It is a well known fact that music is important to young children! It teaches them the alphabet, reminds them to clean up their toys, and helps develop language by singing along with their favorite songs.
It is also well known that music is good for your brain! Listening to music and playing an instrument is an emotional and complex process. Beyond being a cognitive benefit, new research from the University of Queensland, Australia reveals that even ‘informal music making at home’ can improve social development and overall happiness later on in childhood.
What we know…
- Music helps children with communication, routines, and gross motor exploration
- Listening to music is a rather complex cognitive process that can elicit powerful emotions
- Playing an instrument creates brain activity unlike any other activity out there
- Informal music making in childhood can lead to a happier child
While the benefits of music are understood on a wide scale, there is still a large part of the music education puzzle that most of the English speaking world is missing out on.
While most of us can easily identify and name different colors, naming different musical pitches in the same way is almost laughably impossible.
Try it for yourself with the sample below…. do you know what note that is?
Maybe you’re the 1 in 10,000 who seem to be able to do this naturally… or maybe you’re a trained musician with decades of practice…
Assuming you’re neither of those people, we can only assume you didn’t identify the above sound as a C above middle C.
Even most musicians with years of training can’t do it.
Some of those musicians who can name the pitch (like me) , can only do so because we intensely memorized reference pitches from favorite songs or instruments we play everyday. This kind of intense memorizing and inner-referencing doesn’t exactly make the note names leap out at us. At least in my experiences, it feels like second nature half of the time and a game of comparing the note in question to a memorized pitched the other half of the time.
Your ability to identify a musical tone without a reference is what we call absolute pitch.
Absolute pitch (AP), perfect pitch or even memorized pitch is a VERY rare ability in the Americas and in Europe (1 in 10,000 seem to be born with it).
Though it’s often talked about as an absolute (you have it or you don’t), there are actually degrees of absolute pitch.
Just in case you’re wondering, “who cares about having perfect pitch?”
or if you’re a musician saying “I don’t want perfect pitch because I heard from so and so that it’s annoying“…then it’s worth remembering that many of the worlds greatest composers (Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn) shared this ability.
This isn’t to say that AP (absolute pitch) is a prerequisite of being a successful composer, but it does seem to be standard amongst the greats.
This begs another question… how did these extraordinary individuals develop this amazing ability?
Was it really just a random gift of nature, or was there a certain type of nurturing that took place to produce this amazing ability?
What The Odyssey Shows Us About Human Perception
When you look at a picture of the Earth, or at this lovely picture of the sky, some part of your brain shouting,
Today, we know that the world is round and that the sky is blue.
But just like the old belief that the world was flat, most societies only accepted blue as part of everyday life in the modern (ie not ancient) world.
If you look closely at literature from ancient periods, say The Odyssey, you’ll see that Homer wrote a lot about black and white, sometimes about red and green, and that he never once mentions the color blue. The sky is often described as gray and the sea is famously described as “wine-dark,” but for Homer, and most of the people of his time, blue simply didn’t exist.
Similar analysis of ancient texts shows us that, except for the Egyptians who had invented blue dye, blue is entirely a phenomena of the modern world.
The reason I bring this up (for the sake of music education), is that our perception of color is nurtured by the society around us.
Or said differently, perception is subject to slow but societal-influenced shifts.
Indeed perception, by it’s very definition, isn’t absolute.
The fact that we consider blue to be one of three “primary colors,” is pretty amazing when you think that it didn’t even exist until the modern world. It also begs the question, what other advances in perception have we yet to unlock?
So Maybe English Isn’t the Most Musical of Languages…
Though people have speculated on the origins of AP for centuries. New research published by Diana Deutsch’s on the nature of absolute pitch sheds new light on an old myth. Deutsch’s research compared two groups of music-conservatory students. One group spoke English and the other Mandarin Chinese.
Deutsch gave each of the groups a simple AP test and compared the results. Unfortunately for us who speak English, the Mandarin students outperformed the English speaking students by a huge margin.
While the rate of AP for the English speaking children hovered around 15%, the rate for the Mandarin children was close to 75%.
After dismissing a few other potential causes (training, brain make-up, etc), Deutsch concludes that the cause to the AP gap is the differences in Mandarin and English as languages.
And if you know anything about Mandarin Chinese, you probably know where this is going…
Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, which means it relies heavily on the use of pitch. Indeed, it is often described as sing-song.
Most of the meanings in Mandarin come from the contour of the words spoken (rising, falling, etc). This is at least a little relatable to English in that, we as English speakers, are used to using pitch to create inflections, which have some inherent meaning.
