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How Old does my Child need to be to Start Music Lessons? 

 December 18, 2020

By  Kale Good

This article is for parents wondering if their child is old enough to start music lessons, what the musical experience will be like at different ages, and things to look for in your music lessons. It will give you some basic info and a pros and cons list for each age group so that you know what to expect for your child. By the time you're done, you'll have a good sense of whether starting music lessons is the right thing for your family.

Children can begin group music classes as young as a few months old. These classes will give your child an excellent preperation for instrumental classes. Your child will have developed all the gross motor skills necessary for lessons by 3 years of age. While many teachers, especially Suzuki teachers, work with children this young, some teachers prefer to wait until children are 5 years old.

To get the most out of this article, consider why your reading. I think there are two kinds of parents who would look for an article like this (let me know in the comments if you're a third type!) First, your child may be asking for lessons at an early age. You may be looking for information about the practicality of lessons for their youngster.

If you fall into that parent category, you can skip right to your child's age group and see what to expect (although you may end up skipping over info that might be useful!).

Alternatively, you may be hoping to give your child the benefits of music from an early age. This desire may be as simple as sharing your love of music or as long-reaching as teaching your child the value of hard work and intrinsic motivation.

If that's you, I'd recommend reading through the entire article so that you can get a sense of how you can shape your child's musical education and experiences throughout their life.

Infancy to Toddler (0-3)

Ok, real talk: You won't be able to find an instrumental teacher for your 6-month-old. Hopefully, this doesn't come as a surprise to you. I mean, they can barely sit up.

However, this is an excellent time to start teaching them music, and you'll be able to find general music lessons for children even as young as a few months. Their mind is a hive of connections waiting to be made and reinforced, so this is an ideal time to take them to music classes and play music for them at home.

When considering which classes to join and what music to play at home, it is essential to look for classes and music that contains harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic complexities so that these connections are built and reinforced early on. Much of the music targeted at children is very simple. It all contains similar harmonic, melodic, metric, and rhythmic elements (texture and timbre are where the variety comes in). By looking for music with different time signatures (metric variety) and key signatures (melodic and harmonic variety), your child will be exposed to the full spectrum of what is musically possible. I also enjoyed putting a lot of Latin music in my daughter's early childhood playlist for the rhythmic variety.

Young children have a natural interest in music. Their musical comprehension is first observable at an impressively early age and can be reinforced through group classes and home activities at a very early age.

The first easy-to-notice indicator is at about nine months when children will start to move their body rhythmically to whatever music is playing. That's your baby dancing!

Surprisingly, there are indicators of musical understanding that happen much, much earlier than this! Edwin Gordon, a former research professor at Temple Univerity and creator of the Gordon method of early childhood music education, observed that even very young infants would sing the "home note" of songs that are playing on the radio or that their parent is singing ("do" in the do-re-me system). They'll also sing the melodic contour (up, down, the same note) of songs very early on.

These things can be hard to notice if you're not a trained musician (or even if you are). For example, my daughter's most common time to sing the "home tone" is when she's fussing about something, and there is some music on. Of course, I'm paying more attention to the fussing than the music, so I often miss this myself!

Pros

  • Music classes are always group classes at this age, so they are much more affordable than private lessons (and you won't need to buy an instrument!)
  • Group class means more social interaction for your child.
  • There are many fun, simple games you can do at home even if you have no musical background.
  • Singing to your child. Playing harmonically, melodically, and rhythmically complex music. These actions will go a long way!
  • Music is one of the few activities that activates all brain areas; this can be a big developmental boost for your child at this early age.

Cons

  • Much of what happens in the early years is absorbing information about the music. Visible signs of progress can be few and far between. While your child is learning, you won't see it or hear it very often. This can be demoralizing.
  • Non-musicians will give you weird looks when you tell them your 6-month-old is taking music lessons.
  • It may be hard to find high-quality instruction.

What to Look For In Lessons

  • A curriculum that contains harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic complexity.
  • Age-appropriate lessons.
  • I prefer more extensive programs that have had a lot of trial and error over small programs. Larger programs allow for more research and development into what works.
    • The Gordon Early Music Classes are excellent and research-based (developed at my alma mater, Temple University!)
    • I've heard things I like about Music Together classes.
  • Whatever class you have should have a movement component, and instructors should use various simple instruments to engage children.
  • As always, look for an excellent instructor.

Music to Play at Home

First of all, it's essential to play the music that you enjoy! Since it's all about exposure, the most important thing is that your child hears and engages with music, and you will be much more likely to play music and engage with it if it is something that you enjoy.

As I've mentioned above, it is important to include music that contains the harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic variety that is difficult to find in most popular music. Playing a wide selection of classical and jazz will do a decent job of covering the harmonic and melodic aspects of music. However, some melodic and a lot of rhythmic variety is underrepresented in these genres.

Additionally, in my personal experience, my child is far more likely to 'sing along" to music that has a lot of vocals. 

Below is what I did for my daughter. It's a little over the top, but it might give you some ideas!

