Music is an art enjoyed by all cultures at all points in life, but it begins before birth. Just as it may take years to understand the nuances of a painting or the flavors of a fine meal, music comprehension takes time to develop.
Between birth and ten years of age is the time when our brains see the most development in musical comprehension. This is like any other skill developed during childhood: no two children will learn to speak or walk at the same time. Likewise, don’t expect to see suddenly a gaggle of three-year-olds playing the violin in perfect time. As children come of age, it’s inevitable they will gain a better appreciation of music — though, like anything else, their comprehension will be enhanced by training and practice.
Here are approximate age ranges to provide a sense of when the average child will start to develop certain levels of musical comprehension.
Have you ever heard of fetal hearing? It’s the sense of sound and hearing a baby develops before they’ve even left the womb. This idea is part of the instinct that causes soon-to-be parents to croon lullabies to a pregnant stomach.
Babies are said to develop a sense of hearing at around the 24-week mark. At this point, a baby’s ears have formed and can turn their heads and react to all sorts of sound, from the grumble of a mother’s stomach to the latest chart toppers.
Tip: Singing or speaking to your unborn baby – especially if this is done by the mother – will help the child be less startled by sound when they’re born.
Infants (Ages 1 to 3)
For the first few months of life, children will respond to music in a similar way to when they were in the womb. That is to say, they’ll notice it, but not much more.
While the response to music is present, a child’s reaction during this period is minimal. For example, a child will likely recognize that music is being played, and may try to make sounds or movements as a response. However, at this young age, those reactions will likely not be in sync with any tune or rhythm.
Don’t underestimate the later years of this period, though. Just as a child is learning the elements of language at the two and three-year mark, they are also in the advent stages of identifying tone, rhythm, and pitch.
Tip: Infants are more likely to pick up on tone, rhythm, and pitch if they are frequently exposed to different types of music. Focus should be put on pleasant instrumental pieces, as lyrics can distract children from learning harmonies and tonal differences.
Toddlers (Ages 3 to 5)
One only needs to look as far as YouTube to see cute videos of toddlers bopping to the music. The question at this age becomes: are they simply moving, or are they dancing in time with the beat? At the toddler stage, children do start to develop a sense of rhythm, which is the ability to sync sound with movements. Prompting a child to listen to music and then move along with specific body motions will help better acquaint them with the beat, and it’s a fun way to keep them active. (As if they needed any help!)
Tip: Singing short, simple songs with repetition and consistent rhythm tend to please toddlers, particularly older ones. The three-year mark is when kids will have a greater capacity to remember and repeat song lyrics. If you notice a child has started to sing along to one song, in particular, pick up on that trend and sing it more often. It could be that your child has chosen their first favorite song!
There are benefits to working on your child’s musical development during this period. Research in the Journal of Neuroscience shows kids who develop a sense of musical rhythm at a young age are better at learning languages. That’s because every language carries its own beat. (How fascinating is that?) Music will also help in the learning of tonal languages, such as Mandarin, since children will have developed a better ear for small variations in sound.
Tip: As for formal education, the Gordon Institute for Music Learning says parents should wait until their child reaches a stage of “musical babbling” before enrolling them in any music education. Musical babbling is when a child makes a sound that resembles a harmony and is a step up from “tonal babble,” the time when toddlers make sounds that resemble spoken words.
Children (Ages 5 to 7)
According to a study from Boston College, it is around the age of six that children start to recall the differences between tonal and atonal sequences. Tonal sequences are musical patterns that occur within the same key whereas atonal melodies lack a single key or pattern. It’s at this age that children also start to hear a shift in key changes. These two elements are important foundations of musical comprehension and ones that will continue to develop rapidly until pre-teen years, especially with formal training.
At this age or earlier, most children will have a firm grasp on the body coordination required to balance singing, breathing, and moving along with a piece of music. This ability will extend to children who learn to play instruments, as they find they need to coordinate the aforementioned actions while also reading a musical score.
Children (Ages 8 to 10)
Tone, rhythm, and musical coordination continue to improve in these late childhood years. This is the period in which children reach adult levels of pitch identification, meaning they are better able to tell the difference between one octave and another and different intervals.
Fun fact your kids will love: A perfect fifth interval will sound like the first two notes of the Star Wars theme song.
Musical memory increases significantly, and song lyrics become an effective classroom tool to help children memorize or learn key facts. As the Creativity Institute says, songs telling stories about countries, historical figures, or other discoveries are often popular with children in this age group.
Tip: Children at this age tend to express a greater interest in playing an instrument, especially as part of a group. You can foster this desire by encouraging children to take turns conducting one another, and by allowing them to try a variety of instruments.
While a child’s musical comprehension will continue to develop past the age of 10, the years between before birth and age 10 provide the foundation for them to grow and learn.
What stage of musical comprehension is your child in now? Tell us about it in the comments!
Contributed by Jennifer Paterson: Jennifer, A.R.C.T., Master’s of Music, is a respected member of the musical community and the Founder and President of California Music Studios.