Wired for Sound: The Essential Connection Between Music and Development
by Cynthia Ensign Baney

Magazines and network news shows are abuzz reporting the newly
discovered links between intellect and music. Dateline NBC entitled their
coverage of the new music research "Perfect Pitch." "ZZZt!" "Crackle!" and
"Zap!" said Newsweek, in efforts to describe the neural bridges being formed in
an infant's brain when stimulated by a parent's voice. "Rat-a-tat-tat" declares
Time magazine, describing the prenatal neural wiring crackling in preparation
for learning.

These are definitely attention-grabbing headlines and sound effects, but what
does the new research mean? Which children are affected? How does this
information translate into real-life application in a family or child care setting?

The Child's Brain
Just as mom used to say, a child's brain functions like a sponge ready to soak
up new information. But instead of picturing the brain as a sponge, visualize a
sort of cosmic, 3-D dot-to-dot. The dots represent neurons, which are waiting
to be connected via new pathways of information called neural bridges. Each
time a child is stimulated to think, either new neural bridges are formed or
pre-existing ones are strengthened. The more neural bridges that are formed
and strengthened, the more the intellect will be developed. By the same token,
when neurons are not connected to others, no neural bridges are formed,
signifying a weaker area of intellect. Without information for lengths of time,
neurons die off. Surely the well-worn phrase "Use it or lose it" takes on new
meaning with such information!

The Research
The most widely reported research was conducted by psychologist Fran
Rauscher and physicist Gordon Shaw at the University of California-Irvine in
1994. The goal of the research was to discover the connection between music
and upper-level math and science skills (Rauscher, 1996a). Test groups of
three-year-olds participated in an adult-led daily singing time or weekly
keyboard lessons. The third group, known as the control group, did not receive
music training of any kind. While the small motor skills of most three-year-olds
would make successful keyboard lessons an improbability, the results of
incorporating music into the curriculum were very positive. After eight months,
every child who participated in a music training program increased in his or her
spatial intelligence by an average of 46 percent over the control group's six
percent increase. The children that showed the most dramatic improvement
were the disadvantaged.

Spatial skills, as defined by Howard Gardner in Frames of Mind: The Theory of
Multiple Intelligences (Gardner, 1983; Lazear, 1991), pertain to the ability to
form mental images, visualize graphic representations, and recognize
relationships of various objects to one another. In the simplest of terms, spatial
skills are essential building blocks for later success in calculus and physics.
The children's spatial skills were measured via a portion of the Weschler
Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence called the Object Assembly

In addressing a KinderMusik International professional development seminar,
Dr. Rauscher (1996b) indicated that the students who played the keyboard had
the greatest success because of the opportunity to move spatially. The
keyboard, which has both auditory and physical representations of ascending
and descending pitches, involved movement and listening-a greater number of
music components. These children moved through their space, making their
music experience more complete.

Dr. Edwin Gordon, one of the foremost experts in music learning theory, has
conducted extensive research on music aptitude in early childhood. Gordon
defines music aptitude as a "...measure of a child's innate potential to learn
music" (1990). He makes a distinction between music aptitude and music
achievement. Music achievement measures the child's learning. Gordon has
concluded that music aptitude is a product of both "innate potential and
environmental influences," citing his research that no child is without music
aptitude, and more than two-thirds of children have average music aptitude

Gordon's research confirms that the highest level of music aptitude occurs
immediately after birth. Infants possess an abundance of genes and synapses
that immediately make them ready for learning music. Environment must make
use of this specific neural wiring, or it will be lost. Gordon quotes Dr. Robert
Post, Chief of the Biological Psychiatry Branch of the National Institute of
Mental Health, saying "...Some or most of the unused synapses that might
have been used for developing sensitivity to music may move to support
another sense or medium, such as the visual or verbal" (p. 15). Thus, the
earlier music is introduced, the more potential the child has for learning.

Music aptitude flourishes in a musically enriched environment. In his research,
Gordon defines the "window of opportunity" for developmental music aptitude
as occurring between birth and age nine. After age nine, the child's music
environment no longer determines the level of music aptitude (Gordon 1967).

Child's Play
Dr. Dee Joy Coulter (1995), a nationally recognized neuroscience educator,
classifies the songs, movement, and musical games of childhood as "brilliant
neurological exercises" that introduce children to speech patterns, sensory
motor skills, and vital movement strategies. Sadly, as Coulter observes, the
spontaneous transmission of this playful "brain training" is being replaced by
TV, business, and even the more academic approach that some early
childhood programs are taking.

