In our parents’ home, my brothers and sisters and I made music all the time. (We thought everybody did!) From the routines and rituals of certain songs for special daily moments—like giving a baby a bath or lulling a big kid to sleep—to the spontaneous table-drumming jam sessions that broke out while dinner was being served, to the rounds and improvised harmony that we sang on long car trips or during particularly messy, time-consuming chores like Spaghetti Night dishwashing; our home vibrated with sound and love.
It’s a simple and powerful family activity, making music together, but it’s one that gets overlooked or deliberately avoided in many homes. Only recently did recorded music become widely available; it used to be that if you wanted music in your house, you made it. But something strange has happened over the past few decades that has made many parents feel inadequate when it comes to singing and dancing.
As archaeology professor Stephen Mithen put it in the recent PBS documentary The Music Instinct: Science and Song, “I think in the West [our conception of music] got tied up with expertise [and professional performing]. . . Traditional societies remind us that music is. . . just what you do. . . It’s not something that you have to be trained for. . . Music isn’t a special, elite form of [human] activity.” Being musical is being human. Performance is a thrilling music orientation to witness, of course, but there’s also beauty in participation—a notion that often gets overlooked in our competition- and success-driven culture.
Instead of enjoying the knowledge that no voice is more beautiful and meaningful to a child than his or her significant caregiver’s, moms and dads sometimes shy away from singing to their kids. But just popping in a professional musician’s CD or DVD or .mp3 to receive passively—no matter how high its quality—doesn’t come close to creating the intimacy and memorable family moments, or the many music-related health and educational benefits, of singing and dancing and playing together in a mixed-age group.
Recognizing the loss in the West of this basic human bonding habit, and knowing the lasting joy that it can give people, brought me to Music Together®. Designed by Montessori-inspired musicians and researchers in 1987, it’s an early-childhood program for families that’s bringing people together by getting us back to basics.
Like other researchers, Music Together’s creators have found that music-making is a fundamental form of human communication, so, like spoken language, young children simply acquire it through interactive experience. If you wanted to help your toddler with language development, you wouldn’t tell her explicitly, “I’m going to teach you how to link together the words you’ve learned into strings called ‘sentences,’” for example. You’d just talk with her—and probably in a relaxed, playful way. When the adults who are a young child’s most significant caregivers create a supportive learning environment by having fun making music with him, he becomes disposed to making music himself.
That’s it! Regardless of what you perceive to be your musical ability, if you’re making music enthusiastically with your child, you’re ‘doing it right.’ Most people have average or above-average aptitude for music, but even if what you’re modeling is out-of-tune singing, your child will benefit from your singing with him. Don’t worry; remember, you’re his most significant role model, but you’re not his only musical influence.
It’s easier than you might think to incorporate music-making into your family culture. My own musical parents aren’t musicians; they’re people who like to sing, and who like being close to their kids. Start with the music you like to listen to, and sing along after you press Play. Look your family members in the eyes and let them see how the music that you love makes you feel. Dance along, too; there’s no special skill required. Take somebody by the hand and invite him to join you! Pat your baby’s belly to the beat. Hold your toddler in your arms and slow-dance together to your favorite love songs. Winter’s cold weather and extended hours of darkness create a cozy opportunity for getting into the music-making habit at home.
Before you know it, you’ll be humming and singing those tunes without the recordings, too. You may notice that your baby kicks or squeals in delight; your toddler bounces and sings a word or two with you; your kindergartener makes requests, and sings to herself happily while she paints. Maybe you’ll even personalize some songs by making up your own lyrics, or by matching them up with specific daily activities. Shake a sippy cup filled with beans! Tap your bowls and pots and pans!
Resist the urge to play recorded music as only background noise in your house or in your car. Convey its importance and value implicitly, by turning music into a purposeful activity. Play with sounds you can create (high, low, long, short, soft, loud, etc.), and respond to every spontaneous musical moment your child initiates—including after he’s begun producing recognizable speech. Once you’ve established some favorite songs, try leaving out a sound or lyric while you’re singing, and take note of your child’s reaction; maybe she’ll look at you quizzically, or even fill in the missing part. You’ll be letting her know that the two of you are engaged together in play, and you’ll be giving her the mental space that she needs in order to develop musical thinking skills.
Everybody in your family can participate in music-making—regardless of age or ability—contributing in his or her own way. Every family member will enjoy, and go on to remember, the unique experience that you all create together, and your sons and daughters will likely continue that experience as adults, with their own children. While you’re having fun singing with your kids, you’re reclaiming your family’s music-making history, and you’re securing its future, as well.
Doesn’t that sound good?
Montessorian Daisy Klaber, M.Ed., is Owner/Director of Household Harmony. She offers Music Together® classes and award-winning sing-along parties in Pittsburgh for kids and the grownups who love them.