Redefining Preschool Music: The Benefits of Meaningful Play with Pitch
It is a well known fact that music is important to young children!
It teaches them the alphabet, reminds them to clean up their toys, and helps develop language by singing along with their favorite songs.
It is also well known that music is good for your brain! Listening to music is an emotional and complex process and playing an instrument even more so.
Beyond being a cognitive benefit, new research from the University of Queensland, Australia reveals that even ‘informal music making at home’ can improve social development and overall happiness later on in childhood.
So to recap what we know…
- Music helps children with communication, routines, and gross motor exploration
- Listening to music is a rather complex cognitive process that can elicit powerful emotions
- Playing an instrument creates brain activity unlike any other activity out there
- Informal music making in childhood can lead to a happier child
So while the benefits of music are understood on a wide scale, there is still a large part of the music education puzzle that most of the English speaking world is missing out on.
What The Odyssey Shows Us About Human Perception
When you look at a picture of the Earth, or at this lovely picture of the sky, some part of your brain shouting,
Today, we know that the world is round and that the sky is blue.
But just like the old belief that the world was flat, most societies only accepted blue as part of everyday life in the modern (ie not ancient) world.
If you look closely at literature from ancient periods, say The Odyssey, you’ll see that Homer wrote a lot about black and white, sometimes about red and green, and that he never once mentions the color blue.
The sky is often described as gray and the sea is famously described as “wine-dark,” but for Homer, and most of the people of his time, blue simply didn’t exist.
Similar analysis of ancient texts shows us that, except for the Egyptians who had invented blue dye, blue is entirely a phenomena of the modern world.
The wonderfully weird science of color perception is a rabbit hole we’re only going to scratch the surface of, but if you want to learn more, definitely check out to this most excellent episode of Radiolab: Colors.
The important part to realize (for the sake of music education) is that our perception of color is nurtured by the society around us.
Or said differently, perception is subject to slow but societal-influenced shifts.
Indeed perception, by it’s very definition, isn’t absolute.
The fact that we consider blue to be one of three “primary colors,” is pretty amazing when you think that it didn’t even exist until the modern world and it begs the question, what other advances in perception have we yet to unlock?
While most of us can easily identify and name different colors, naming different musical pitches in the same way is almost laughably impossible.
Try it for yourself with the sample below…. do you know what note that is?
Maybe you’re the 1 in 10,000 who seem to be able to do this naturally… or maybe you’re a trained musician with decades of practice…
but assuming you’re neither of those, you probably couldn’t identify the above sound as a C above middle C
Even most musicians with years of training can’t do it.
Some of those musicians who can name the pitch (like me) , can only do so because we intensely memorized reference pitches from favorite songs or instruments we play everyday. This kind of intense memorizing and inner-referencing doesn’t exactly make the note names leap out at us like as obvious as the color blue though. At least in my experiences, it feels like second nature half of the time and a game of comparing the note in question to a memorized pitched the other half of the time.
Your ability to identify a musical tone without a reference is what we call absolute pitch.
Absolute pitch (AP), perfect pitch or even memorized pitch is a VERY rare ability in the Americas and in Europe (1 in 10,000 seem to be born with it).
Though it’s often talked about as an absolute (you have it or you don’t), there are actually degrees of absolute pitch.
Just in case you’re wondering, “who cares about having perfect pitch?”
or if you’re a musician saying “I don’t want perfect pitch because I heard from so and so that it’s annoying…”
…then it’s worth remembering that many of the worlds greatest composers (Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn) shared this ability.
This isn’t to say that AP (absolute pitch) is a prerequisite of being a successful composer, but it does seem to be standard amongst the greats.
This begs another question… how did these extraordinary individuals develop this amazing ability?
Was it really just a random gift of nature, or was there a certain type of nurturing that took place to produce this amazing ability?
So Maybe English Isn’t the Most Musical of Languages…
Though people have speculated on the origins of AP for centuries, new research published by Diana Deutsch’s on the nature of absolute pitch sheds new light on an old myth.
Deutsch’s research compared two groups of music-conservatory students. One group spoke English and the other Mandarin Chinese.
Deutsch gave each of the groups a simple AP test and compared the results.
