Parlez-vous music?

Here’s why your child should learn to read the most universal language of all.

I love hearing my neighbours piling into the wagon; with a Kiwi dad and French mum, as orders and instructions are rapidly layered in a mix of two languages that sounds manic but works perfectly. The children are oblivious to this family quirk as they’ve been methodically brought up bilingual, so eventually their world of opportunities is going to double. What does this have to do with music I hear you ask? Let’s pick it up after the obligatory joke: how do you shut a guitarist up? Put music in front of them. That’s funny and sad at the same time, but it’s pretty much true!

Why reading music is important

Few would disagree that playing an instrument is highly beneficial to growing brains, but far too many kids learn without being able to read music – and not only guitarists. Learning to read music is like turbo-charging for the growing mind. It’s an elite course of mental gymnastics and, what’s more, it enables every single future musical opportunity to be considered – more on that later.

Don't believe it?

According to a 2003 study by Harvard neurologist, Gottfried Schlaug, there was more grey matter in the brains of adult professional musicians than in non-musicians. In young children, he found that after 15 months of music education, structural brain changes relating to motor and auditory improvements were beginning to appear.

Beginner's steps

When students of mine read and play their first simple melody, I tell them they’re miracle workers: they’re turning ink into feelings and we discuss this great series of new mental and physical connections they’ve just made. Their eyes have read the music, their hands and fingers played it, their ears told them whether it was good or bad, their brain coordinated all of the above and, as a result, their heart felt good because of the sense of achievement. Soon afterwards they’ll hopefully be learning to play with emotion and even understanding a little Italian, the lingua franca of written music. This is their entrée into a world of future employment, where skilled musicians are in demand globally for jobs as diverse as touring with Cirque Du Soleil, accompanying classic-film scores in a symphony orchestra or creating soundtracks for video games.

Different instruments with different techniques

Ideally, pianists will learn to play different things with each hand, but not every instrument requires this trick. For example, woodwind and brass instruments (clarinet, saxophone, cornet, trumpet) are monophonic so only play one note at a time. That’s a whole lot simpler straight away. Violin and other string players might be expected to play two notes at once, and classical guitarists could learn to read and play the tune, accompaniment and bass line. Maybe even sing, too. Other instruments, like the organ and drums, need both feet and hands, while reading a score. How far a musician takes this is up to them, there’s no limit to the amount of information a young mind can absorb – and once they’ve YouTubed footage of Davey Payne playing two saxes at once, the gauntlet is well and truly down.

Written music is logical

I am often saddened when parents of pupils tell me they used to read music, sometimes up to a high standard, but now think it’s too hard. Written music is logical and rigid in the extreme, which is interesting considering the world of music contains such infinite possibilities.

How can you test if your child is ready to read music?

So just in case you think your child won’t grasp it or you need a refresher yourself, here’s a free toolkit for reading music: you’ll need the first seven letters of the alphabet and be able to count. Up to four is a good starting point. You’ll also need to know which way is up and which is down, which sounds are high and which are low. Can it really be that simple? Yes, it can. Before too long your child could be turning ink into emotions instead of emoticons.

Dominic Blaazer is a writer who also teaches music at Lewis Eady and performs around the Auckland region.
View full article
You may be interested in