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Music a key to childhood learning

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Hungarian educator and musician Zoltan Kodaly once said a person could not be complete without music.

Kodaly believed that a focus on learning through engagement with music, singing, playing, moving, and enjoyment, music became part of the natural learning process.

Walk into any early learning centre in Australia and you will find this theory put into action.

Give a child a pot, a pan and a wooden spoon – or even their own hands, feet and voice – and music can be made. It might not always sound superb; but who are we to judge if there is joy and learning to be had?

CQUniversity Music and Theatre head of program and CQ Conservatorium Director Professor Judith Brown says a child's musical experience is only enhanced when those around them – teachers, parents, carers, family, and community – are active in nurturing the musical experience.

"Music is intrinsic," Professor Brown says.

"Even the 'nah, nah, nah-nah, nah' children sing in the playground is a minor third and it's pitched as speaking. It is everywhere.

"Kids are uninhibited about singing because it is just another way of making a sound.

"We put a lot of other stuff around that and somehow we manage to block this thing that is singing. 

“We put social constraints around it 'because we look silly' but in those early years, children can freely express themselves through singing while developing rhythm, movement, and language."

Music engages the senses

Charles Darwin University’s, Early Childhood senior lecturer Dr Georgie Nutton believes the ways children engage with music can provide a framework across their entire life.

"Music is an embodied learning experience; that is whether they are playing, composing or listening,” Dr Nutton says.

"They are using all of their senses and learning more and more language skills."

As well as the intellectual and academic benefits, music is enabling children to identify, understand and, to a degree, process emotions.

The experience of music means children are using all of their senses – the auditory, physical and use of voice – and this then brings about a response from the child.

Dr Nutton says a diversity of music – for rest time, morning play, or other daily routines and activities – lends an integrated approach.

She says music is a powerful tool which bridges age, ability, cultural and diversity gaps. 

"It doesn’t matter, for instance, what mix of emotions a child feels when they hear a piece of music.

"Rather, it is about identifying the emotion the music brings out and being able to tap into that and better understand it. Then, a loving and caring adult will support that experience with the appropriate language around their reaction and response. That scaffolding is critical.” 

Kids are uninhibited about singing because it is just another way of making a sound. We put social constraints around it 'because we look silly' but in those early years, through singing, children can freely express themselves through singing while developing rhythm, movement, and language.
Professor Judith Brown

Music also appears to have a role in the development of language as there are motor skills that come from controlling the voice and also the ability to play an instrument.

"We actually call our music theory courses the ‘language of music’. Music is essential in the development of speech – in as much as developing the language skills, as developing the skills around making the sounds of speech,” says Professor Brown.

"Then, there is the social and emotional development – of working as part of a team and respecting each person's role within that team; of waiting and taking their turn; of knowing their place and working toward a common goal."

Importance of starting young

There appears to be one central truth about children and music : start young.

Even for very young children who don’t yet speak there are benefits because of their physical response to music. They all engage differently with the music and have their own experience either shared or as an individual.

Singing and music can also create a sense of belonging by bringing a group together and giving it a focus. In a rowdy classroom it can create focus and bridge gaps. 

Music also plays an important role in bringing together children and adults and can help older children develop leadership skills by working with and guiding younger children.

"Initially the music experience of a child is largely me-centric. But then the discipline enabling a child to modify their own behaviour – to learn time and place - in a group situation starts to emerge," Professor Brown says.

"The skills gained through that experience – the academic and physical experiences aside – are foundations for the rest of their lives.

"You can certainly see a difference between a (university-aged) student who has had music as a part of their learning, to someone who hasn't."

Music as therapy

Dr Nutton agrees, adding these social skills were further underpinned by coping and decision-making experiences which would help build resilience and constructive strategies throughout their lives.

"You know yourself, there are days when you know the only thing for how you're feeling is a bit of Carol King. Through music being a key part of early learning, children are being exposed to these experiences, and as such they are learning how music makes them feel, from a young age.

"That's something they will take with them for the rest of their lives.”

Professor Brown says there is a reason music is utilised in therapeutic ways – in prisons or with youth at risk. 

“Song writing for some has actually saved them.

"This is an artistic means of expression; something that is innate to - yet somehow beyond - humanity.

"It's why the arts are an enjoyable activity and intrinsically children want to do it."