Unfortunately for us who speakadaEnglish, the Mandarin students outperformed the English speaking students by a huge margin.
While the rate of AP for the English speaking children hovered around 15%, the rate for the Mandarin children was close to 75%.
After dismissing a few other potential causes (training, brain make-up, etc), Deutsch concludes that the cause to the AP gap is the differences in Mandarin and English as languages.
And if you know anything about Mandarin Chinese, you probably know where this is going…
Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, which means it relies heavily on the use of pitch. Indeed, it is often described as sing-song.
In this kind of tone based language, the same word can take on a different meaning depending on how you pitch your voice. For instance, the two letter word ‘ma’ can mean both mother or horse, depending on how high or low you pitch the word. As you can imagine, this leads to a lot of novice-speaker humor (like calling your host mom a horse).
Most of the meanings in Mandarin come from the contour of the words spoken (rising, falling, etc). This is at least a little relatable to English in that, we as English speakers, are used to using pitch to create inflections, which have some inherent meaning.
Looking back at the pitched nature of Mandarin however, there are some words that are spoken with the same pitch consistently across the language.
You can compare several different native Mandarins on several different days and find words spoken almost in the exact pitch each time. This isn’t because they’re all carrying around a pitch pipe and checking themselves every morning – it’s just second nature.
This means that a native speaker of Mandarin is almost guaranteed to an above average understanding of pitch. After all, their brain has been both consciously and unconsciously dealing with pitch in everyday conversation. That’s a lot of practice!
As a preschool music teacher, I dedicate most my life to trying to make music easier to understand. For any early educator, the follow up to question is inevitably…
How do I give my English speaking student(s) this amazing understanding of pitch?
The Critical Period for Auditory Development
Years ago, I went looking for kid friendly absolute pitch methods.
First stop, the Taneda method.
Their method has been used to teach hundreds of children perfect pitch since the 80’s and their revolutionary program is available at wehearandplay.com.
The key to Taneda’s method was giving children “consistent and meaningful exposure to pitch.” Through a series of ball games and piano drills, children develop absolute pitch between the ages of 3 and 5.
Taneda’s research showed that this is when children could most easily develop a sense of pitch. They were old enough to engage is guided play, and young enough that the Critical Period for Auditory Development wasn’t closed yet.
Deutsch research points to a similar window between ages 3-5, but she also expressly mentions the distinct development that happens between 6 months and 1 year of age.
It’s during this even earlier time window that children absorb the basic elements of their language (consonants, inflections, vowels, etc). If pitch is a part of their native language, and therefore part of what they hear spoken all around them, then it goes to reason that they are really starting their meaningful exposure to pitch as early day 1.
Comparing Taneda and Deutsch, it’s hard to say exactly where this critical window for auditory begins and ends, or even if it’s several small windows in a row, each with slightly different characteristics.
Whether it’s one long window or several short ones, both Taneda and Deutsch agree that the critical window for auditory development closes rapidly around age 5.
While you can find all of the data and conclusions of Deutsch’s findings, the key point here is this:
Preschool Music: The Present
When I first discovered this, my whole view of teaching preschool music shifted.
I quickly moved away from the tradition of music and movement songs we all love and hate (The Wheels on the Bus, Happy and You Know It, Hokey Pokey etc) to focus my music classes on giving kids this kind of exposure to pitch!
I bought Boomwhackers, color coded stickers for my piano, and eventually discovered the deskbells in all of their early-childhood music glory!
We started singing about Solfege, the colors of the Boomwhackers (Chromanotes), the scale degrees, and the chords we were listening to. I modified a lot of Taneda’s methods and games to suit the instruments, energy levels, and size of my classes.
Now, very few of those activities would seem revolutionary to an elementary school music teacher, but the problem is that by elementary school, the window for developing a true sense of AP is closed (or at least closing very fast)!
Most preschools and daycares don’t have a music teacher; they simply can’t afford one.
Those that do, usually rotate the teacher from class to class for 30 minutes, maybe once, twice, or at best three times a week.
And unfortunately, most of the preschool music curriculum out there for music teachers and classroom teachers alike, HAS ALMOST NOTHING TO DO WITH GIVING KIDS EXPOSURE TO PITCH.
