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How old does a child need to be to start music lessons?

January 19th, 2013 | Posted by Annette in Music

Some­times par­ents ask me, “How old does a child need to be to begin music lessons?” In order to answer that ques­tion, it is best to under­stand the devel­op­ing mind.

“Win­dows” for learn­ing coin­cide with child­hood brain devel­op­ment. For exam­ple, the lan­guage win­dow begins to close between the ages of 4 and 6. Prior to the clo­sure of the lan­guage win­dow it is easy for a child to learn a new lan­guage. After the lan­guage win­dow begins to close, it becomes increas­ingly dif­fi­cult to learn a new lan­guage. Learn­ing win­dows do not close all at once, nei­ther do they close com­pletely. If they did, adults wouldn’t be able to learn any­thing new. But the devel­op­ment of the brain that accom­pa­nies learn­ing only hap­pens dur­ing child­hood. (In gen­eral, learn­ing win­dows may be kept open longer by focus­ing on a spe­cific skill set prior to the window’s closure.)

The pitch window

The pitch win­dow coin­cides with the lan­guage win­dow, which begins to close between the ages of 4 and 6. Dur­ing this stage of brain devel­op­ment, the under­stand­ing of pitch may be max­i­mized. This is eas­ily accom­plished by singing and play­ing a musi­cal instru­ment. It is impor­tant to note that a Har­vard Uni­ver­sity study found that exten­sive early child­hood music edu­ca­tion resulted in an increase in size of the cor­pus cal­lo­sum, the bun­dle of nerves that con­nects the hemi­spheres of the brain. This increase has the poten­tial to affect all other areas of learn­ing, par­tic­u­larly math and sci­ence. This is where the baby Mozart idea came from. While the the­ory behind lis­ten­ing is a nice idea for par­ents, the study found that noth­ing can replace actual instru­ment prac­tice. Play­ing an instru­ment forces both hemi­spheres of the brain to work together, com­bin­ing pitch and coör­di­na­tion with abstract thought.

So why doesn’t every­one have their three-year-old in music lessons? This is a com­plex issue that many peo­ple do not under­stand. Young chil­dren have a short atten­tion span and require con­stant super­vi­sion. As a result most teach­ers will not accept stu­dents at this age, thus cre­at­ing a short­age of music teach­ers for the very young. This lack of accep­tance by teach­ers also cre­ates the false assump­tion that music edu­ca­tion for the young does not mat­ter. Com­pound­ing the issue are mis­in­formed par­ents. Another issue is prac­tice. There are very few young chil­dren who will prac­tice with­out an adult at their side. So even those young chil­dren who are tak­ing music lessons may not ben­e­fit com­pletely since their par­ents MUST super­vice at home prac­tice. As a result of these dif­fi­cul­ties, music lessons are fre­quently post­poned until after the pitch win­dow has closed.

Ben­e­fits of catch­ing the pitch window

Per­fect pitch seems to cor­ro­late to homes where music is taught at an early age. It is unclear whether this is because of genet­ics or early expo­sure, or a com­bi­na­tion of both.

Prior to the clo­sure of the pitch win­dow, tone deaf­ness can be eas­ily cor­rected. This is gen­er­ally done by ask­ing the child to sing a pitch, any pitch. The teacher matches their pitch. Then the child is asked to fol­low the teacher as they go up or down, one step at a time. As the child improves, more dif­fi­cult exer­cises can be imple­mented. Singing is an excel­lent way to improve the under­stand­ing of pitch.

After the pitch win­dow closes, tone deaf­ness can fre­quently be cor­rected through­out child­hood, though it may not be as com­plete. Tone deaf­ness can some­times be cor­rected in adults, though it is impor­tant to remem­ber that the process becomes increas­ingly dif­fi­cult with age.

The coör­di­na­tion window

The win­dow for coör­di­na­tion typ­i­cally begins to close between the ages of 10 and 12. It is extremely impor­tant for music stu­dents to begin tak­ing lessons prior to the clo­sure of this win­dow. The ques­tion of pub­lic music edu­ca­tion comes to mind here. In most school dis­tricts, band and orches­tra instruc­tion begins in 5th grade. This is not because it is the opti­mum time for stu­dents to begin their music stud­ies. It is because music edu­ca­tors have to fight to get their pro­grams in the school. On the dis­trict level they have to make it known that if chil­dren don’t get an instru­ment in their hands by this age, IT WILL BE TOO LATE. And as usual, pub­lic music edu­ca­tion is treated by the school dis­trict with a min­i­mal approach. Since that is the age that the win­dow begins to close, that is the age the pub­lic schools begin band and orchestra. 

A stu­dent who begins lessons after the coör­di­na­tion win­dow closes will face increas­ingly dif­fi­cult issues with dex­ter­ity. This is not to say that teenagers and adults can­not learn to play an instru­ment. In gen­eral, teens and adults progress rapidly, par­tic­u­larly in the first year of instruc­tion. The issues that ham­per their progress come with more advanced music and almost always relate to dexterity.

For more infor­ma­tion on music and the devel­op­ing mind visit these websites:

The Power of Sound

The Nurore­port



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