Now Hear This! How Music Can Help Your Child Learn to Listen

Most educators, child development specialists, and neuro scientists will tell you that listening is the single most important sensory channel for learning. By listening, children learn the words, the rhythms, the lyricism, the inflection, and the cadence of language. By listening, they also learn about nature and the world around them. Ask a young child what a cow is and many of them will say “moo.” Ask them what a fire engine is and they will respond “whee-oo, whee-oo.”

Formed early in utero, the ears are fully functional four months after conception. They are hearing and registering the sounds of the mother’s breathing, heartbeat, voice, and footsteps. For most children, hearing is a sensory function that’s as natural as breathing, yet one of the biggest challenges many parents face is getting their children to sit still and listen. Why?

To understand the reason why, we first have to understand that hearing and listening are two different things. Hearing is passive. We can hear everything around us – voices, music, traffic, dogs barking, and all the ambient noise of life – without actually listening to any of it. These sounds often serve as a backdrop to our work, our studies, and our recreation. We hear them, but we “tune them out” either voluntarily or by habit, like tuning out the sound of the weekly garbage pick up or the neighbor’s barking dog. On the other hand, listening is active. It’s something we choose to do when we want to bring our attention to something. A newscast, a piece of music we love, an important meeting at work, and a conversation with a loved one may all be reasons we would choose to “tune in” and actively listen. Therefore, listening is ultimately a choice.

Most children simply don’t have the ability to choose, because they don’t yet have the emotional, cognitive or social maturity to do so. Part of the act of choosing to listen is the ability to determine what’s important to listen to and what’s just background noise. The other piece of the puzzle is physical. Neuroscientist, Dee Joy Coulter, explains that the ears are devoted to listening as well as balance and movement. Therefore, children innately tie listening to movement. The link between listening and movement is inextricable until children learn how to separate listening from movement. It may seem counter-intuitive, but in order to separate listening from movement, Dr. Coulter has concluded that children must first learn to move and be given the freedom to explore movement. Only by mastering movement can children begin to sit still and listen.

Helping children master movement and learn to listen actively are two seminal benefits of early childhood music education. In my Musikgarten class, for instance, we give children the freedom and tools to explore movement through sitting and traveling movement activities, dancing, finger play, and instrument exploration, all against the backdrop of music. Through guided activities like these, children discover the range of body movements and they learn how to move their bodies with grace, confidence, and balance. As they dance, sway, dip, rock, bounce, clap, wave scarves in the air, and play a variety of instruments, they are registering how different movements feel and what physical adjustments they must make in order to change their body’s position. In time, my students develop the ability to do these things with more ease, better coordination, and in a rhythmic fashion. As they learn to control their bodies, they also begin to learn impulse control, which is a critical step in mastering movement and helping children divorce movement from listening.

In next week’s blog post, I’ll talk more about the topic of active listening and other ways in which early childhood music education can facilitate your child's aural development and put them on the road to being able to sit still and actively listen.

Marlene Markard

Owner, Markard Music, an early childhood music education studio

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If you liked this post, you may like my blog post, An Overview of the Top Ten Benefits of Early Childhood Music Education.

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