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Musical Instruments: Should a Child be Made to Learn?

Updated on March 5, 2017
DzyMsLizzy profile image

Liz has been an online writer for over nine years. Her articles often focus on music and culture of the 20th century.

The soprano recorder is an instrument with as much history as any, and often the first to which a child is exposed in school.
The soprano recorder is an instrument with as much history as any, and often the first to which a child is exposed in school. | Source

Should You Insist On Music Lessons?

In a word, no. When it comes to extra-curricular activities, let the child be your guide. This is a safe area to allow the individual child some control over their own lives. If they want to study music, by all means, let them. If you cannot afford an instrument, sometimes one can be rented or borrowed. If they just want to sing, that's almost free--their instrument is built-in!

But insist on music lessons? Force them into the study? No, not on your life. All you will do is breed resentment, and very likely also kill any interest they may have, or might develop later on.

If you try to force the issue, it will surely backfire. I saw this happen with my own daughter, when my ex wanted to teach her to play the recorder. She was only 4 years old, and wasn't ready. She did not practice, and showed little interest. My ex got disgusted, and said basically 'to heck with you, then,'

Years later, when she did show an interest and talent for music, he brushed her off with, "You didn't want to learn when I wanted to teach you, so forget it, now." Admittedly, that was wrong and very childish on his part (one reason he's an "ex).

She eventually did go on to study music to some extent, but I think that early "forced" issue prevented her from being quite as enthusiastic as she otherwise might have been.

At What Age Should a Child Study Music?

Again, let the child guide you in this decision. Some children seem to be born singing or making rhythm; others may be 4, 7 or 10 years old before music catches their attention. Other children are never interested at all The best thing you can do is "go with the flow." .

If your pre-schooler or 1st grader wants to make up songs and "play music" on your pots and pans...let them. Just invest in some earplugs for yourself, and set time limits. The noisy stage will either wear off and stop, or develop into something more musical, and more pleasing to parental ears.

In the town in which I raised my own children, the school district introduced recorder at 4th grade, and made all the kids study the instrument as their 'introduction' to music. Did it work? No, not really. Ninety percent of the kids treated the instruments as toy noisemakers, driving their parents (and the neighbors) crazy by over-blowing and causing horrible shrill screeches all the way up and down the block to and from school.

A recorder is usually chosen by schools because cheap plastic versions can be had. (A cheap choice does not equal a good choice.) A recorder is a delicate instrument, and it takes a soft breath technique to produce the proper tones. That kind of breath control is not usually found in 10-year-olds. It also takes fairly dexterous finger control to cover/uncover all the holes to produce the various notes.

Only the 3 or 4 kids in any class who had already shown an interest in or talent for music went on to pursue musical studies beyond that point. The entire exercise was pointless anyway, because by then, the school district had already cut funding to the music program, and there was no band or other instruments to which the children could progress.

What Are the Benefits To Learning Music?

Well, there is much argument made in favor of how music helps the child develop discipline; how it helps with math and translates into so many areas of life.

The main problem I have with these persuasive-sounding statements is this: they are not true for everyone. For example, music is really very mathematical. I studied piano for 4 years, but you'd never know it. I also struggled mightily with math, especially as a child--basic arithmetic gave me fits.

Did the music translate to help me with the math? No, it did not. In fact, the opposite was true: there was much about the music that I had difficulty grasping exactly because of its basis in mathematical concepts.

So again, it depends upon the individual child and their particular talents and areas of interest.

The modern electronic keyboard can substitute for the more expensive piano
The modern electronic keyboard can substitute for the more expensive piano | Source

What About Reality?

While no interest in musical arts should ever be squelched, kids should be encouraged to play the instrument of their choice, or sing, just for the sheer joy of it; for the pleasure it gives them.

Encourage them also to do well at their schoolwork, and choose a profession besides music. It could be that one day, they end up the next winner on "America's Got Talent" or some other such show, and find that they have a fantastic life in a musical career. However, they should be aware that such things are the exception, not the norm, and music for a hobby is equally valid. They should also be aware that getting that good is a lot of hard work! Not everyone is going to be a Jackie Evancho.

