Music Aptitude: Use It or Lose It

When it comes to music aptitude, an early and appropriate music environment is key. The sooner children are immersed in a rich music environment, the more music aptitude they retain.

Howard Gardner writes, “the density of synapses in the human brain increases sharply in the first months of life, reaches a maximum at the ages of 1 to 2 (roughly 50% above the adult mean density), declines between the ages of 2 and 16, and remains relatively constant until the age of 72” (Frames of Mind, 1983, pp. 44-45).

Gardner adds, “The development process involves the pruning, or atrophying of the excessive connections which do not appear to be necessary.” What isn’t used or nurtured is lost.

Edwin E. Gordon concurs. In A Music Learning Theory for Newborn and Young Children (1997, p. 2), he points out

  • Researchers believe cognition takes place in the brain’s cortex.
  • The cortex has neurons that are interconnected by axons and dendrites, which are stimulated by synaptic activity.
  • Children’s cortexes have an overabundance of cells to make these connections.
  • Unless these cells are used to make connections during critical periods of brain development, they’re lost forever.
  • Unless these cells are used to make connections for each of the senses at appropriate times, the cells will enhance only the senses that do use them.
  • The neglected sense will be limited throughout life.

So, one sense will be strengthened at the expense of the other. “No amount of compensatory education at a later time will be able to completely offset the handicap,” writes Gordon.

“Regardless of the level of music aptitude with which children are born, they must have early formal and informal experiences in music in order to maintain that level of potential,” Gordon says. “Otherwise, the level of music aptitude they may be born with will never be fully realized in achievement.” Whatever a child’s innate music aptitude, it “will diminish, possibly vanishing to almost nothing, without an early stimulating music environment” (Music Educators Journal, September 1999, p. 44).


NAfME Position Paper on Early Childhood Education

“Music and Intelligence in the Early Years,” by John M. Feierabend, from Early Childhood Connections

“All About Audiation and Music Aptitudes,” by Edwin E. Gordon, in Music Educators Journal, September 1999.

“The Importance of Music in Early Childhood,” by Lili M. Levinowitz, in General Music Today, Fall 1998.

“Musical Characteristics of Preschool-Age Students: A Review of Literature,” by Karen A. Miyamoto, in UPDATE: Applications of Research in Music Education, Fall-Winter 2007.

“Music, Development, and the Young Child,” by Donna Brink Fox, in Music Educators Journal, January 1991.

A Music Learning Theory for Newborn and Young Children, by Edwin E. Gordon (1997).

Frames of Mind, by Howard Gardner (1983).

—Linda C. Brown, January 13, 2010, © National Association for Music Education (