What do Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and almost every other famous composer/performer have in common? They all had talented musicians for parents that taught and exposed them to music from birth. In our modern culture it’s very rare that you hear of a child starting with music classes before the age of 5. Experts agree that from birth to the age of three is a unique window of opportunity of enhanced learning capabilities that will never be available again. Why do we wait so long to start music lessons then?
Newborns are born with brains that are one quarter of the size that they will be in adulthood. By age 1 the brain doubles in size. By age 2 they are 75% the size of an adult, and by age 3 our brains grow to 90% of their adult size. An adult has about 100 billion neurons, almost all of which are developed in the womb. A neuron is a cell that has the special job of transmitting information throughout the body. Neurons transmit this information to other neurons through a connection point called synapses. Each neuron may be connected to up to 10,000 other neurons via these synapses, making a total of around 1,000 trillion synaptic connections. To illustrate we can think of our brains like a computer, and our synaptic connections make up our processing power.
Babies actually develop synapses so quickly that there end up being too many. Yes, there are too many connections. If these connections were all kept, then eventually they would slow down the brain looking through millions of unimportant synapses first. The brain starts to “prune” these connections. By age 10 children have only about half of the synapses than they had as an infant as can be seen below.
But which synapses are pruned? The ones that aren’t used of course. This opens a small window of opportunity for babies and children to learn at a much faster rate.
Babies and Language
A study at the University of Washington was recently done to measure the electrical brain responses in babies that consistently hear two languages versus those that only hear one. At 6 months babies in a monolingual (only one language spoken) household were able to differentiate between sounds in their own language and sounds of a different language. By 10 to 12 months however they were only able to distinguish sounds in their own language. The opposite was true for bilingual babies. They were actually unable to distinguish differences of sounds of either of their two languages at 6 months. By 10 to 12 months however they were able to distinguish the differences in the sounds of both languages. This is very illustrative of the pruning process. The brains of babies without the need for a second language pruned off that ability early in life to make way for more important connections.
When to Start Music Lessons
I’ve interviewed and hired hundreds of music teachers and almost every teacher doesn’t want to start a child younger than 5. All instruments are not created equally though in respect to how early one can start. Piano is generally the best choice to start young children with. Wind instruments are difficult, actually impossible sometimes for very young children because they don’t have the lung capacity to make a good sound. String instruments, although many children do start very young, can also be difficult because of the pressure needed to apply to the strings. My two year old daughter can play one note on the piano however just as well as I can. There is a much smaller barrier to entry in terms of development for the piano.
Historically, what age did the best musicians start to learn their instrument? Mozart started at about 3, Rachmaninoff started at 4, Horowitz started at 3, Beethoven gave his first performance at 7 but was playing some pretty large works, it’s likely that he started around 4. I could go on and on. Very few major pianists/composers started even as late as 5. Another important note is that all of these musicians had experienced musicians as parents. Although formal lessons may not have started until the age of 3 or 4, you can bet that they were involved deeply with music since birth.
Why Are Music Lessons Started So Late Now?
Most parents don’t think their children are ready for music lessons until they get to be around 7 years old. Sadly, by 7 years old the child has already missed out on 7 years of accelerated learning. If we go in the opposite direction and try to find major pianists that started at 7 or later, unfortunately the list is very small. There are really only a couple. The reason is simple. If a baby/toddler has an increased ability to learn, and they are exposed from birth and start receiving formal lessons at 3, they are technically 4 or more years ahead of the 7 year old. But if we take it a step further we understand not only did they get a 4 year head start, but they learn much quicker in those four years so it’s more like a multiple of four. What can be found all too often at universities is the enormous gap between the 3 year old starters and the 7 year old starters. By the time the 3 year old is 7 they can play as well as the 7 year old can play when they’re a junior in high school.
This obviously isn’t always the case. If a three year old starts to learn the piano and the parent isn’t involved, and the student doesn’t practice, then obviously nothing big will come from the lessons. But if lessons and practicing are taken seriously there’s no substitution for starting as early as possible.
Music Classes for Babies
Although children should start extremely young with music lessons, it’s often hard to find a teacher to teach such young children. Teaching a baby or toddler is not about learning hand positions, scales, and “Mary had a Little Lamb”, it’s about exposure. Almost all “prodigies” come from a musical family, so children are exposed to music from birth. Does that mean there is no hope for non musical families? Thankfully the answer is no!
There are now programs specially designed to teach babies and young children music. One of my favorite is called Little Musician by Brill Kids. The program is made by the same people that made “Little Reader” which is a program that helps babies and young children how to read. It uses proven learning methods for babies and young children to help them understand music and get the head start needed from birth. Only 5 minutes are needed a day for Little Musician to be effective. I’ve personally used it with my own daughter from the age of about two months. Surprisingly even at the age of 2 months she would look at the computer screen for all 5 minutes. By the age of about 15 months she was able to sing notes correctly and clap in time. There are many examples of toddlers developing many amazing skills using the program.
Is This Program a Substitute for Private Lessons?
No way. But it can be a great introduction for babies and children that are just not ready for lessons yet. Constantly trying to introduce actual private piano lessons is important in the child’s progress. My daughter is now three and I tried to start teaching her formal lessons at 2. I didn’t quite succeed, but I find that more of a failure on my part for not sticking with it and finding the best way to teach her. Now she’s three and lessons are going forward very well, she’s learning quite a bit every day. Fortunately I’m a pianist and a teacher by profession, so this is what I do. I understand that not every family has that luxury which makes Little Musician all the more important.
Try it out you won’t be sorry!