Even fewer are going to be a Wes Montgomery, who became a famous jazz guitarist based on self-taught raw talent without ever studying music at all. The man could not even read music!

Therefore, a solid professional choice is also in order, even if only as a "fall-back."

If Not Music, Then What?

Good question. Here is my answer: what is important is a well-rounded education and exposure to culture of all types. However, every child is talented in different ways, so while they may be exposed to culture in the form of music, that will not necessarily turn them into a musician.

Again, let the child's interests be your guide. They may prefer drawing or painting; they may prefer dance; they may prefer reading or composing poems. With so many public schools cutting back on the arts, even eliminating them entirely, such exposure to cultural elements falls back to the home.

Then again, there will be children not interested in the least in sitting-still activities like music or art. They need the physical outlet of dance, baseball or gymnastics. While sports are not "culture" in the usual meaning of the word, they are a part of the general culture--in an anthropological sense-- at large.

And no, plopping the kids down in front of the idiot box to watch movies or play games is not 'exposure to culture.' Not unless the movies are of ballet; opera; art lessons; poetry readings; plays; symphony orchestras, or similar things usually mentioned when we speak of 'culture.'

Teach Decision-Making

When I say 'let the child decide,' or 'let the child guide you,' I am speaking strictly within this subject. Let them choose their instrument; their art medium; their sport or activity.

I do not mean to imply by any stretch of the imagination that the kids should rule the roost, and demand that their parents buy them all the latest electronic gadgets, games and toys. They should not get spoiled by being given whatever they ask for. The parent is still the parent, and must set rules according to their own budgets and standards.

However, it is good for children to learn to make choices and decisions on their own, and the choice of what instrument to study or activity, is a safe place to practice that decision-making skill. Once they have decided, however, they should be encouraged to stick with it for a set time frame, in order to gain the maximum benefit.

For example, my piano lessons. The girl next door, who was four years older than I, played beautifully. So, I wanted to be "just like that." Since my mother already had a piano, which she played fairly well, I was allowed to take piano lessons from the neighborhood piano teacher.

When I discovered it was more work than I bargained on to make pleasing music, and found that it disagreed with my math difficulties, after about 3 years,, I wanted out. I was made to stay another full year. The teacher told my mother, "If she quits now, she'll never play again."

Well, she was not far wrong. I did stay the final year, but I did not progress. Can I play the piano today? Barely. Do I play? Not really. I sold the piano a couple of years ago. I have an electronic keyboard that I fool with a couple of times a year. My sight-reading skills are beneath rock-bottom, and my rhythm is terrible. I cannot play with others because I cannot keep the tempo--that math thing again! Yes, I can read music, yes, I fool with the keyboard and the recorder..but not often. I'm no musician. I write. That is where my passion is.

Let your child discover his or her own passion.

© 2012 Liz Elias


Submit a Comment
  • leahlefler profile image

    Leah Lefler 

    8 years ago from Western New York

    It does help if the parents have some musical background, too - I don't have much, but I sit in every one of my son's lessons so that I learn exactly what he is learning. My husband plays the trumpet and comes from a musical family, so he has a background in music.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    8 years ago from Oakley, CA

    LOL, leah--yeah, Beethoven!

    And as in my own case, "because someone else is doing it," also not a good motivation. :-(

    Noise? Right--that's in the ear of the beholder. I remember once my mom had gone up the street on an errand, and I was supposed to be practicing. I was practicing--my scales. Mom got home and asked dad if I'd practiced, and he told her no, that I'd just been "fooling around" making noise. He was not musical, and did not recognize scales for what they were. I was mad because my mother made me sit down for another 1/2 hour of practice.

  • leahlefler profile image

    Leah Lefler 

    8 years ago from Western New York

    Piano is the most recommended instrument (talking to my mama-friends who have kids with hearing loss) - it can be played even with poor hearing (go, Beethoven, lol)! We're giving it a few years in any case - this hub really interests me because I had always wanted to take music lessons as a kid, but my parents weren't very supportive and just didn't want to hear a lot of noise, lol!

