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Last week was March Break. I got on the bus to go to work and sat behind an adorable little boy and his mother. I watched them enviously as they talked about what they were going to do that day, wishing I, too, could be spending the day with my little one. Then the little boy began to sing, “Baby, baby, baby, oh!”

I was shocked that he knew that song because he couldn’t have been more than 3 years old. I remember thinking (and tweeting), “Whatever happened to ‘Twinkle, twinkle’ or ‘Row, row, row your boat’?”

Before you skin me alive for insulting the great Justin Bieber, hear me out. I don’t think that Justin Bieber is a bad musician or that his music is bad (at least not very bad). I’m not a fan of his, but I can respect that he’s a self-taught musician who sings well. I do think, however, that his music is not the best music out there and that it’s not appropriate for a 3 or 4 year old. He wasn’t really aiming for that demographic, anyway.

What do you mean by “best music”?

Yes, I do think there’s good and bad music. Yes, I agree that it is a matter of taste… but only to a certain degree. Let’s look at some facts:

  • “It is during the childhood stage of neural development that we see the corpus callosum complete its development and allows both hemispheres of the brain to respond to an event simultaneously. Since studies of musicians have found their corpus collasum is thickened and more fully developed, the idea that the music enlarges existing neural pathways is reinforced.” Campbell, Don. The Mozart Effect. New York: Avon. 1997. Source: cmfinc.org
  • Music helps you think by activating and synchronizing neural firing patterns that orchestrate and connect multiple brain sites. The neural synchrony ensembles increase both the brain’s efficiency and effectiveness. (Burton, Horowitz, & Abeles, 1999, p. 2) Source: cmfinc.org
  • A follow up to the first Mozart study confirms that listening to Mozart improves spatial reasoning, and that this effect can increase with repeated testing over days. However, the effect may not occur when music lacks sufficient complexity. (Frances Rauscher, Gordon Shaw and Katherine Ky, Neuroscience Letters, Vol. 185, p. 44-47) Emphasis is my own. Source: musiceducationmadness.com

I know I’m being selective with citing research on music. But let’s face it; this is a blog not a scientific journal.

The point I want to focus on is that music affects the way the brain makes neural connections and in order to do that the music must contain sufficient complexity. When we talk about music complexity, we’re talking about harmony, contrapuntal density, and a level of “difficulty” that only a trained musician can achieve. The genres of music that usually fall under this category are classical (instrumental, opera, choral, song cycles, art songs, etc.), jazz, well-developed folk/rock.

Some people may not even include folk/rock, but it’s hard for me not to because there are some amazing musicians out there who are creating brilliant music. But that’s a whole other blog article!

It requires wisdom to understand wisdom; the music is nothing if the audience is deaf.
Walter J. Lippmann, American essayist and editor

Are you suggesting my child only listen to classical music?

The simple answer to that question is NO. My daughter doesn’t listen to only classical music. She has a playlist that consists of classical, jazz, folk/rock, and world music (which I think is a horrible term but it’s recognizable so I’ll use it for the time being). Why? Because variety is the spice of life and because I believe her horizons should be open to everything.

However, I choose the best of the best for her. What she fondly calls “piano music,” is actually Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Her “violin music,” is a collection of Mozart piano concertos. She loves “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and we were fortunate enough to find a Ladysmith Black Mambazo version which incorporates story telling as well as singing. It’s so, so beautiful. She listens to Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Joni Mitchell, Feist, Eva Cassidy, Jamie Lidell, Adele, Elizabeth Mitchell (amazing children’s music and folk singer) and music from Africa and the Middle East. There is a lot of singing and dancing at our house and it’s making us a better family for it.

The Argument for Appropriateness

I hope you’ve gathered by now that I’m not only arguing for age or developmental appropriateness of the music children listen to, but also for its quality, complexity and overall beauty. Next time you play music for your child, listen carefully and judge if it’s worthy of your child’s precious ears.

I’m afraid to ask because I know I might get bombarded. Your thoughts?

A treat for you:

Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”

Elizabeth Mitchell’s “Who’s my pretty baby?”

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