The Benefits of Early Childhood Music Across the Curriculum

Fall 2019

By Amy Burns

All children are born with the ability to make music. The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) states that all children from ages before birth to 8 years are ready for diverse forms of music engagement and music learning. NAfME’s position is that each child has the right to a music program of play-based, developmentally appropriate musical engagement taught by a professional early childhood music educator.1 This position is based on research that supports the concept that diverse forms of music learning and engagement begin for all children even before birth.2

A Child’s Brain on Music: When Should a Child Begin to Learn Music?

Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) was a Hungarian composer, ethnomusicologist, educator, and the inspirer of the Kodály approach to music education. His widespread approach included certain factors: Music is a core subject; music literacy is universally possible as linguistic literacy teaching with the best quality music; only highly trained music educators teach even the youngest of children; the best instrument is the student’s voice; and music education should begin as early as possible. When asked at what age music education should begin, Kodály responded, “Nine months before the birth of the child.” Later, he refined his answer: “I would go further: The musical education of the child should start nine months before the birth of the mother.3
 
From ages 0 to 3, a child’s brain develops rapidly. In music educator Dr. Missy Strong’s article “Neuroscience and Music Education: Why What We Do Is So Important,” she says, “A baby is born with about 100 billion neurons, each with approximately 2,500 synaptic connections. By the time a child is three years old, it is close to 15,000 per neuron.”4 Dr. Edwin Gordon (1927-2015), a music researcher, teacher, author, editor, lecturer, and developer of the Gordon Music Learning Theory, affirmed that by the time a child is five years old, the brain “reaches approximately 90 percent of adult size … Unless cells form complex neural networks and negative blocking is avoided, unused cells are pruned and not recaptured. Peak times for learning are diminished.”5 These findings can be motivating, as well as intimidating, to any teacher of early childhood, especially those who teach preschool and kindergarten. How we teach and speak to our students will affect their brains’ neural networks.
 
Dr. John Feierabend, a music educator, researcher, author, editor, lecturer, and developer of First Steps in Music and Conversational Solfege, relates music and brain development in the early childhood years to planting and nurturing seeds. It is during these critical times that music educators can positively grow—or drown!—a child’s musical ability. If a music educator is given packets of seeds, some from high-quality stores and others from low-quality stores, and we give them the best care possible, many will thrive, but some will become the worse for the wear. However, if we are given one packet of seeds and nurture them in varying conditions, the ones that are nurtured with the best quality care will flourish to their complete potential. Those who do not receive the good care will not thrive or grow to their fullest potential. Though there are exceptions, when nurturing a child’s musical exposure from ages 0 to 5, we as music educators can give the students repetitive and positive, high-quality musical experiences that will bring the children to their fullest potential.6

The Positive Effects of Early Childhood Music Across the Curriculum

When a school has a trained music educator teaching early childhood music classes and bringing children to their fullest musical ability, this will impact learning across the curriculum. Research shows that music and the brain are often connected when it comes to speech, language, emotional grounding, auditory processing, and sensory integration. Plato once said, “Music is a more potent instrument than any other for education.”

Speech and Language

When babies are born, they understand language as if it were music because the tonal sounds and rhythmic aspects of language are similar to music. The early childhood years of ages 0 through 6 are important as children are learning how to unscramble sounds through listening, speaking, thinking, and, eventually, reading and writing.7 This is one of the reasons that the Too Small to Fail initiative has formed. In this initiative, pediatricians prescribe new parents to “talk, read, sing, play, and bond with their babies from birth” because this encourages a baby’s brain and language development. Research has shown that almost 60% of the children in the United States start kindergarten unprepared, lagging behind their peers in critical language and reading skills.8
 
Music has a great impact on learning a language throughout all ages. When Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was injured in 2011, she suffered a significant brain injury that led to aphasia, a neurological condition that affects speech. Giffords relearned how to speak through music therapy. Meaghan Morrow, a music therapist and certified brain injury specialist, used treatments that included melodic intonation therapy. Through the power of neuroplasticity and music therapy, music helped retrain Giffords’s brain’s pathways so that she was able to access language and speak again.9
 