Coulter maintains that music activities combining rhythmic movement with
speech and song benefit young children by providing opportunities to develop
the mind further. "Inner speech" and "impulse control" are two areas that are
cultivated through this type of musical play. According to Coulter, the brain
cells that control inner speech also regulate motor impulses. Until strong
language skills are developed, the inner speech abilities are not strong enough
to override the powerful urges to move impulsively. To control their impulses,
children need to be able to "obey their own minds." The language development
opportunities provided by songs and fingerplays are vital in the development of

Additional Benefits
Just as language acquisition and vocabulary skills are enhanced through the
use of musical play, so are logic and rhythmic skills. The ability to keep a beat
is a vital rhythmic skill, and one that Dr. Coulter links to the world of inner
speech. Logic or reasoning also develops as a part of inner speech, as the
child becomes able to organize ideas and solve problems. Children with more
developed inner speech and impulse control also exhibit greater social skills.
In order to help children grow intellectually through use of music, opportunities
to experience music through speech, song, and movement must be available
and frequent. Since the brain is developing quickly from birth to age three,
early childhood music involvement is a vital part of intellectual development.

Newsweek's cover story, "Your Child's Brain: How Kids Are Wired for Music,
Math and Emotions," (February 19, 1996), emphasizes the new research on
the neural connections that are being formed in a child's brain as a result of
appropriate stimulation. The article states that if more administrators were
tuned into brain research, "...music would be a daily requirement." "Fertile
Minds," the previously referenced article from Time magazine, states that
babies are so tuned in to sound that their hearts beat faster when their parents
make eye contact and speak in a melodious voice. Both special reports focus
on timelines called "windows of opportunity." Time reveals that the experts
universally agree that birth to age three is the crucial "window" for maximum
neural development.

As research affirms the positive cerebral benefits of music, early childhood
experts are asserting the value of music as a source of joy that translates into
creative expression. Music educator Lorna Heyge, Ph.D. (1996), states:
"While educational leaders turn to early childhood music because it promotes
brain development, they will stay with music because of the joy and
stimulation experienced in actual music making. Music learning requires total
involvement-that is why it appeals so much to young children" (p. 72).

In order for children to benefit from a music program, four essential elements
must be present (Heyge, 1996). Children should have opportunities to
participate in singing, dancing (creative movement), listening, and playing
instruments. In combination, these skills comprise "active music making," the
ultimate music experience for children.

Active Music Making
Just as a child learning to talk must first hear a human voice speaking, his or
her language acquisition would be incomplete without the opportunity to
interact with other people. A child explores his or her potential to communicate
through sound and speech patterns. Children must have the opportunity to
participate in active music making. To listen to music without the opportunity
to engage actively in music production is like hearing the language without the
opportunity to communicate with anyone else.

Singing as a Life Skill
Children today need significant adults in their lives to provide them with the
opportunities to experience music firsthand. Our society has become so busy
and entertainment-driven that many children are deprived of the simple joy of
singing. In some homes, videos have replaced the music traditions once
central to family life. Musical play and the songs of childhood have been
forgotten and replaced with CDs of energetic drum beats and cutesy kid

Certainly the enjoyment of music is still fairly universal, but the process of
disseminating this part of the culture seems more difficult. Although music is a
fundamental life skill, quality music interaction with children has become
somewhat of a lost art. Singing is an essential component, yet today many
adults feel ineffective. For others, the challenge is finding time or remembering
the lyrics or melody.

Children need appropriate vocal models. Much of the readily available music is
someone's perception of what is childlike. An adult singing in a baby voice is
childish, and inappropriate for children. At the other extreme, some children's
audio tapes have complicated themes, hard-driving rhythms, and gravelly
vocals, like scaled-down versions of adult music.

Adults planning music experiences should choose songs that will engage the
child. Simple, unaccompanied tunes with singable melodies are useful with
children. Dr. John Feierabend (1996) encourages selecting songs related to
subjectsthat are of interest to a child. He recommends folk songs, because of
the "marriage of words and music" where the melody "emerges naturally from
language." Feierabend also believes the text should relate to the world of the
child: imaginative; creative; and full of wonderful, childlike observation.

The voice is the first and most important instrument. Vocal activities in a
musical environment enrich and support language development. Oral and
receptive language can be practiced through the use of call and response
songs. Singing also provides an opportunity for self-expression, and helps to
develop the sense of self.

"In this age of high technology, children's motor development may not be
keeping pace with their cognitive development and chronological age," says
Phyllis Weikert (1995). With babies and young children, Weikert states that
"Hearing music, combined with rocking, patting or bouncing to the beat,
promotes the hearing-feeling connection so necessary to later steady beat
independence" (p. 21).

Weikert (1988) refers to the body as the primary learning center, distinguishing
between nonpurposeful and purposeful movement. Directing actions toward a
goal such as hopping, dancing, or specified movements at prescribed
moments in a song also aids in the mastery of body movements. She
encourages teachers to employ purposeful movement, where action is
preplanned and discussed before movement, as well as to provide
opportunities for child-initiated ideas. She cites lack of awareness of body
capabilities and poor impulse control as being among the chief consequences
of overlooking movement as a vital part of early childhood training.

Attentive listening is a vital skill in every part of life and learning. The ability to
listen affects intellectual, emotional, and social areas either positively or
negatively. The child who is not able to listen will struggle in language
development. Listening problems have been linked to later difficulty in reading,
spelling, and arithmetic; children who are unable to listen have been diagnosed
with various learning disabilities.

