8 Ways to Turn Your Infant Into a (Musical) Genius

I’m turning up my music nerd side today, big time.

You’ve been warned.

Participation in music makes people smarter. I’m not just saying this- they’ve proven it! Babies love music for a reason – it stimulates their brains. The earlier you can get your child learning and experiencing music, the easier it will be for them to develop more advanced musical skills in the future, and the smarter they will be. This is why scores and scores of people sign themselves up for mommy and me music classes like Musikgarten and Kindermusic almost straight out of the womb! These classes are fantastic and I love them. But, they can be cost-prohibitive. I want to give you a few ideas that will help your baby develop her musical intelligence without costing you a cent.

Disclaimer: Despite the title of this blog post, I am making no guarantees that by following some magic 8-step plan, your baby will be the next Mozart. I am, however, a professional musician, trained music educator, and new mom, who has been trying all sorts of music-related activities with my 7-month-old based on what I know about music and how it affects the brain! Probably, after I have more kids and they’re all grown up and I actually see what works and what’s pointless, I’ll read this blog entry and say, “What was I thinking?” But until then, I will wallow in my ignorance and spew out a whole slew of ideas that may or may not actually be effective. And of course, if you have done some things with your little one that you have found to be fun, post it in the comments section! This list is by no means exhaustive.

butterfly shirtcrop

First things first – let me explain WHY music makes people smarter. Studies like this one have shown, time and time again, how playing and making music creates new kinds of connections in the brain that other activities can’t create. For example, you’ve probably heard of the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The left brain is our verbal center, where we use logic, reason, and math. The right brain is our creative and artistic center, where we get our intuition. The two hemispheres are connected by a group of neurons called the corpus callosum. Although many day-to-day tasks in life mostly require the use of only one hemisphere at a time, you need a well-developed corpus callosum in order to do things like solve big problems, make decisions based on varied information, and anything else that might use both sides of your brain simultaneously. To use both sides at once, you need a well-developed corpus callosum so that the two hemispheres can communicate. As you might guess, making music is an activity that develops is set of neurons. In fact, research like this has shown that the corpus callosum is far more developed in musicians than in non-musicians. So, that’s one way that music makes a person smarter!

piano-julia-newborn1.jpg

If the neurological evidence wasn’t enough to convince you that your child should learn music, the practical evidence will surely win you over. People who participate in music as a child end up with bigger salaries as adults, regardless of their career choice. I’m not even kidding – here’s proof. They do better in school (partly because they’re smarter, as we’ve already discussed), are more likely to attend graduate school, gain all sorts of communication and collaboration skills, and end up making more money!

So, are you sold yet? Now, this post is mainly geared toward parents of babies, since I am one. Obviously, my little girl has a long road ahead of her before she is able to even begin to play an instrument, read notes, understand music theory, and all of those wonderful things I can’t wait to teach her. But even though she’s only a half of a year old, I can start getting her ready to understand music right now. Just like you wouldn’t send a kid to 2nd grade without knowing the alphabet and expect her to be reading chapter books by October, you can’t expect a grade-schooler to be able to learn music notation in 2 weeks of music class without having had any previous structured musical experience.

Readiness. It’s what makes the world go around.

(At least according to my music ed professors in college. If you went to school with me, you know EXACTLY who I mean. 🙂

Music has two aspects: the rhythm side and the tonal side. In laymen’s terms, rhythm has to do with the beat and the pulse in the music, and the way the notes are timed in the big structure of things. Tonality has to do with the pitches, and how they relate to the center (key) as they make up the melody and the harmony and the accompaniment and all that stuff. In making your child ready to understand music, you have to treat rhythm and tonality separately. So, I’ve separated my activity ideas into those two categories – rhythm and tonality.

The good news is that people learn music the exact same way that they learn language. Babies start off learning a language by repeating back the little patterns they hear – “Ba ba ba” and “gooo gooo goo” etc. Soon, they start recognizing words (like their own name) and associating some of these syllables with actual meaning. For example, we’ve just gotten to the point where little Julia has started saying “Ma ma ma” when she is hungry. It is years later in the process when a child learns the symbols associated with the words they already know (letters and written words.) In the same way, learning music doesn’t start with learning the written notes on the staff – that “symbolic association” skill should come very last. Learning music starts as simply as hearing and feeling rhythmic and tonal patterns, and then (maybe) repeating them back. This might be as far as you can really get with a 7-month-old, but it’s vitally important in their musical development! So let’s face it. Julia is not ready to compose a symphony. BUT, here are some little things I can do with her to develop her corpus callosum and get her ready for the big stage one day:

