How to Teach Music to a 4-Year-Old

It’s been really fun watching the musical development of my son, E., who just turned 4. From birth my husband and I have been singing to him, dancing with him, playing music for him (via recordings and ourselves, playing instruments) and providing a house full of drums, xylophones, keyboards and guitars. In other words, there has been no formal instruction, just exposure. This past year he’s been singing a lot, making up his own words and songs, and also latching on to certain songs he really likes (he’s especially into Peter, Paul, and Mary right now). If he sees me playing guitar or piano, he wants to play too, so he’ll grab his ukelele and strum along, or pound out random notes on the keyboard.

A couple weeks ago I played through some songs from Alfred’s Music for Little Mozarts. It was a book I had used years ago with a 5-year-old student, and had forgotten about it until I cleaned out my studio. Some of the songs include “If You’re Happy and You Know it,” “Mexican Hat Dance,” and various do-re-mi-type solfege songs. Little E. grabbed Mozart Mouse (yes, this series comes with Beethoven Bear and Mozart Mouse mini stuffed animals) and started singing along, and clapping/stomping during the “If You’re Happy…” tune. He was totally into it. Now, if I go into the studio to play piano, he’ll grab whatever I’m playing off the rack and put up this Music for Little Mozarts book instead and demand that I play through his favorite songs. And of course he does all the actions the songs suggest (“tap your tummy,” “say do-re-mi,” “where is finger number 4,” etc), without me saying, “Okay, now say/do this……”

As a piano teacher I’m used to giving instructions and expecting the student to follow. So when E. does these things out of this book and it’s his idea, it totally blows my mind. I always knew I would teach my children to play piano, but I wasn’t expecting it would start like this. I was thinking it would be more like, “Here’s how you play Mary Had a Little Lamb…..” or “Here’s middle C.” In other words, he would follow my lead, which is what I’m used to.

But E’s way is much better–especially for a 4-year-old. It follows with what I’ve been reading about Music Learning Theory. According to Eric Bluestine from “The Ways Children Learn Music”:

One of the biggest mistakes we make is that we assume children think like adults, see the world like adults, audiate music like adults. They don’t. And so our traditional music programs are doomed from the start. Why do we stick to the belief that first grade children are ready for what we have to offer? Why must we teach them to keep a steady beat? To understand melodic contour? To contrast melody alone with accompanied melody? In fact, why must we teach them anything at all? After all, parents don’t “teach” their children to speak; parents don’t “teach” their children to walk. They guide them; they don’t instruct them……..Here is [Edwin] Gordon’s suggestion to me, and my suggestion to you: Give young children informal guidance in music before you give them formal instruction.

This seems to be what my son is guiding me to do, without him knowing what he is doing consciously. Just like when he wants to mop the floor after he sees me mopping (or doing the dishes or dusting), or asks, “Will you read to me,” he’s programmed by nature to learn things through imitation. And this is the natural way for young children to learn music: at home, watching their parents making music, and saying “Hey, can I do that too?” Or, “Will you play that song one more time?”

1 thought on “How to Teach Music to a 4-Year-Old

  1. Thanks for posting this. I’ve taught elementary aged children before, but now one mother wants me to teach her 3-year-old daughter! LOL I have NO idea how to start… but this helps. Thanks so much!

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