Music to my ears

Take the essential first steps to cultivating your child's musical ear. 

By Dr. Robert E. Johnson

Music educator

Dr. Robert Johnson is Co-Director of Curriculum for the Music Intelligence Project and The Tuneables. Dr. Johnson received his Ph.D. in music education from the University of Michigan and was a professor in music education for over 25 years. He has advanced the cause of early childhood music education by teaching music to hundreds of young children, composing age-appropriate songs, offering courses to prepare teachers, conducting research, and offering workshops for parents and caregivers of young children.

We often think music learning means reading sheet music or playing a musical instrument. While these certainly are examples of music learning, there’s a fundamental step to take first. Children’s music skills develop best when they’re supported by a foundation of aural skills. We call this training “the musical ear.”

To help children develop their musical ears, choose music activities that focus on the following skills:

Accurate singing. Songs and exercises that improve the range and accuracy of children’s singing will also help them control their voices and breathing.
Example: Develop voice flexibility by imitating high sounds with the voice (e.g., sirens, baby chicks, birds.) Encourage good breathing by standing tall, taking a full breath, and reaching your hands overhead when making the sounds.

Rhythm. Begin rhythmic learning with simple motions, like patting the lap with both hands or marching to the beat. Expand the learning with rhythm patterns and more complicated movements.
Example: Play a recording of “The March of the Toreadors” (from Carmen), and move to the beat by bouncing, patting the lap with both hands or marching.

Musical tones. Practice singing musical patterns (e.g., Do, Re, Mi). These patterns make up the vocabulary of music, much like words in a sentence.
Example: Find and fill water glasses, and strike them on the side with a pencil to make a clear tone. Experiment with varying amounts of water to see what happens to the pitch (i.e., more water makes a lower pitch).

Musical playlist. Create musical playlists of musical compositions and songs that foster a solid understanding of the basic elements of music and introduce different cultural experiences. This also helps in learning such performance skills as singing and rhythmic movement.
Example: You can make your own playlist or train your musical ear with a collection of music that exposes children to key principles of early music learning.