A. RHYTHM

1. Keep a Steady Beat – This is the most important thing. Ever. Now (before age 1) is your window of opportunity to help your child learn to internalize a steady beat. They have to FEEL this beat, not just hear it. So, whenever there is music playing, bounce, tap, or move your baby to the beat. I’m not talking about the rhythm of the words, but the BEAT – the steady pulse that keeps going through the whole song. Put them on your lap or between your legs, and let the bouncing begin! I’m not kidding when I tell you that I started teaching Julia how to keep a steady beat before she was even born. When there was loud music that I knew she would hear in the womb (and my hands weren’t busy conducting or playing the piano), I would often tap my belly to the beat so that she would feel that dependable pulse upon which all rhythmic meters are based. Steady beat is that important, I tell you.

steady beat

2. Move, move, move! Music is supposed to move us – literally. Our bodies help our brains focus and make sense of what we hear. When we use our whole bodies, it is easier to “feel” the beat and the form of a song. So, dance with your baby! Move their arms and legs in time with the music!

3. Focus on the Form. As you are moving to the beat, think about the different parts of the song to which you’re listening. Is there a repeated phrase or melody? If so, do the same thing with your little one every time you get to that section. For example, if you’re bouncing along to the beat of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” wave her little hands in the air every time you get to “E-I-E-I-O.” Doing the same thing with her arms when she hears the same thing with her ears will help your child pick up on repeated patterns.

classical music

4. Stick with classical and folk (children’s) music. I love pop songs, but most melodies written in the last 30 years have syncopated rhythms, so the accents in the words often don’t fall on the main beats. This can make it confusing for a child who is trying to feel a steady beat for the first time.

B. TONALITY

5. Match pitch – When your baby makes those super-cute natural vocalizations, try to find where she’s “singing” with your own voice! You may find yourself singing pretty high, but that’s okay – those tiny vocal chords make high pitches a lot easier than our grown-up ones do. When you’ve found the notes that your baby is making, try singing something up there. Even if it’s just a little “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” your baby will start discriminating between pitches, and be encouraged to keep making singing noises. This is how how all famous singers got their start, right? Your little one will start hearing the difference between high sounds and low sounds, and will begin picking up on some of those tonal patterns – the “words” that will eventually make up her tonal vocabulary.

6. Experiment with timbre. Everything makes a sound. Ever notice how babies are fascinated by anything that makes noise? That’s because their little ears are learning how to listen! Listening skills are vital to music and to life in general. As a parent, you can help your baby listen critically by letting her experience slight variations in sounds (we call this “timbre”). Give her a plastic bowl to tap with her hands, and show her how the sound changes ever so subtly when she hits another part of the bowl. Take the same toy and let her tap it against various objects around her – most likely, she’ll be fascinated. And by all means, let your kid bang on that piano! There’s no better way for her to experience tonality and timbre hands-on as she bangs up and down the keyboard. Go ahead and use words like “high” and “low,” “loud” and “soft” when you are talking to your baby through these activities.

play piano

7. Sing to your baby! Do I even need to say this? It doesn’t matter if you are a professional opera singer or a self-proclaimed tone deaf…SING!!! All the time!!! First of all, the more you sing, the better YOU’LL get at singing. But more importantly, your baby needs you, the most important person in her life, to model the tonal and rhythmic patterns that make up the world of music. You talk to your baby so that she learns language, right? Well, you have to sing to your baby for her to learn music! Sing your favorite songs. Sing your mom’s favorite songs. Sing that commercial jingle that’s stuck in your head. Sing made-up songs. And you may find yourself singing the same things at certain points in your routine, and that’s good. Long before Julia could recognize the sentence “Let’s change your diaper,” she recognized the little song I sang every time we were at the changing table. Music can help your baby make sense of her world.

sing to baby

8. Listen to repetitious music. Okay, maybe you’ll end up wishing to do something cruel and unusual to whatever sick person decided to put those ninety-nine bottles of pop on the wall. But by listening to music that has catchy, repetitious melodic elements, your baby will easily start picking up on the tonal patterns that make up western music. They learn the meaning of words by hearing them in all sorts of different sentences, right? Later, when those musical patterns show up in piano lessons or music class at school, your child will recognize them quickly because she will have been listening to them all her life! She’ll be READY. And it’s all about readiness, remember.

That’s all for now, folks, so let the commenting begin! I’m sure you have some more ideas about how to develop your baby’s brain through music. So if you’ve tried something, and it was fun, leave a comment! I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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2 thoughts on “8 Ways to Turn Your Infant Into a (Musical) Genius

  1. Very good information and well written 🙂
    When I was young I iceskated alot to classical music and developed a like for that type of music. Also as a child I remember playing with a Xylophone, very facinating and colorful.
    Music boxes also had an influence on me, creating special moments and memories.
    Hand held beat makers, tambourines, castanets and of course all sorts of bells are also interesting instruments to introduce to children and maybe babies too.
    She might be amused if you whistle!
    Also taking her outside especially during spring, listing to the different songs/calls all the birds make will have an impact on her and help her to be aware of God’s creation.
    Silence is golden too 🙂 ❤ ❤ ❤

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