Most preschool music curriculum is summed up with two words: music and movement, and most of the big name curriculum providers only offer these kinds of programs.
The benefits of music and movement are many. It’s fun, it teaches kids how to control their bodies, it provides teachers with a constructive way to channel high energy classes, and it exposes kids to music (at some basic level).
I used to teach a music and movement program called Spark, and so I know just how fun and how rewarding those programs can be.
The problem here is that the music portion of the teaching is pretty secondary, and way too many centers believe that a music and movement program is the same as a music program.
Preschool Music: The Future
If we want to raise children who are musically literate, who have a strong sense of pitch and who can compete with musicians who natively speak tonal languages, then there needs to be a massive shift in the preschool music space.
Even now, the preschool programs that specifically teach music over music-and-movement fail to focus on pitch as a key component. They equip classrooms with shakers, sleigh bells, rhythm sticks and drums, none of which are pitched instruments. They offer books about animal sounds and at best, they get into the different timbre of different instruments, but they don’t get in Solfege, musical notes or pitch until the K-1 level. At that point, that critical period for auditory development is closing and it’s too late to equip that child with an innate sense for pitch.
So I make this plea to preschool directors, teachers, parents and music teachers everywhere…
We need to shift the focus of preschool music!
We need Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-do to be taught right along side the ABCs!
We need more play (both free and guided) with pitched instruments (like bells and boomwhackers) and less emphasis on playing with shakers, sleigh bells, and maracas!
And for any preschool teacher not familiar with the nuances of teaching pitch, need an easy way to properly implement some pitch-focused curriculum!
You can get started giving your kids meaningful exposure to pitch today with a few simple tips:
1) Invest in a colorful, durable and child friendly instrument that makes identifying and playing with pitch easy and fun!
2) Color code your piano with some stickers!
3) Check out some great apps to use for your kids over at http://www.preschoolprodigies.com/toptenapps/
4) Teach your kids Mandarin Chinese! Granted, unless you know the language well so that it’s spoke regularly and correctly at home, this might be a big pill to swallow. Then again, anything is possible and more power to you if you go this route!
5) Check out the Taneda method at www.WeHearandPlay.com. It’s super time intensive and VERY specific on how you implement it, but it is certainly effective!
6) Subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or download our podcasts app at http://www.preschoolprodigies.com/app/ to stay up to date with the monthly release of our free music lessons!
7) Try our FREE Preschool Prodigies Starter program! Or join our full length program, The Preschool Prodigies Playground at https://shop.preschoolprodigies.com
Making meaningful exposure to pitch accessible to students and teachers is why I built Preschool Prodigies. If you’re a small music center without a music teacher, a preschool teacher looking for a kick-butt music center, or a homeschool mom looking for curriculum, Preschool Prodigies offers an affordable music program that’s all about giving kids meaningful play with pitch and rhythm!
Free Starter Program
Curious about using PsP with your students? Take advantage of our free starter course over at www.PreschoolProdigies.com/FreeMusicLessons.
This will give you access to half a dozen pitch-centered music lessons, as well as our eBook “Raising a Young Musician” that gives you plenty of free and actionable ways to give your child exposure to pitch right away!
On a personal level, I hope that development and implementation of Preschool Prodigies will help shed further light on the nature of perfect pitch and ideally turn it into a fun and easily learned skill for children all across the world.
That said, I know that the baby-genius market is not only super-saturated, but that it’s often scrutinized for being false, for taking advantage of a parent’s FOMO, and for promoting proprietary ‘this will definitely work for you’ methods.
But for every zealous super-mom baby-genius duo out there, there are an equal number of Piaget enthusiasts who preach free play to the extent that even half-day preschool programs are being limited to only 90 minutes of instruction everyday.
As with most things, there are valid points to both sides that I think any parent or educator can see plain. Free play is essential, but instruction and guided learning is equally as valuable. In most cases, you have to balance these two sides on a per child basis.
Keeping both perspectives in mind, I developed Preschool Prodigies so that you can use the concepts and instruments in a free-play kind of way, or you can purchase the course and cross every t and dot every i of the curriculum.
I hope that parents and educators everywhere will find a way to make use of the video lessons we’ve developed and the collection of instruments we recommend for making this kind of musical learning fun and easy!
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