  • Some tracks of your favorite music
    • So that you enjoy it
  • A handful of tracks from each period of classical music
    • Those periods would be renaissance, baroque, classical, romantic, and modern.
    • This will give a firm foundation of the Western musical tradition.
    • Get some opera in there, too, for the voice.
  • Some of the great jazz albums
    • This will teach extended harmony, which is rare in classical music. Also, the rhythmic variety is good.
  • Some world music
    • Afro-Cuban rhythms are all over modern popular and art music.
    • Some anthropological recordings of traditional African music. These rhythms are the foundation of all Afro-Cuban and Afro-Latin rhythms.
    • Indian music, such as ragas, cover microtones, which are notes-between-the-notes that are never used in Western classical and jazz
    • Indonesian Gamelan music can have rhythmic complexity and microtones that aren't used in Western music or Afro-Cuban music.

Age 3-5

What To Expect:

This is a great age to start music lessons! Children are still young and soaking in new knowledge like a sponge, so they'll be able to pick up all sorts of musical abilities just from careful instruction and regularly listening to the music that they will be playing. They're very receptive to instruction from parents and responsive to suggestions and feedback from parents. If you've been doing early-childhood music classes with your child, you may be shocked at how quickly they pick up some melodies.

Most "traditional" music teachers won't start lessons until five years old. By this age, kids have developed a slightly longer attention span and ability to sit still. This makes them, on average, easier to work with. However, many teachers with proper training and experience think nothing of starting children as young as three.

The techniques used to keep children through this entire age range are the same; using small, achievable goals to encourage feelings of accomplishment, engaging the child with practice games, and careful, quick adaptation of lesson plans to meet the child's needs. The most significant difference between these two age groups is that the younger ones require smaller goals, more games, and more attentive adaptation of lesson plans!

It may seem like a teacher of children this young breaks things down into tiny steps. The truth is that every student, regardless of age, needs to learn all the same steps to be a successful musician. Smaller kids need smaller steps and more reinforcement.

The advantages of starting early only become apparent after a few years. Yes, it may take your 3-year-old 4-6 months (or longer!) to play their first song, while Johhny, five years old, may do it in a few months. However, by the time your child is five years old, they will have learned so much more than Johnny.

Those advantages will continue as your child grows.

Suzuki teachers like me tend to think of music as a language. One aspect of this is that children first listen (to recorded music), then learn to "speak" the language (by playing music), and only then learn to read the language. Teachers will rarely start students this young by reading music; instead, it will initially be learning by rote (made easier by listening to recordings and playing games!).

Pros

  • Children are still very responsive to parental approval and suggestions.
  • The earlier a child starts, the easier it will be to obtain high levels of skill.
  • Parent involvement is more necessary, so you'll learn new ways to engage with your child.

Cons

  • A tired child can wreak havoc on a lesson (in a way that won't happen in a few years)
  • Progress can seem slow to adult eyes
  • Parent involvement is more necessary, so it's another demand on your schedule.


What to Look For in Lessons

As always, for beginners, your teacher need not be an excellent musician or performer; in fact, it is far better to find a mediocre performer who is an excellent teacher than an excellent performer who is a mediocre teacher.

As always, for beginners, your teacher need not be an excellent musician or performer; in fact, it is far better to find a mediocre performer who is an excellent teacher than an excellent performer who is a mediocre teacher.

Request to either sit-in on a lesson or to have your child attend a free trial lesson so that you can assess the teacher's ability to connect with your child and communicate effectively with children.

Many teachers do not typically work with children younger than five years old, so you'll want to ensure that your teacher either has training and experience working with this age group. You could ask if any parents would be willing to talk to you, request video or audio of young children at recitals, or, as suggested above, attend a lesson or two of a young student of theirs. Of course, if your music teacher is also a thoughtful business person (which is uncommon!), they'll include many of these opportunities without being prompted by you.

Age 5+

What to Expect:

Almost every music teacher is willing to work with students five and up, which means that there will be a wide variety of approaches to teaching that you may encounter as you search for lessons. You will find teachers, such as Suzuki trained teachers, who continue the play-first, read-notes-later approach into this age bracket (and far beyond it). You'll also find traditional teachers who emphasize note reading first. You may even be able to find a "rock-band" program that will get your child playing some simple Popular Tunes in a band setting as soon as possible!

Pros

  • A broader selection of teachers/programs, as more teachers are willing to start children in this age bracket.
  • Self-control is more developed; they can sit still and pay attention for extended periods
  • Children are still amenable to parent's suggestions on instruments, which may be useful depending on what is convenient/what the best teachers in your area teach
  • Conversely, children may start to choose their own instrument, which may improve their motivation.

Cons

  • More teachers available means more time researching options
  • Students will not progress as quickly as students who started at a younger age.
  • Some (perhaps even a majority) children may still misbehave in lessons if they are having a bad day.

What to Look For in Lessons:

In this age group, your starting to look for two basic things:

First, you'll want to ensure that they can communicate well with children in general and your child specifically. This can be done by attending another student's lesson or bringing your child to a free trial lesson.

Second, you'll want proof that they can deliver on their claims. This proof can come in the form of parent/teacher testimonials, videos of student performances and recitals, and education or specific training that they may have.

Conclusion

Before you start looking for a teacher, read up on some tips to help you find an excellent teacher. If you're in the Philadelphia-area, you could try out my guitar lessons for kids. Let me know in the comments below if you'd like more info on different age groups. 

Kale Good


Educator and Founder of Good Music Academy.

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