Every effort should be made to provide the highest quality of listening material
for the children, from a wide variety of sources. Differing styles of classical
music can affect the behavior of the child. Music by Mozart, Bach, or Chopin
has a therapeutic effect on the listener, while military marches and other
classical pieces by Wagner and Paganini have an energizing effect (Maudale,
1997). This type of music can heighten hyperactivity in some children. Rock
and disco with heavy rhythmic backgrounds can also be overstimulating for
some preschoolers (Gordon, 1990).

Although listening is a vital component in the process of music learning,
teachers and parents should avoid having music become "audible wallpaper." It
is not necessary, nor is it healthy, to have music playing all the time. Silence
is also an important part of auditory discrimination. When a quiet area is
provided, the child can concentrate on focused listening, which is discerning a
particular sound and connecting it to its source. An environment in which there
is always heavy auditory stimulation teaches the child to shut out sound and
detracts from developing listening skills.

Personal listening preferences develop from experiences and exposure to a
variety of music styles. Although the market is diverse, most adults gravitate
towards music within a few certain styles. Many radio stations play music of
one particular genre, such as rock or country. Despite the personal
preferences of the adult, every effort should be made to expose children to a
varied repertoire, so they can eventually develop their own tastes. Classical
music with authentic instrumentation is a good place to begin.

Playing Instruments
When a child has the opportunity to play a simple rhythm instrument, the
music experience becomes more vital. The child has, by virtue of creating
sound from a source outside of himself or herself, joined the music process in
an exciting way. Exploring ways of creating sound with uncomplicated
instruments allows children to express themselves uniquely. Improvising and
experimenting with drums, jingles, rhythm sticks, and rattles allow children the
opportunity to explore the connection between varied sound and their ability to
produce it.

David Elkind (1984) speaks of the detriment children experience when pressure
to perform "weighs on the child, and robs he...activity of its playfulness and
pleasure." Elkind insists that adults hurry children, when "...they insist
[emphasis added] that they [the children] acquire...skills at an early age" (p.
12). When a child is pressured to play a certain instrument (like piano or violin)
before he or she is ready, it places undue stress on the child. Children who are
allowed the freedom to experiment with instruments will enjoy the experience,
with no stress-induced side effects.

Incorporating Music in the Daily Routine
Children benefit when singing occurs as part of their daily life. Singing
throughout the day, not just at circle time, follows a child's natural inclinations.
Adults need to encourage natural music aptitude in young children. Singing,
dancing, creative movement, playing instruments, and listening are all vital
components of an appropriate early childhood music experience. In order for
children to benefit from music, parents, teachers, and caregivers should plan
for daily music opportunities.

Music builds and strengthens bonds of trust and communication between
adults and children. Music gives children a reference point, a way to respond
appropriately. Simple songs, incorporated into daily activities, communicate
without nagging or endlessly repeating directions. Since the children are
already "tuned in" musically, singing will capture their attention more easily.
Transitions will be smoother and children will be more likely to remember the
daily routine. Better yet, the children will begin to help each other by singing
the songs together, as they anticipate the planned activity.

Greeting and good-bye songs, and songs for transitions like picking up toys,
washing hands, naps, and mealtimes, help establish routine. Repetition of
songs promotes learning and success, as children have additional
opportunities to master the vocabulary and melody of each song. Adding
simple hand movement will aid children in sequencing the material. Children
will respond to and love the additional music, regardless of the
parent/teacher/caregiver's musical ability.

Music will not only help the teacher connect more with the children, it will also
make the day more enjoyable. Including songs at even the most unlikely times
such as diaper changing will ease the flow of the day. The children will know
what to expect, because the song clues them in to what happens next. The
possibilities of adding songs to the day are endless. Consider the list below for

1.Morning arrival
3.Going outside
4.Walking to the park
7.Cleaning up
8.Riding in the car
9.Mealtime prayer
11.Wake up time
12.Evening departure

If the perfect song for a specific occasion is lacking, create one. Transitions
are a perfect time for piggy-back songs. Putting instructions to music aids in
recall. In addition, the parent or teacher who creates songs will encourage and
stimulate the children's creativity as well.

A child's initial musical experience is so vital to development that it could be
viewed as a "...pre-clinical dose of treatment utilizing speech, motor
development and sensory integration," says Dr. Lorna Heyge. Although
scientists, therapists, parents, teachers, and music experts may have different
motivations for opening the world of music experience for each child, the
benefits of music development, within the "window of opportunity" are
overwhelmingly positive for the child. According to Heyge (1997), music:

optimizes brain development;
enhances multiple intelligences;
facilitates genuine bonding between adult and child;
builds social/emotional skills;
promotes attention to task and inner speech;
develops impulse control and motor development; and
communicates creativity and joy.

Cynthia Ensign Baney is the owner and founder of Moriah Music, an early childhood music and movement consulting firm. She specializes in
customizing and and implementing music curricula for early childhood
programs. She is also the composer and author of The Animal Discovery
Series, a thematic music and movement program.

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