When Should My Child Start Learning A Musical Instrument?

Thursday 12th February 2014
– Julie Wylie

Parents frequently ask me how old their child should be before they learn a musical instrument. Please don’t start them on an instrument too soon! Let them explore through musical play. Many things must be in place before a child is physically, emotionally, neurologically or psychologically ready to enjoy learning an instrument.

When a child starts to learn an instrument without a background of musical play it can be very discouraging. For every child prodigy, there are thousands of children who have given up music, thinking they are not musical and cannot play. The grasp of a young child’s hand is limited. Their fine motor skills are limited. A child’s fine motor skills are not usually developed from a neurological perspective until about the age of ten.

A child’s need for play and meaning is enormous. Play exploration on the piano can start very early, with a baby sitting on the parent’s knee as they explore all the black notes, or high and low sounds together. This can be a truly joyful meaningful musical learning experience for both parent and child. When children know what it means to listen, explore and play music with their whole being, they will take to learning an instrument, or range of instruments with their whole being.

I have had a number of children who have started in my musical play classes as babies and who continued for eight years with their parents,  experiencing the joys of creativity in singing, dancing and playing. There is no right or wrong way to engage in musical play. The children learn music through their senses. Parents enjoy seeing and hearing how their children learn, and listening to their musical offerings.

After eight years, these children have developed incredible listening skills, are able to copy a simple rhythmic pattern, to sing in tune, dance a sequence of predictable patterns and to create their own little songs, dances or musical play on percussion instruments. They learn music with a joyful sense of their own musicality and that of others. They are ready for more formal music learning and often have a real desire to learn an instrument of their choice, or to go to dancing classes.

Many of these children have gone on to learn an instrument fully equipped to learn to read music. They have an inherent sense of timing and are able to read the music, learning the printed notes phrase by phrase with a sense of musical form and musicality.

Musical play lays the foundation for children to develop a natural ability to enjoy more formal music learning with a sympathetic music teacher. A lot of the children I have worked with have chosen a music career and are now accomplished musicians in orchestras, choirs and bands. Some have become professional musicians. All of these musicians have commented on the importance of musical play in their early years in helping them to develop a real love of music. They are able to interact, improvise, transpose music, to read and play music with sensitivity and passion, thus engaging the audience.

The young child’s first and most important instrument is singing. The body itself acts as a resonance chamber. From the babbling games of infancy the baby watches, listens, feels the music, sings, moves and imitates.  Spontaneous singing is a natural part of childhood. All children need singing as an inherent part of their development as human beings. It is through singing that babies learn the complex skills of social interaction, communication and language development.

Chanting, singing, dancing and drumming or playing other percussion instruments can start very early. Singing, dancing and drumming are easily combined with the natural rhythm of the children’s songs to underpin the musical play. This way the children develop a strong sense of timing and steady beat.

Learning to play and sing by ear develops the child’s aural skills and is a natural introduction to learning to play an instrument. When the child starting an instrument can already listen, anticipate, move to and copy rhythmic and melodic patterns, then learning to play music from the printed page is so much easier for the child and the teacher.

When your child really wants to learn an instrument, look for a teacher who understands a child’s musical developmental stages and who has a sense of playfulness and fun in their teaching style. A good registered music teacher will   incorporate quality, joyful musical play opportunities and continue to build on your child’s foundation of music for life.