There are many blogs and articles telling you that a particular toy or instrument is the best for your child, and a lot of them tend to make assertions without evidence, leading you to the grand conclusion that you should buy their product. Understanding why these blogs are misleading and becoming better educated on this topic was a good experience for me, myself a musician to some degree, and I hope it can be for you too. In this blog I will lay out what I discovered, and what I concluded are some good rules of thumb when choosing how to successfully introduce your child to music.
According to “Effects of Music Training on the Child’s Brain and Cognitive Development” by Gottfried Schlaug, children who play music into adulthood have structurally different brains than their peers who never learned an instrument. This is because learning to play an instrument engages the brain in new ways. It creates new neural pathways and thus promotes greater connectivity in the brain, a phenomenon called neuroplasticity which corresponds to the brain’s ability to change throughout life. When musicians make music, their entire brain is engaged in the process. This is because making music involves a swath of different activities all happening at once; reading and interpreting pitch and rhythm, making the sound by utilizing your fine motor skills, listening to the sound you make, remembering what you just played, and thinking ahead to what you will play. All this brain activity and consistent exercising of cognitive abilities makes musicians better at cognitive tasks than non-musicians in general. Lastly, besides the great benefits to the development of the brain, playing music is a rewarding experience. Musicians tend to have more intense neurological responses when listening to music than non-musicians. The same piece of music is likely to be more enjoyable to a musician than to a non-musician. Think of a professor of Shakespearean literature reading Shakespeare’s 18th Sonnet versus an 8th grade student in English class. For the vast difference in their experiences, they might as well be reading different sonnets! It is the same story with musicians and non-musicians. To use another analogy, they can speak the universal language more fluently and can pick up on the subtleties of the language lost on a non-native speaker. Being a musician takes time and effort and lots of both, but giving your child an engaging and effective introduction is an important step in this process.
There are many instruments that are preferable for toddlers that are not as effective for preschool or school age children. One key factor to look at in determining which instrument to pursue for which age is the physicality required to play an instrument and the physical limitations of the child. For example, a child will not be able to make a good sound with, yet alone even hold, a tuba. But they will be able to play the piano, small drums, or a small xylophone. And while instruments like the violin require a lot of practice and control to produce a proper sound, other instruments like the drums do not require as much fine motor skill to make music with.
Another aspect to picking an appropriate instrument is scalability. What I mean by this is which instruments can be played at a beginner, intermediate, and high level with an enjoyable experience at every level. The piano is the obvious candidate and my personal favorite (I’ve been playing since I was old enough to reach the keys and I never looked back). But there are many good options. Percussive instruments like the tambourine or drums as well as instruments that involve pitch like the xylophone or keyboard instruments are best for children who are younger than three. For children between three and eight I would recommend small guitars, maybe small violins or woodwind instruments like the recorder and of course the piano and the options from the previous categories. For the more complex instruments like the violin or trumpet or any reed instrument lessons become more necessary to play the instrument well. When your child is old enough to move on to a more complex instrument (from the tambourine to a small guitar) help them make that transition and cultivate a new interest for the beauty of the new instrument they have. Help them make good sounds, learn with them, engage with them and above all try to foster the joy of music making at every level.
Another good tip is to start your child on an instrument as young as you can within reason. Children can enjoy and make music as soon as they have some control over themselves, their voice or their hands. My sister has been singing along to the melodies from the Frozen soundtrack since she was a year old! The younger you start a child on an instrument the more quickly they will develop the fine motor skills needed to play the instrument and the easier it will be for their brains to soak up this “new language”. That doesn’t mean that if your child is ten or even older they’re a lost cause. But a good rule of thumb is it’s never too early just be reasonable. Giving a toddler a tuba although funny is clearly unreasonable but giving them a toy keyboard would be just fine. And for these three reasons my top three picks for instruments to start your toddlers on are percussion instruments, keyboards, xylophone type instruments, or tambourine/other similar percussive instruments.
Ultimately the best instruments for your child are ones in which the child produces the music themselves. This promotes greater activity in their brain and the experience is more enjoyable. Toys that have the child press a button to play a prerecorded piece of music do nothing more than entertain them for a few seconds. And while listening to music with your child is a very important step in the process towards musicianship, instead of a passive listening, try to engage your child in active listening, either by dancing or singing or even by playing along to the music. Instruments such as shakers, tambourines, bells, or other percussive instruments can be great for this. Listening to music helps train your ear and introduce you to new sounds, dancing helps you feel the rhythm and singing helps you interpret pitch, all skills which directly affect your proficiency at an instrument and contribute to brain development. Plus they’re fun! And fostering fun in music making is far more important than technical proficiency. There is a time and a place for that but especially when introducing kids to the joys of music, just have fun with it.
Learning to become a musician is a rewarding but demanding experience, both for the learner and for the parent who has to pay for lessons or teach the child themselves, and encourage the child to push themselves beyond what they thought was possible, but investing in your child becoming a musician doesn’t have to begin by sending them to lessons, it can start by simply putting a shaker in their little hand. Musicianship requires practice and dedication but by engaging with your little one in making music you will give your child a fruitful and enjoyable experience, one with the potential to grow into a life-long edifying pursuit.