Gregory Blankenbehler is a recognized expert in singing and music education for children, and is the author of the popular Singing Lessons for Little Singers method series.
With over 25 years of experience training, performing and teaching music, he has performed in Italy, England and France and holds advanced degrees in Music and Education. He is the music director of John Adams Academy and maintains a large studio of voice and piano students in the Sacramento, California area. He can be reached at his homepage, www.GBMusic.me.
by Gregory Blankenbehler, M.A. Mus.
There is an unfortunate, persistent myth in many of our cultures today that music is simply a medium of entertainment, and that it is best left up to those lucky few who are born with talent. But a growing consensus of research is showing something quite the opposite: music education makes people smarter, healthier, and more successful in life, regardless of whatever "talents" they are born with. Recent studies have shown music study to cause greater physical development in the brain, 1 and up to 27% higher math, 2 57 points higher SAT 3 and 46% higher IQ scores. 4 It has also been shown to have a strong correlation with improved reading and test-taking skills, better behavior, decreased anxiety, and higher grades in school. 5
The myth of the "born musical genius" is also being disproven as research is showing it is nurture, not nature that accounts for most of the musical skills that leave us in awe. It is well known in the field of child development that there is a crucial window between birth and about 6 years old during which a child makes extraordinary progress in language development. Not only does a child learn all of the structure and fundamentals for their own native language at this time, but if they are taught a foreign language during this window they can also speak that language like a native for the rest of their lives. The potential to learn and develop incredible abilities is almost without limit during this once-in-a-lifetime formative window, and is accordingly used to an advantage by early education programs such as Little Reader and Little Math.
What is not perhaps as well understood is that musical abilities operate in much the same way as language, and that they are learned and developed almost identically. The amazing "language-learning window" opportunity from birth to 6 is also a window for unequaled musical skills development. Shinichi Suzuki, founder of the Suzuki method and one of the foremost experts on child music education, understood this concept and promoted the study of music by very young children (ages 3 and up), calling it "talent education." He believed that extraordinarily skilled musicians were made, not born, and he proved it by taking in hundreds of common, every-day children and training them to be some of the finest violinists in the world. Suzuki's philosophy is well summed up in his own words: "The purpose of [music] education is to train children, not to be professional musicians but to be fine musicians and to show high ability in any other field they enter." There is no telling to what heights children can attain if we educate them properly right after birth." 6
Recently, researchers have discovered that absolute pitch recognition ability (often called "perfect pitch") is not simply a rare super-human ability that only a few are granted through lucky genes, but a language skill that nearly all babies are born with. Most babies are born hard-wired to develop perfect pitch, but most do not receive the right stimulation to develop and retain the skill for the rest of their lives. 7
Since formal music lessons typically do not start until about age 6, at the close of the "language-learning window," very few children have been afforded the kind of music education that allows for extraordinary skill development. Mozart and Bach are notable exceptions. Both had fathers that were active composer-musicians and were exposed to the rudiments of music every day from even before they were born. Both were also the younger sibling of another family member who studied the keyboard, and heard every single exercise and song well before they could play them. Both became child prodigies, far surpassing their older siblings, and are now known as the two most famous composers ever. Were these two musical geniuses simply born with more talent than anyone else? Perhaps they were born with some helpful predispositions, but their success cannot be attributed to just that. Mozart and Bach had the unusual opportunity to receive an extraordinary education in music from the day they were born, and that is what caused them to be extraordinary composer-musicians. So, since we are not all composer-musicians ourselves, must we give up now on our children ever receiving this kind of music education? Not at all. Technological advances today allow children to receive musical exposure and training that before was only available to the very lucky (or rich). The classics that before could only be heard by assembling a large group of expert musicians can now be played any time of day with the touch of a button. Never before in history has such a wealth of "nutritious" music been available to so many so easily.
But effective early music education goes far beyond simply putting on a "Mozart for Babies" CD. The Little Musician software program by BrillKids is the closest thing I have seen yet to an easily-accessible early music education of the kind that gave us musical geniuses like Mozart and Bach. Designed to be used daily with children starting at about 6 months, Little Musician teaches musical skills in the same way that children learn language. With the help of a parent (who needs no more musical skill than simple dedication), babies are exposed to the rudiments of melody, harmony, rhythm, and meter in a structured and compelling manner that slowly but powerfully builds their musical language skills. Before the child has ever even begun studying a musical instrument they can identify a melody or chord in solfège, read pitches and rhythms on treble and bass clef staves, point out the correct key on a piano for a given note, and identify musical instruments, famous works, and the composers that wrote them.
Little Musician is designed to be a pre-music-lessons music education. Instead of focusing on musical performance as later instrumental lessons do, it simply teaches children to correctly hear and understand musical language. Using the 900-year-old system of solfège, students learn to recognize and identify individual pitches, intervals, and chords. (Even in the testing stage, parents have been reporting that their children have developed perfect pitch through the program.) From day 1, they also learn to read those pitches on the musical staff. By piecing together basic melodic and rhythmic patterns common to the western musical tradition, children not only learn to correctly read and sing music, but they also become true composer-musicians that have an innate sense for good music and can create their own. The program also teaches them about different musical instruments (from the violin to the banjo) and composers (from Vivaldi to Gershwin) and well-known songs (including many classical masterpieces and children's songs).
Having passed through the curriculum of Little Musician, any child will be ready to make much more effective use of private music lessons and become exceptionally successful. Besides having already learned how to hear and read music correctly, they will bring a wealth of knowledge and experience that will make their playing much more artistic and natural. And most importantly, they will love playing music! Music has been languishing in our world because too many of us think of it as frivolous entertainment. But recent research is showing what our societies used to know, and what the ancient Greek philosophers taught: high-quality music is education of the highest degree. It promotes mental development and helps students do better in math and reasoning. It teaches aesthetics, history, and cultural appreciation in a way that no other subject can. It promotes appropriate behavior, balanced emotions and healthy relaxation. As one of the most powerful forces in the world (think about the influence one popular song can have over millions), music has the potential to raise us collectively to a higher level of thought and action. But just like any language, it is a learned skill. May we all promote its effective study and use.
1 G. Schlaug, L. Jancke, Y. Huang and H. Steinmetz, "In vivo morphometry of interhem ispheric assymetry and connectivity in musicians," Proceedings of the 3rd international conference for music perception and cognition (Liege, Belgium, 1994) pp. 417-418.
2 Amy Graziano, Matthew Peterson and Gordon Shaw, "Enhanced learning of proportional math through music training and spatial-temporal training," Neurological Research 21 (March 1999).
3 College-Bound Seniors National Report: Profile of SAT Program Test Takers. The College Entrance Examination Board, Princeton, NJ, 2001.
4 Rauscher, Shaw, Levine, Ky and Wright, "Music and Spatial Task Performance: A Causal Relationship," University of California, Irvine, 1994.
5 For a list of additional studies on the benefits of music, go to http://littlesingers.info/parents/why-study-music-studies-showing-amazing-benefits-of-music-education/.
6 Shinichi Suzuki, Nurtured by Love, 2nd Ed., Athens OH: Senzay Publications, 1983, pp. 79, 15.
7 Sadie Dingfelder, "Pitch Perfect," American Psychological Association 36:2 (Feb 05), p 32.
For more information on Perfect Pitch, see my article at
Gregory Blankenbehler, M.A. Mus.
"The Little Musician software program by BrillKids is the closest thing I have seen yet to an easily-accessible early music education of the kind that gave us musical geniuses like Mozart and Bach..." Read full review
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