In this kind of tone based language, the same word can take on a different meaning depending on how you pitch your voice. For instance, the two letter word ‘ma’ can mean both mother or horse, depending on how high or low you pitch the word. As you can imagine, this leads to a lot of novice-speaker humor (like calling your host mom a horse).
Looking back at the pitched nature of Mandarin however, there are some words that are spoken with the same pitch consistently across the language.
You can compare several different native Mandarins on several different days and find words spoken almost in the exact pitch each time. This isn’t because they’re all carrying around a pitch pipe and checking themselves every morning – it’s just second nature.
This means that a native speaker of Mandarin is almost guaranteed to an above average understanding of pitch. After all, their brain has been both consciously and unconsciously dealing with pitch in everyday conversation. That’s a lot of practice!
The Critical Period for Auditory Development
Years ago, I went looking for kid friendly absolute pitch methods.
First stop, the Taneda method.
Their method has been used to teach hundreds of children perfect pitch since the 80’s. The key to Taneda’s method was giving children “consistent and meaningful exposure to pitch.” Through a series of ball games and piano drills, children develop absolute pitch between the ages of 3 and 5.
Taneda’s research showed that this is when children could most easily develop a sense of pitch. They were old enough to engage is guided play, and young enough that the Critical Period for Auditory Development wasn’t closed yet.
Deutsch research points to a similar window between ages 3-5, but she also expressly mentions the distinct development that happens between 6 months and 1 year of age.
It’s during this even earlier time window that children absorb the basic elements of their language (consonants, inflections, vowels, etc). If pitch is a part of their native language, and therefore part of what they hear spoken all around them, then it goes to reason that they are really starting their meaningful exposure to pitch as early day 1.
Comparing Taneda and Deutsch, it’s hard to say exactly where this critical window for auditory begins and ends, or even if it’s several small windows in a row, each with slightly different characteristics.
Whether it’s one long window or several short ones, both Taneda and Deutsch agree that the critical window for auditory development closes rapidly around age 5.
While you can find all of the data and conclusions of Deutsch’s findings, the key point here is this:There is a critical period for auditory development (that lasts roughly until age 5 and tapers off rapidly during ages 6-8). During this time, we can give children a stronger sense of pitch through consistent and meaningful exposure to pitch. It’s important to note that a true sense of absolute pitch comes from well paced and error free learning, not from any old exposure to pitch or even musical free play. It’s definitely a skill that needs to be honed, and it would appear that is has to be honed early.
Preschool Music: The Present
When I first discovered this, my whole view of teaching preschool music shifted.
I quickly moved away from the tradition of music and movement songs we all love and hate (The Wheels on the Bus, Happy and You Know It, Hokey Pokey etc) to focus my music classes on giving kids this kind of exposure to pitch!
I bought Boomwhackers, color coded stickers for my piano, and eventually discovered the deskbells in all of their early-childhood music glory!
We started singing about Solfege, the colors of the Boomwhackers (Chromanotes), the scale degrees, and the chords we were listening to. I modified a lot of Taneda’s methods and games to suit the instruments, energy levels, and size of my classes.
Now, very few of those activities would seem revolutionary to an elementary school music teacher, but the problem is that by elementary school, the window for developing a true sense of AP is closed (or at least closing very fast)!
Not to mention, most preschools and daycares don’t have a music teacher; they simply can’t afford one.
Those that do, usually rotate the teacher from class to class for 30 minutes, maybe once, twice, or at best three times a week.
And unfortunately, most of the preschool music curriculum out there for music teachers and classroom teachers alike, HAS ALMOST NOTHING TO DO WITH GIVING KIDS EXPOSURE TO PITCH.
Most preschool music curriculum is summed up with two words: music and movement, and most of the big name curriculum providers only offer these kinds of programs.
The benefits of music and movement are many. It’s fun, it teaches kids how to control their bodies, it provides teachers with a constructive way to channel high energy classes, and it exposes kids to music (at some basic level).
I used to teach a music and movement program called Spark, and so I know just how fun and how rewarding those programs can be.
The problem here is that the music portion of the teaching is pretty secondary, and way too many centers believe that a music and movement program is the same as a music program.
Preschool Music: The Future
If we want to raise children who are musically literate, who have a strong sense of pitch and who can compete with musicians who natively speak tonal languages, then there needs to be a massive shift in the preschool music space.
Even now, the programs that specifically teach music over music-and-movement fail to focus on pitch as a key component. They equip classrooms with shakers, sleigh bells, rhythm sticks and drums, none of which are pitched instruments. They offer books about animal sounds and at best, they get into the different timbre of different instruments, but they don’t get in Solfege, musical notes or pitch until the K-1 level. At that point, that critical period for auditory development is closing and it’s too late to equip that child with an innate sense for pitch.