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    8 years ago from Oakley, CA

    So true. And yes, a hearing loss could make difficult the playing of any instrument that requires tonal adjustments to be made be the player to blend with the others. The piano, however, is tuned by professionals, at regularly scheduled intervals, (not just prior to being played in a band presentation), and is the instrument to which the rest of the band or orchestra tunes. ;-)

  • leahlefler profile image

    Leah Lefler 

    8 years ago from Western New York

    It does take a small amount of interest. Interest AND ability/readiness. My four year old is interested in piano because his older brother is playing it, but he is nowhere near ready to play (he is simply too young to read music and he doesn't have the attention span to sit for longer periods of time). We may try Suzuki with him, since he is interested, but we'll probably just wait until he's a little older. Plus, Suzuki emphasizes playing by ear, and our younger son has a hearing loss that might cause problems with that (so traditional music-reading is probably a better option for him)!

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    8 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, again, leahlefler--

    Ah... the key words are in your first sentence... "...had a slight interest in music,..." That's all it takes...encourage the interest, if it's start with. ... but not make them take lessons if they show no interest--you can be "exposed" to something without trying it... by many means. Many kids become interested in gymnastics, for example, after watching the Olympics...even though they've never tried it or been enrolled in gymnastics lessons.

    Thanks for stopping back and explaining your position further, and for expanding on the Suzki method. Your well-thought-through comments are always welcome.

  • leahlefler profile image

    Leah Lefler 

    8 years ago from Western New York

    It is interesting - my son had a slight interest in music, but wasn't "dying to learn" an instrument. We tried out piano lessons anyway, and he absolutely loves it. You can't really tell if a kid likes music or not until they've given it a shot - there are a lot of benefits that come with knowing how to play an instrument, though no child should ever be forced to do so if they don't enjoy it or aren't competent at it. You also have to make sure the child is developmentally appropriate for the type of music lessons.

    The parents also have to be involved - with keeping the experience highly positive and helping the child learn new skills. My son is currently struggling with understanding 3/4 time and we take turns playing the piece - he never practices alone, but always with someone to play with him or to help him.

    The Suzuki method extends to piano, violin, guitar, and nearly any other instrument. My little guy isn't taking Suzuki, but I know many families really love that approach. We researched it before Matt started lessons (I actually wrote a hub on suzuki piano because we had done all the research for it). We ended up going with a traditional route because it suits his personality better. My little one might enjoy Suzuki better when he's old enough.

    I think of it a bit like sports. You don't know if you like gymnastics/hockey/soccer/karate/horseback riding until you try it out - if you don't like it, then find a new sport that you do like.

    My personal opinion is that kids should be exposed to a lot of different things and given a lot of opportunities, so that they can discover what they like and what they are good at.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    8 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, leahlefler--

    Thank you very much for your time in leaving such a well-thought-through comment. I am not all that familiar with Suzuki--what I had originally heard of it, I thought applied only to violin lessons...perhaps they have expanded since I heard of them.

    I agree that no child should be pushed " the poing they hate music,..." but I go a step further--it would not even occur to me to send a child to "try out" music lessons if the interest did not originate with that child.

    I appreciate your input.

  • leahlefler profile image

    Leah Lefler 

    8 years ago from Western New York

    Great article, DzyMsLizzy! Music should never be forced on a child. The child's own inclinations and the parent's attitude matter a lot with regard to taking music lessons. My six year old takes piano and is doing well - he is mathematically advanced, though, so that suits his abilities well. There are also many different types of music instruction - Suzuki (which doesn't require the ability to read music at a young age) works wonderfully for some kids, and more traditional methods work well for others. Also, different instruments appeal to different kids (my husband is a devoted trumpet player). No one should ever push a kid to the point they hate music, however - my personal opinion is to give every child the opportunity (by trying out music lessons) and if they want to move forward, then by all means encourage it. If there is absolutely no desire, then stop.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    8 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hi there, stephhicks--

    Yes, "exposure," I agree, forced instruction, no. As with my own experience, it does not necessarily translate to math--especially those struggling with math. One can appreciate music, and be "soothed" by it, without having to learn to play music.

    The culture aspect can be, and usually is, covered by that "exposure" element, again, without specific instruction IN music. Music is beautiful and valuable, but it is not very easy, especially for youngsters. Some have the natural gift--others do not.