Language and reading skills have also been linked to the ability to keep a steady beat. In Dr. Feierabend’s First Steps in Music approach to teaching music to children ages 0 to 7, music educators strive to help their students become tuneful, beatful, and artful. This means that music teachers consider the 30-year plan when teaching their students, so that when they grow up, they can sing “Happy Birthday” (tuneful), they can dance at their child’s wedding (beatful), and they can express sensitivity when listening to music (artful).10 Through Dr. Feierabend’s infant curriculum, teachers are helping parents and infants bounce, clap, tap, and experience the steady beat together. By the age of 3, when the children are in music class without their parents, they can maintain the steady beat. His approach is based on research on how children learn. Therefore, he connects learning music with how the brain processes sounds and tones.
 
Keeping a steady beat at such a young age is important for the developing brain. A study conducted by Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory found biological evidence linking the ability to keep a beat to the neural encoding of speech sounds. The association of beat-keeping and reading has a possible common foundation in the auditory system. The Northwestern researchers concluded that it may be that the rhythmic skills exercise the auditory system, leading to strong sound-to-meaning associations that are important when children are learning to read.11

Emotional Grounding, Auditory Processing, and Sensory Integration

A brain’s corpus callosum, the connection between the two cerebral parts of the brain, transmits neural messages between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. The corpus callosum has been called the “Superhighway for Learning” because if the two hemispheres are not talking to each other, a child could struggle with learning challenges, such as speech delays, delayed social-emotional learning, attention and focus issues, and lack of communication. For this reason, it is important for children in the early childhood years to participate in “cross-the-midline” activities to exercise the communication between the two hemispheres. These activities focus on movements that cross the midlines of left to right, top to bottom, front to back, and vice versa.12
 
Cross-the-midline activities can be performed with infants. When the caregiver performs simple nursery rhymes and finger plays with the child, this encourages the midline activities. As an example, consider performing “This Little Piggy.” The caregiver is inclined to perform the rhyme using the baby’s fingers or toes on the same side as the caregiver. If the baby is lying down, the caregiver might begin the rhyme using his or her right hand and the baby’s left foot because they are facing each other. Crossing the midline would mean repeating the rhyme on the baby’s right foot.
 
For older students, crossing the midline would mean having the students keep the steady beat while using their right hand to tap their left knee, and then using their left hand to tap their right knee. Movements can also include toe touches with right hand to left foot and vice versa, shoulder taps with the left hand tapping the right shoulder and vice versa, and so much more.
 
These activities are important in helping a child’s brain communicate across the corpus callosum. This communication is essential to allow the two hemispheres to talk to each other, which is vital for higher-level skills such as reading and writing. If classes such as music and PE are concentrating on crossing the midline activities, then students have a better chance of developing these higher-level skills.
 
Music and the brain have a close partnership. In Sally Goddard Blythe’s book The Well Balanced Child, she describes music as the child’s second language. The first language is movement. Movement then moves into language as the baby discovers its surroundings. Before a child can speak, he or she babbles with sounds that have tones, pitches, rhythms, and inflections. This all builds up to learning to speak the language that is being spoken at home and, later on in life, to read and write.13
 
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Music uses the same neural circuits as articulating speech. The rhythm, tones, pauses, and words of music use the same neural circuits for language. When music is included in a school’s curriculum at the earliest ages, then a child is not only becoming musically inclined but is also being set up to have a better chance for communicating, developing social-emotional learning and auditory processing, and, eventually, learning reading and writing skills. This, in turn, sets students up to open their minds for the higher-learning skills they will experience throughout their school years and beyond.

