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How to raise a musical kid

Here’s how music can help with learning, relationships and more.
Close up of father teaching daughter to play piano at home
Music is a kind of play, the root of all learning. It's a great way to get kids to learn anything! The Good Brigade / Getty Images stock

After I gave birth to the kind of baby we might call “spirited,” I quickly understood why there are so many lullabies.

Our baby cried when we changed his diaper. Cried in the bath. Cried if I put him down for a moment to, say, shower. But if I sang to him, he’d go quiet and gaze at me. Becoming a parent turned me into a regular one-woman show. I found myself making up songs to get him to eat or tolerate everyday activities. (“Dry-Dry-Dry Dry Off the Baby” was a real banger.)

It was clear that my child responded powerfully to music. Soon, he was making his own songs, and the years that followed were filled with singalongs, dance parties, family band and songwriting classes — a musical life that inspired my new picture book for kids, “How to Be a Rock Star.”

The author's children's book, "How to Be a Rock Star," celebrates musical kids.
The author's children's book, "How to Be a Rock Star," celebrates musical kids.Courtesy Lisa Tolin

Related: Are babies born to dance?

Turns out, there are good reasons to encourage kids to love music — although making them smarter isn’t one of them. Contrary to years of parenting advice, listening to classical music won’t raise kids’ IQ, said Joan Koenig, the founder of L’Ecole Koenig Preschool & Music School in Paris and author of “The Musical Child.” But she said what music does is profound — and helps kids develop skills that matter more than IQ.

“We now know that children prefer music to a spoken voice. They will stay concentrated longer and they engage,” she told TODAY Parents. Music is a tool for learning, developing creativity and emotional regulation, in addition to being a simple pleasure.

Here are seven easy ways to incorporate music into your child’s life:

1. Start early

Koenig called music with a caregiver “the first duet,” a preverbal form of communication that allows children to synchronize by, say, clapping to a beat. Rhythm, melody and repetition help children recognize patterns, which helps them figure out what you’re saying.

Simply tapping wooden spoons on a pan in a question and response rhythm sets up a child to synchronize, to observe, to predict what happens next, to listen and wait their turn, Koenig said. That’s a lot to learn from a makeshift drum kit. Bonus: It’s fun.

2. Add music to routines

The types of songs I sang in sheer panic are actually a great way to add music to a child’s life, said Rachel Lipson, founder and CEO of Blue Balloon Songwriting School.

Songs can help establish routines for young children while making music an integral part of their lives, Lipson said. Try making up a rhyme to a song they already know, and ask them to make up lines. She suggests making your phone number into a song so they always remember it.

“Using music as a tool for kids to explore and experience the world around them in a playful, fun way instills both a sense of connection with you and a joyful love of music,” Lipson said.

3. Make it playful

Brian Harris, a music psychotherapist and faculty member at New York University, calls music a “powerful tool for play and expression.” That’s true for adults, too, but especially important for kids, who learn through play.

“Play is the root of learning for kids. When they enter into the music space, they enter into the play space and there’s a whole world of possibility there.”

4. Share the experience

Young kids want music to be active — they love to dance, pound, clap and sing. Even if you don’t have any musical training, you can sing and dance with them.

Koenig encourages parents to make up a song for your child — take any melody and change the words to include your child’s name. They’ll love hearing something about themselves, and get the message that they can create music, as well.

5. Give life a soundtrack

The best way to get kids to love music may be to surround them with it. Play music around the house and in the car and attend singalongs or concerts when you can.

“Make a playlist for dinner time, sings songs at bedtime, put music on at breakfast, bring them along to a park concert (or for older kids, snag them an extra ticket to your favorite band’s show when they’re in town!),” Lipson said. “Being around music is like learning another language — and one of the best ways to learn is to be immersed in it.”

6. Get creative

Lipson’s music school focuses on a creative approach — making up songs instead of memorizing them. She suggests using that same creative thinking with apps that let kids make their own music, or trying a karaoke night and switching some lyrics around. You can write lyrics on a walk and have them spontaneously freestyle on what they see.

“When children have experiences around music that spark creativity and joy, the innate love of music most kids are born with will stick around for a lifetime,” Lipson said. 

7. Find the right kind of lessons

Koenig suggests lessons that focus on creativity and allow kids to be social with peers. She dislikes the kind of music lessons many parents had — sitting at a piano alone, memorizing classical music.

“There’s too much content learning, memorization that’s asked of children in school, and they lose track of the idea that the real the real hot stuff right now is going to be creativity,” she said. “Being able to create a new idea is going to be capital for, you know, maybe saving the planet.”