So I make this plea to preschool directors, teachers, parents and music teachers everywhere…
We need to shift the focus of preschool music!
We need Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-do to be taught right along side the ABCs!
We need more play (both free and guided) with pitched instruments (like bells and boomwhackers) and less emphasis on playing with shakers, sleigh bells, and maracas!
And for any preschool teacher not familiar with the nuances of teaching pitch, need an easy way to properly implement some pitch-focused curriculum!
You can get started giving your kids meaningful exposure to pitch today with a few simple tips:
1) Invest in a colorful, durable and child friendly instrument that makes identifying and playing with pitch easy and fun!
2) Color code your piano with some stickers!
3) Teach your kids Mandarin Chinese! Granted, unless you know the language well so that it’s spoke regularly and correctly at home, this might be a big pill to swallow. Then again, anything is possible and more power to you if you go this route!
4) Check out the Taneda method at www.WeHearandPlay.com. It’s super time intensive and VERY specific on how you implement it, but it is certainly effective!
5) Subscribe to our app in iTunes or download our app at https://legacy.prodigies.com/app/ to stay up to date with the monthly releases!
6) Try out Prodigies Music Lessons! We have over 500 Videos for Kids Ages 2-12 to teach children exposure to pitch.
Other Apps for further learning:
Making meaningful exposure to pitch accessible to students and teachers is why I built Prodigies Music Lessons. If you’re a small music center without a music teacher, a teacher looking for a kick-butt music center, or a homeschool mom looking for curriculum, Prodigies offers an affordable music program that’s all about giving kids meaningful play with pitch and rhythm!
Free Starter Program
Curious about using Prodigies with your students? Take advantage of our FREE 30 Day Trial Here!
This will give you access to over 500 music lessons, as well as our eBook “Raising a Young Musician” that gives you plenty of free and actionable ways to give your child exposure to pitch right away
On a personal level, I hope that development and implementation of Prodigies will help shed further light on the nature of perfect pitch and ideally turn it into a fun and easily learned skill for children all across the world.
That said, I know that the baby-genius market is not only super-saturated, but that it’s often scrutinized for being false, for taking advantage of a parent’s FOMO, and for promoting proprietary ‘this will definitely work for you’ methods.
But for every zealous super-mom baby-genius duo out there, there are an equal number of Piaget enthusiasts who preach free play to the extent that even half-day programs are being limited to only 90 minutes of instruction everyday.
As with most things, there are valid points to both sides that I think any parent or educator can see. Free play is essential, but instruction and guided learning is equally as valuable. In most cases, you have to balance these two sides on a per child basis.
Keeping both perspectives in mind, I developed Prodigies so that you can use the concepts and instruments in a free-play kind of way, or you can purchase the course and cross every t and dot every i of the curriculum.
I hope that parents and educators everywhere will find a way to make use of the video lessons we’ve developed and the collection of instruments we recommend for making this kind of musical learning fun and easy!
What Our 6000+ Members Are Saying…
This is the greatest resource I have found in my 28 years as a music educator! The K-3rd graders love everything about “Mr. Rob videos!” I also use it at home with my teenage daughter with special needs and my two young grandsons (5 & 6 years old)!
Mike GreenMusic Teacher
We stumbled across this program on Facebook after I had become frustrated at the lack of music education in our area — we don’t even have any children’s choirs!
I knew I wanted to get a lifetime membership after just a few videos. The way this is set up is simply brilliant! My children picked up on it very quickly and are now leaps and bounds ahead of where I was at their age (and I actually grew up in the house of two music people!) They know the solfege and the notes well. The videos are delightful and effective. The workbooks are fun and help reinforce everything. We haven’t even gotten that far into the program. I am so excited about doing recorder, ukulele, and more!
Emily Jane CargileMom
My oldest (almost 5) LOVES this program. He asks to watch it constantly, and he’s learned a ton in just over 2 months. My youngest (18 mos) also absolutely loves playing with bells, tapping along to sweet beats, and laughs every time he sees the baby. THANK YOU! I’m very excited to get the kids interested in music so early in life.
Kelly Knight ChurbuckMom
I love the passion that Mr. Rob has in every lesson. I feel this is one of the best ways to teach young children the wonderful language of music.
Madyson RichardsonHomeschool Teacher
I just wanted to say thank you so much for making this course!! My son is 3.5 and mostly non-verbal, was completely about 6 months ago but he’s been in speech therapy for 1.5 years now. I have sang to him and used music since he was an infant and he’s responded really well so when I seen this course I was super excited to check it out. We watched some of the videos on your youtube channel to check out what the course was like and my son was hooked from the very beginning!
