The Importance of Music in Child Development

I would teach children music, physics, and philosophy;  but most music, for the patterns in music and all the arts are the keys to learning.   – Plato –   Ah, music! It can do so many things to us. It can inspire us, it can cause us to recall strong feelings or memories, and it can […]

November 1, 2021

I would teach children music, physics, and philosophy;  but most music, for the patterns in music and all the arts are the keys to learning.  

– Plato –

Ah, music! It can do so many things to us. It can inspire us, it can cause us to recall strong feelings or memories, and it can change our emotional state with just a few notes. Music can do all these things, to all different types of people. Song and dance are for everyone, and I think we as a species can agree on one thing: Music matters. It matters to us as adults, but it matters more in the development of young children.  

In order to connect music to early childhood development, we need to have a basic understanding of how development happens. Early child development can be described in a list of five domains. Before we dive into them, it is critical we understand that none of these domains should be valued higher than the other; meaning that having better language skills over physical skills will not necessarily be an advantage for a three-year-old. All five domains intertwine and overlap because all are essential for proper brain development. Skills in each of the domains physically change the growing brain and how it works, thus the following skills are all equally important.  

  • Social/Emotional: Children need emotional safety and security. They need to know that they are loved. They need examples of healthy emotional expression, so they can learn to express emotion themselves without fear of a negative response or rejection. This also ties into self-worth and confidence.  
  • Communication/Language: Children need to be talked to, from birth, and before if possible. They also need to be listened to; they need to feel heard because when they are talking they are practicing their communication skills, and that is linked to their emotional development.  
  • Self-Help/Adaptive: Children as young as two-years-old need to be able to do things on their own. They need to feed themselves; they need to hang up their own coats, and they need to put on their own shoes. They need to practice and have real experiences, not just for the sake of practicing, but to boost their confidence. It is essential they learn to be independent in key developmental stages.  
  • Physical/Motor Skills: Maria Montessori said: “Play is the work of the child”. Play is vital for brain and motor skill development and has been proven to make kids smarter. Play is their work, and we need to let them work.   
  • Cognitive: This is a child’s ability for critical thinking and problem-solving. Intellectual and mental abilities are learned and nurtured through experience; it is that simple. Young children are little sponges and they soak up everything, and the more they are exposed to, the more they develop.  

A key ingredient that is present throughout each domain is experience. Young children need experiences. These experiences need to be real, within the real world for optimal brain development. This is how they are able to master things like walking, talking, counting to 10 and zipping up their jackets. They need to do it, by themselves, because that’s how they learn.  

Now the question is, “What does music have to do with any of this?” Well, to start, music is a natural and important occurrence in the growth and development of children. Early exposure to music has been proven to have a positive impact on them; their emotional awareness, sense of self, and physical bodies. We have all seen babies bopping their heads or bodies when there is music on, and every parent has had at some point a young child whose favorite song simply must be played again and again and again. There is a reason for this, and the reason is music is a natural and vital experience we all need.  

According to Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner (1983), “Music intelligence is equal in importance to logical-mathematical intelligence, linguistic intelligence, spatial intelligence, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, and intrapersonal intelligence”. This is because music promotes all of those things. When we are engaged in music, whether listening, moving along with it, singing or playing an instrument, we engage all parts of the brain. Left, right, front and back. That’s because the act of making music is a creative and cognitive skill. The whole brain is working all at once, and the arts is the only skill that does this. Even listening to music can have this effect. 

Here’s an example of what music does for us developmentally; Jenny is three-years-old, and she is singing and dancing to her favorite song in the living room. Maybe it’s Frozen’s ‘Let it Go’, and she’s howling it at the top of her lungs. It seems like nothing special is happening, and it may be a little annoying at the onset. However, when we stop to analyze what is happening in Jenny’s brain, we might be amazed.   

All of the following skills are happening while Jenny sings and dances, all of which are key developmental skills at this age.  

  • Fine and Gross Motor Skills; This includes balance, coordination, and rhythm with her body as she’s twirling or swaying. Maybe she is going up on her tippy toes for a moment or moving backward. She is also learning concepts like slow and fast.  
  • Independent Thought / Self Help; Jeni is the star in her living room, and she is choosing where to put her feet, how to hold her arms, how loud to sing, etc. 
  • Cognitive Development; She is focusing on two things at once, singing and movement, that is developing her cognitive abilities and using her whole brain.  
  • Subliminal Mathematics; music is all counting and fractions, so whether she knows it or not, she is learning to keep time / a steady beat because she is experiencing it.  
  • Language Skills; When she sings along, even if some or all of the words aren’t right, she is still learning and developing those language skills. When the music swells and becomes louder, she is experiencing the concept of loud and soft, and in turn, expressing that herself. 
  • Emotional Intelligence; She is feeling something, otherwise she wouldn’t be engaged. These emotions could be simple or complex, but they are being felt, and that is what is important. 

As we can see, music is an incredibly useful tool for young children’s development. Jenny was experiencing and practicing multiple developmental skills, and all it took was turning on Spotify.   

It doesn’t stop at development either. Music touches history, mathematics, and social studies. We use music and sounds in science, in health care through musical therapy, and on it goes. There are countless songs and compositions about geography, cultures, people, emotions, animals and other topics that can be used to accomplished non-musical developmental goals.   

Children of all ages also learn vital social skills through music. Using instruments in groups, as well as singing and dancing in groups can help children learn how to work cooperatively, which is a social skill needed well into adulthood. More of these skills include empathy, spatial awareness, independence through solo work, and emotional development. Music has the unique ability to speak for us in ways we didn’t know we needed to be heard, and it does this with children as well as adults. It can provide a deeper connection for children to themselves, their peers and to the world in which they live.   

It is crucial to set aside time during the day specifically for musical activities in order for skills to develop in a play-based environment. The combination of play and music serves the expressive, emotional, intellectual, social, and creative developmental needs of all children because all children have musical potential. Music speaks to the development of the whole child, and this is why we need to make time for music, because music matters.  

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Sammamish Montessori School