Notes

  1. NAfME, “Early Childhood Music Education”; https://nafme.org/about/position-statements/early-childhood-music-education/.
  2. Stefan Koelsch et al., “Electric Brain Responses Reveal Gender Differences in Music Processing,” NeuroReport 14, no. 5 (2003). Koelsch, “Toward a Neural Basis of Music Perception—A Review and Updated Model,” Frontiers in Psychology 2 (2011).
  3. Lois Choksy, The Kodály Method I (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999), p. 16. Klara Kokas, “Kodály’s Concept of Music Education,” Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education 22 (Fall 1970); online at https://www.jstor.org/stable/40317114?read-now=1&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents. Daniel Salbert, “Collecting Repertoire for Kodály-inspired Music Lessons in Dutch Elementary Schools,” July 14, 2015; online at https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/154479/154604.
  4. Missy Strong, “Neuroscience and Music Education: Why What We Do Is So Important,” Music Educator Blog, July 9, 2019; online at https://www.smartmusic.com/blog/neuroscience-and-music-education-why-what-we-do-is-so-important/?utm_content=buffer7d5e1&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook&utm_campaign=daily_post&fbclid=IwAR2MEtgz-rYuFlYBgAIeRhGfBVdI9XElJWiq0CgqoddVB85Ot2CMBAgPh64.
  5. Edwin E. Gordon, Music Learning Theory for Newborn and Young Children, 2013 edition (Chicago: GIA Publications, 2013).
  6. John M. Feierabend, “Music and Intelligence in the Early Years,” Feierabend Association for Music Education: A Tuneful, Beatful, Artful Learning Community, 1995; online at https://www.feierabendmusic.org/music-and-intelligence-in-the-early-years/.
  7. Gordon, Music Learning Theory.
  8. Too Small to Fail, Clinton Foundation, “Our Mission”; online at http://toosmall.org/mission. Jane Park Woo, “People First—Talk, Read, Sing, Repeat. A Pediatrician’s Prescription to Parents,” Too Small to Fail, Clinton Foundation; online at https://2018.clintonfoundation.org/peoplefirst/too-small-to-fail/.
  9. Katie Moisse, Bob Woodruff, James Hill, and Lana Zak, “Gabby Giffords: Finding Words Through Song,” ABC News, November 14, 2011; online at  https://abcnews.go.com/Health/w_MindBodyNews/gabby-giffords-finding-voice-music-therapy/story?id=14903987. Peter Rubin, “How Does Music Affect Your Brain? Every Imaginable Way,” WIRED, March 22, 2019; online at https://www.wired.com/story/tech-effects-how-does-music-affect-your-brain/?fbclid=IwAR3MBk27YoRaP78wBpqNTwj63kmXDDrEfucajy8iYWLDF2YOF08OUVn1XZE.
  10. John M. Feierabend, “Music and Movement for Infants and Toddlers: Naturally Wonder-full,” GIA Publications, 1996; online at https://www.giamusic.com/music_education/feier_infants.cfm.
  11. Northwestern University, “The Importance of Keeping a Beat: Researchers Link Ability to Keep a Beat to Reading, Language Skills,” Medical Xpress, September 17, 2013; online at https://medicalxpress.com/news/2013-09-importance-link-ability-language-skills.html?fbclid=IwAR23NN9o7kLDQAuGVKE3bg9vUKj8UJWJH61WDXSJdjenNMx19yFeVO4ApZ0.
  12. “CORPUS CALLOSUM: Your Child's Superhighway for Connecting the Emotional & Logical Sides of the Brain,” Integrated Learning Strategies, May 03, 2019; online at https://ilslearningcorner.com/2016-06-corpus-callosum-childs-superhighway-connecting-emotional-logical-sides-brain-better-learning/?fbclid=IwAR2UCIqerCOsgyxIdjCTjJ85RuSD4aQ02-0Ci2_X_WWoURwkclqF8M315t0.   “Why Crossing the Midline Activities Helped This Child Listen to His Teacher,” Integrated Learning Strategies, May 08, 2019; online at https://ilslearningcorner.com/2015-11-why-crossing-the-midline-activities-helped-this-child-listen-to-his-teacher/.
  13. Sally Goddard Blythe, The Well Balanced Child (Gloucestershire, UK: Hawthorne Press, 2004). 
Amy Burns

Amy M. Burns (aburns@fhcds.org) is a preschool through fourth grade music educator and the Director of the Far Hills Conservatory at Far Hills Country Day School in Far Hills, New Jersey. She is also a clinician, keynote speaker, and author of numerous articles and three books about integrating technology into the elementary music classroom.