Music holds a unique place in the human brain. Howard Gardner, the psychologist who created the Theory of Multiple Intelligences, named music as one of eight distinct kinds of intelligence. But far from being confined to just one region of the brain, music appears to have a special way of putting the brain in high gear across multiple regions. Brain scans on people who are performing music show an amazing amount of activity and cooperation across many neural centers responsible for motor control, language, timing, memory, and emotion. This is part of what makes music so enjoyable and so beneficial for human development.
But just because you are playing a song on the piano, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re engaging the music center of your brain. It is possible, and I’ve seen it far too often, that kids will use the sequential memorization part of their brain to play the piano. Like following a sequence of instructions, for example put on socks, put on shoes, tie laces, which can be done without much thinking, you can also plunk notes on keyboard without thinking. Kids sometimes play music that way, one note after another, in a plodding routine. You may be playing the correct notes, but it doesn’t sound like music because it has no flow and no rhythm. It doesn’t “sing.”
Engaging the Music Center of the Brain
We want to make sure that when kids are practicing music, they are actually using the music center of the brain. How do we do this? Let me introduce an important concept in music called audiation. To audiate is to hear music mentally, without the ears actually detecting a sound. When trained musicians play their instruments, they are always audiating while they play. It’s like an artist who can mentally picture the image they are trying to create before they paint it. The famous Bach interpreter Glen Gould was famous for being so focused on hearing the music in his head as he performed that in some recordings you can actually hear him humming and singing along. Although I don’t generally recommend humming while you perform, you can think of audiation as silent humming. You are hearing the music so clearly in your mind that it guides your performance.
Another advantage is that when you audiate you will instantly hear and recognize your own mistakes. When you play, and the note you hear doesn’t match the note in your head, this creates a feedback loop that allows you to quickly and easily correct yourself. Piano students who are not audiating will not as easily catch their own mistakes, but will instead have to rely on a parent or teacher to fix their playing. We would like students to be independent and able to hear, identify, and correct their own mistakes.
Turning on Audiation
What’s the best way to help a child learn to audiate? The answer is singing.
Singing doesn’t rely on any outward physical motion like pressing a piano key. It all happens inside the body. This means that, more than for any other instrument, keeping the voice on pitch requires you to audiate. This is why I always ask my beginner students to sing the song they are learning before they ever try playing it on the piano.
Imagine a beginning piano student who is introduced to a new song at piano lessons, one that they have never heard before. The teacher helps the student get started with the song, maybe playing through it together once or twice. Once at home, the student opens their music again, and can’t remember the way the song sounds at all. So they start picking their way through, with shaky rhythms and missed notes, and no other way to learn what the song is actually supposed to sound like. When they show up for the lesson next week, they still don’t have a solid sense of the song in their head, or worst of all, they have their mistakes memorized. Those mistakes now sound correct to them, and it will be very difficult to unlearn them.
To avoid all of these problems, the first step is always to let the student hear the song, many, many times if possible. Using the Listening Album is a great way to do this. Piano students should get familiar with all the songs they will be learning in a piano unit. They can enjoy singing along, dancing, or drumming–any way to engage their music center. Think of it as musical immersion. Let your child soak in these songs. We want them to know these songs so well that even when the songs aren’t playing they can play a recording of the song in their head. This is what audiation is all about.
It is true that we want children to learn to sight read, but the fact is, beginning piano students are often able to learn to play songs that are much more advanced and interesting than songs they are able to sight read fluently. Why make them wait? Do you make a baby wait to say the word “Mama” until it can read the word “Mama?” No, speaking comes first, and then reading is learned later as a separate skill using simpler words than the child is currently capable of speaking. Learning music can naturally proceed in the same way.