    Thanks very much for stopping by and adding to the discussion, and thanks for the vote!

  • stephhicks68 profile image

    Stephanie Marshall 

    8 years ago from Bend, Oregon

    I think children should have exposure to music instruction, whether instruments or singing. It is part of who we are as humans (think of music soothing the "savage beast,") and is an accessible way to express and experience emotions. There are many other benefits to music instruction, including math and culture. Interesting hub, rated up! Thanks, Steph

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    8 years ago from Oakley, CA

    @ R.J,Lefebvre--Thank you so very much for your kind comment. Best wishes to you.

    @ TF Scientist--You are so right--it should be 'a part of..' childrens' upbringing, but not forced upon them. How much more pleasant to have had your experience of family sing-alongs, a memory I share. Thanks very much for adding your input and for the votes!

  • TFScientist profile image

    Rhys Baker 

    8 years ago from Peterborough, UK

    My wife is a performing arts teacher and I have long taken part in male choruses - I wholeheartedly agree that music should form a vital part of every child's upbringing. Drama and dance can also supplement this. Some of my fondest childhood memories were the whole family getting together to sing songs.

    To me, music should be a hobby. It upsets me that music is now turning into a get rich quick scheme thanks to shows like the x-factor and the like. You see young kids saying they want to be a famous singer - not a good singer, not an influential singer, not a singer who enjoys their career, but a FAMOUS singer. It is very sad.

    Thanks for sharing this hub! Voted up and interesting

  • profile image

    R. J. Lefebvre 

    8 years ago


    I agree whole heartedly! As children grow they need exposure to many variations of life formulas, with parental supervision to suit the childs passions.


  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    8 years ago from Oakley, CA

    @ Lisa HW--Oh, I love Itzhak Perlman--and I THINK (not sure if memory serves) that it is he, and Yo-Yo Ma doing Flight of the Bumblbee. You should look it up--it's amazing! LOL at the "cookified" violin. Yep--a kid is still a kid! ;-)

    My piano teacher was not mean, but it turned out she did play favorites. Her own niece was naturally talented, and played very advanced and lovely music, even though she was younger than I by about 4 years; another young man who was about high school age to my 8 or 9 years, commuted back to her even after the family moved out of town.

    But with those of us who struggled, and did not have "natural talent," she just marked time and collected her money. After 4 years of lessons, I never made it out of "John Thompson's First Grade Piano Studies." That alone discouraged me. Thanks very much for sharing your experiencces, and I'm glad you enjoyed the hub.

    @ GoodLady--Thanks very much for sharing--I'm pleased you liked the article. It sounds as if your son has found just the right balance.

    I had to make a hub about it. I started out writing a short answer, and realized my ideas were far too involved to keep brief and still make sense.

    Thanks for sharing your story and for the vote!

  • GoodLady profile image

    Penelope Hart 

    8 years ago from Rome, Italy

    Interesting points made here about not forcing musical instruments on children. And of course if you don't have much musicality in you there's no pleasure in music, but as you say, if the child seems to want to 'do' music, it's a good idea to encourage them.

    My son plays the bongo with his two year old daughter. They jam well together. It's great to see. She loves the rhythm and you often see her, independently, keeping up with it when she hears the music on the radio (or wherever).

    So pleased you wrote the Hub to the question! Thanks. Voting up.

  • Lisa HW profile image

    Lisa HW 

    8 years ago from Massachusetts

    Good points here. :) My daughter developed a kind of obsession with Itzhak Perlman when she was three (because he was on Sesame Street). I got her a video of his, and she kept saying she wanted to take violin lessons. So I got a teensy tiny violin for her size, and she loved her lessons. It was kind of funny, though, when she one day opened the violin case in front of her fairly "reserved" and very serious teacher; and on top of the violin was a chocolate chip cookie. :) The teacher was mildly horrified (sort of) - but gracious about it. :) (I, on the other hand, was a piano-lesson kid. The overly-serious teacher was truly mean, though. So - you guessed it... I quit. It was good to learn to read music, though. LOL )


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