“Children learn music in much the same way they learn a language,” says Edwin Gordon of the Gordon Institute for Music Learning (GIML).
GIML describes the stages of language learning:
- Young children listen to the sounds of their native language for several months.
- Children then go through a stage of language babble, experimenting with speech sounds. At first, this babble makes no sense to adult listeners, but with playful language interactions from adults who can guide those sounds, the child begins to approximate words in language.
- Children soon break the code of their language, first imitating words, then using them meaningfully in phrases and sentences of their own.
And the similar stages of music learning:
- Young children listen to the sounds of their native music for several months.
- Children go through stages of music babble, experimenting with sounds that don’t make music sense to adults. Again, with playful musical interactions from adults who can guide those sounds, the child begins to approximate musical tones and rhythmic movement.
- Children engage in tonal babble, first using the speaking voice, but gradually finding the singing voice, and then breaking the code of tonality and singing more accurately.
- Children engage in rhythm babble, first, moving erratically without consistent tempo or meter, but gradually finding a steady beat and breaking the code of meter by coordinating beat movements with division of the beat into 2s and 3s.
“Development of music literacy should follow much the same process as that which naturally develops in our own speaking, reading, and writing skills,” John Feierabend writes. “In learning one’s own language, one goes through five or six years when language skills are developed by ear—before reading and/or writing of language is introduced.” (“Developing Music Literacy: An Aural Approach for an Aural Art”)
Gordon agrees, “Just as preschool children develop the foundation of their language-listening and speaking vocabularies long before they enter school, so must they develop the foundation for their music-listening and singing vocabularies before they enter school. Without those two language vocabularies, children will be limited in their ability to learn to understand, create, read, and write language, and without those two music vocabularies they will be equally at a disadvantage in learning how to understand, create, read, and write music.” (A Music Learning Theory for Newborn and Young Children, 1997, p. v)
Gordon emphasizes informal guidance, rather than formal instruction, for preschool children. Babies hear spoken language all around them and absorb what they hear. When we speak to them one-on-one, we give informal guidance on forming words. Babies also absorb all music that surrounds them. MENC member Jennifer McDonel suggests, “Adult caregivers can provide a wide variety of music, both live and recorded, to provide a rich listening environment.”
“Structured or unstructured guidance at home is necessary if children are to develop music understanding,” Gordon says, “and it should be similar to that which is given to encourage them to engage in language babble and continue the sequential process of learning their native language.” (A Music Learning Theory, p. 5). McDonel says, “When babies and toddlers begin to vocalize (babble), adult caregivers can respond musically as well as linguistically, with a light singing voice quality that mimics the children’s sounds and then accentuates the dominant and tonic pitches of major/minor tonality.”
In both language and music, the young child’s environment should be fertile ground for development. Feierabend writes (“Music and Movement for Infants and Toddlers: Naturally Wonder-full”),
- If children are to develop a sophisticated spoken vocabulary, they must hear a sophisticated vocabulary.
- If children experience good grammar, enunciation, and expressive speaking they will assimilate those skills.
- If children hear a limited vocabulary, incorrect grammar, and poor enunciation, they likewise will assimilate those language patterns.
- If children are to grow to appreciate good music, they must be nurtured with excellent examples of children’s music literature sung with sensitive expression.
Gordon elaborates on guidance and instruction and the three types of preparatory audiation (acculturation, imitation, and assimilation) on The Gordon Institute for Music Learning Web site.
A Music Learning Theory for Newborn and Young Children, by Edwin E. Gordon (1997)
“Early Childhood Brain Development and Elementary Music Curricula: Are They in Tune?” by Larissa K. Scott in General Music Today, Fall 2004.
“Developing Music Literacy: An Aural Approach for an Aural Art,” by John Feierabend
“Music and Movement for Infants and Toddlers: Naturally Wonder-full,” by John Feierabend
“The Brain in Singing and Language,” by Valerie L. Trollinger, in General Music Today, January 2010.
“Enhancing Language Skills Through Music,” by Charlotte P. Mizener, in General Music Today, January 2008.
“Lighting Up the Brain with Songs and Stories,” by Shelly Cooper, in General Music Today, January 2010
Jennifer McDonel is the executive director of the Gordon Institute for Music Learning .
—Linda C. Brown, January 28, 2010, © National Association for Music Education (nafme.org)