We watched through one of the hour long videos and he fell in love with the rain and chord cloud video. We didn’t understand for the longest time what he kept saying after till he was looking at the rain clouds last night and said “oh no, rain cloud… try again… chord cloud!” we realized he has been saying C-Chord almost constantly since we watched the videos.
I registered last night for the program and he heard the song at the end of the welcome video and came running over to me and said “C-Chord!? Thank you mom!!!” and got so excited. We watched the first Sweet Beets video and he actually brought me to tears. When we watched the videos before I just sang and signed and he watched. He stopped me last night and sat there trying to sing the words to the song and was actually singing beet and cherry in rhythm. That was such an incredible deal for him, because even though he was struggling with saying the words he was still singing it. He’s never responded verbally to anything like he has with your course! He woke up this morning and immediately came and asked for C-Chord, and has been dancing and singing to the videos all day!
Sorry for the incredibly long post but I was waiting to be able to come on here and thank you. I can’t even express how happy I am that you created this course and how happy I am that I found it! Thank you!!
Prodigies is wonderful and high quality! I’ve been teaching music for 14 years, and it’s one of the best resources I’ve seen. I love the curriculum and my students and own children can’t get enough of PsP!
Rebekkah SmithMusic Teacher
Absolutely love this program!
I found Mr Rob on YouTube when I was looking for ideas for my ESE music class. I am teaching it for the first time. It turns out they LOVE it and so do my other classes when I show it. I teach Middle School Orchestra 6-8 and have incorporated lessons where needed to reinforce concepts. It makes learning music theory and singing so much fun!
Karen DillardMusic Teacher
I could go on for days about how wonderful PsP is! I use it to teach music in a special needs class setting, with my own young kids, and in one on one music lessons. It works for everybody! It is easy to facilitate and is excellent quality. It is fun and entertaining, but it truly teaches young kids how to make and appreciate music! It has also given me as a new music teacher confidence and guidelines to teach skills that build on each other and make sense.
Stephanie PowellAdaptive Music Teacher
This program has revitalized my 30 year teaching career! Bravo! My students are engaged and learning at a rapid rate. I use this program with my existing xylophone fleet and Boom Whackers with much success! Video lessons allow me to float around the room and correct students hand position and provide one on one instruction where needed. Older students also love the Recorder program. I am able to provide better feed back & it is saving my voice. ❤️this program!
Donna TugbyMusic Teacher
This has been so great for my kids, ages 23 mos to 6 yrs. My youngest can always recognize “do” just by hearing the note and even sings “do re mi do” over and over to himself all day. It’s super cute. My kids love this. We do it daily after breakfast.
Tia Redford PrattMom
Prodigies Music Lessons is the BEST program I have used with my elementary music students. I HIGHLY recommend it to any elementary music teacher.
Dan KinsmanMusic Teacher
The PS-4th curriculum we use was formerly branded as “Preschool Prodigies.” It has since expanded greatly. The new name is now PsP, and provides curriculum for toddlers through elementary school! PsP recently presented at the Texas Music Teacher’s Conference and has grown substantially. If you see “Preschool Prodigies” at the beginnings of videos, please don’t worry. They have done an amazing job of increasing their scope an sequence to meet the needs of elementary learners. OLL is fortunate to have access to the wealth of knowledge available at PsP.
More on that topic-
If you’re willing to listen to my ramblings- keep reading.
I truly believe the PsP approach is fundamental and genuine. They care about the things that I care about- increasing pitch recognition, building chord memorization, and reinforcing rhythmic fluency. These are the building blocks that give musicians the innate skills to understand music performance and composition. The approach values pitch and rhythm at a higher cognitive level than any curriculum I’ve ever worked with.
I’ve been amazed with the growth students have shown in class. For example, if I give students a set of notes, (C, D, and E) then play a simple pattern on the piano, I’m shocked at how many students are able to play the pattern back to me on their instruments. As we continue these kinds of studies, the students musical “ears” have become more refined. It’s so exciting to watch their eyes light up.
Again, pleased don’t be turned off by the “Preschool Prodigies” moniker at the beginning of some of the videos. PsP is a small company that is only just receiving national recognition. PsP is going to be super helpful in this new adventure of distance learning.
2 thoughts on “Redefining Preschool Music Curriculum: The Benefits of Meaningful Exposure To Pitch”
Awesome article, Rob. I love the part on the story behind BLUE.
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