03/26/2012 01:45 pm ET Updated May 26, 2012

Parents As Researchers: Musical Lessons From Our Children

How important is music in the life of your child? Just listen, and they'll tell you.

As you walk together in the park, your preschooler provides her own musical accompaniment, spontaneously singing a simple repeated melody with punctuated rhythms, with lyrics drawn from something she's heard in her immediate environment: "Hurry now let's go, go, go! Hurry now let's go, go, go!" Once you arrive at the playground, she eagerly goes to the swing set, and changes her tune, something to match the long gliding motion, her voice an extension of her body, carried through the air by the impetus of your push: "weeeeeooooweee!" In the background you can hear a group of children playing and a familiar sound rings out "Naa-na-na-naa-naa." A quick glance reveals a game of chase guided by this taunting call, which everyone seems to know and understand, no matter what their background.

Music is important to children because it is a way they come to make sense of the world. In the examples above, they match sound to action, layering a vocal pattern to their walking, swinging, or communicating. Research done in the 1940s by a preschool teacher and a composer documented the songs that children made throughout the day. They found differences between the songs children sang when alone and when playing with others. The first tended to be rather free, with little rhythmic organization or repeated pitch patterns, and the words were often reflective. Singing initiated by children in a group tended to be very rhythmic and repetitive. Consider the differences between these two episodes, recorded as part of an ongoing study we are doing of music making in public spaces:

The boy sang, lying on the balcony and watching the beautiful landscape of Taipei Botanical Garden. He seemed so relaxed. I guess the beautiful scenery made him sing. He was not singing a [learned] song, but he was singing his own music. The music was so soft. Then, his mother told them to watch the lotus pool and he stopped to watch for several seconds, and then he continued singing... for about five minutes. I expected his sister to sing... but she didn't sing with him. Five minutes later, their mother announced it was time to leave.

There is one family that comes in [to the bakery] each Sunday made up of the two grandparents, the children's parents, and two sisters, one who is approximately 2 or 3 years of age and the other is about 5- or 6-years-old. This particular day, they were running back and forth, first the older girl, followed by her sister... it became a follow the leader type of game as the older sister changed what she was doing each time. She skipped, hopped, tiptoed, and bounced back and forth and the younger sister would imitate each movement. The older girl would sing phrases or chant, things such as "do this... follow me... I'm the leader... hop, hop, hop!" Her voice would go up and down and the younger sister would imitate the contour of her older sister's voice.

When the phrase "children's art" is used, there is a general understanding that what is meant is art made by children. However, when we say "children's music" we generally think of music written FOR children. Children make their own music, and they do for reasons that meet developmental needs for expression, belonging, comfort, and complexity -- they sing to know. I urge you to listen to your children, and, when you hear them "musicking," stop and ask yourself, "How is singing serving my child? Suppress the urge to interrupt or to treat the music making as a performance. Instead, think beyond the word "cute" and look more deeply to see the experience through your child's eyes -- what is this teaching him? And ultimately, it is what he is teaching you?