician to raise a musical family; it just takes a parent who is willing to enjoy and experience music alongside her kids.
1. For more information on this topic see: Cutietta, Robert A., Raising Musical Kids: A Guide for Parents [New York; Oxford, 2001], 45, 46.
2. Cutietta, 46-47.
3. Cutietta, 51.
4. Cutietta, 50-53.
5. Viney, Liam, Jamming with your toddler: how music trumps reading for childhood development, October 26, 2015, The Conversation.com, accessed May 21, 2016, https://theconversation.com/jamming-with-your-toddler-how-music-trumps-reading-for-childhood-development-49660.
After a series of cross-country moves, my husband, daughters, and I were thrilled to make Ohio our home in 2014. I have a Bachelor’s and a Master’s in vocal performance and currently work as a voice teacher and music educator in the Dayton area. It is a joy to live and work in an area with such a thriving arts community, and I look forward to helping other parents discover ways to share art and music with their children.