Using Audiation to Learn Music
When I am ready to teach a child a song on the piano, I want them to already be familiar with the song from listening to the album. I start the lesson by singing and playing the song for them to get their active memory fired up. Next I like to sing the song in solfège, using hand signs, so they can see how the notes move up and down. A child singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” may sing the right notes, but might not notice that the first two are low, and the next two are high. The power of solfège is that it gives a name and label to each pitch so that kids can recognize those relationships. When we sing DO, DO, SO, SO, for “Twinkle Twinkle,” or MI, RE, DO for “Hot Cross Buns,” that draws the child’s consciousness to where the notes step, skip, repeat, and go up and down. Solfège makes those patterns much more conscious and obvious. Using hand signs helps the child also visualize how those pitches are moving up and down by putting them in physical, vertical space. Using hand signs also engages the kinesthetic sense and helps put the notes and their relationships in long-term memory.
After singing with lyrics and singing with solfège, then a child is finally ready to start learning those musical patterns on the piano. As they learn each pattern, I like to break it into little groups, a few notes at a time. I may sing to them and then have them play and sing so they connect the familiar sound pattern in their mind with creating that sound pattern on the piano. What we want to have happen is for them to hear that the playing is matching the singing. If they play a wrong note that is fine, because the playing will not match the singing, and then they can hear that and self-correct. It is very important to learn to self-correct. If they’re not familiar with the song before they try and play it, they have no way to self-correct a mistake, and they may learn a song incorrectly. Once that happens, it becomes very difficult to go back and re-learn the song correctly.
When all the patterns are learned, then it is time to try singing the whole song with lyrics while playing. I’ve seen so many students try to play a song without singing and really struggle with it, even if they’re familiar with the song. This is because the child is not yet audiating automatically when playing. The fastest way I’ve found to help a child struggling with a new song is to ask them to sing while they play. Most of the time this will solve any problems because singing instantly turns on audiation in the brain.
What if My Child Can’t Sing in Tune?
If you know your child doesn’t sing in tune, what should you do? As a parent of two boys, and coming from a strong musical background, I was dismayed and even a touch horrified to find that my boys often sang very much out of tune at four and five years old. Sometimes they would sound so bad you might have thought they were tone deaf. My experience over the years has taught me that this is far more common than I realized. Most kids aren’t born singing in tune. It is not some gift you either have or don’t have. Almost everyone we would call “tone deaf” is simply someone who hasn’t been trained to coordinate the voice with the ear and the music part of the brain. It is a training issue, not a matter of an actual impairment. It just takes patience and practice. If your child is singing out of tune, don’t make a big deal about it. Certainly don’t call them tone deaf, whatever you do! Just keep singing with them. Most of the time it is simply a matter of familiarity. If you sing enough times with them that they really know the song, they will be able to sing in tune.
In our culture sometimes we have the unfortunate idea that you shouldn’t sing in public unless you’re really good at it. Young children haven’t learned to be ashamed of singing, so nurture a healthy mindset. Most parents know not to criticize their children singing, but will criticize their own singing. If you are too critical of your own voice you are teaching children to be ashamed of bad singing. Get over the idea that there is good singing and bad singing. Singing should feel as natural as speaking. In some cultures, people at work out in the fields or quarries would sing all day. That was their culture. It didn’t matter if you had a “beautiful” voice or not, it was natural as talking.
Sometimes children struggle to sing in tune because they do not have experience accessing the full range of notes their voice is capable of. This is partly because most speaking is done in the lower third of the vocal range. Children who don’t do a lot of singing never exercise the upper range and have less coordination there. Here are some fun exercises you can do to help your child find and develop the high part of the voice.
- Make a siren noise, going from low to high and then back to low again. See how high your siren can go.
- Hoot like an owl.
- Make a spooky ghost sound.
- Start out making the lowest sound possible, then slide up gradually to the highest sound your voice can make.
When doing these exercises be careful not to push or strain your voice. Remember, singing should feel as natural as talking.
Enjoy Singing Together
Without any judgement, just enjoy singing with your child. Besides singing songs together, you can have singing conversations. Ask them how school was, but sing it. Improvise notes and don’t worry if it was good or not. You can also grab a pretend microphone, like a spoon or a roll of paper. Sing part of a song, hand the pretend microphone to your child, and give them a chance to sing solo.
And during piano practice, encourage your child to sing along as they play to keep their brain 100% engaged in making music.
For more ideas to get kids singing, read this.