How To Choose A Musical Instrument To Boost Childhood Learning

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Everyone is looking for a way to give their kids an extra boost. As a parent, I think it’s incredibly important to do everything I can for my children. I work hard to make sure my children have the tools and skills to grow into successful, happy adults.

For me, a big part of making that happen is helping foster a love of music in my children. It’s more than just listening to music and dancing with them.

There is a lot of evidence that playing an instrument helps with childhood brain development. Early instruments teach about patterns and rhythm. Plus they empower kids to create something (sound, music) in the world around them.

Of course, not every kid will enjoy playing every instrument. Picking the right instrument for your child is important. Here are some things to think about when you’re picking those first few instruments.

How Young is Too Young?

One of the first questions many parents and homeschool teachers ask is: how old does my child have to be to play an instrument? But I think that this question is misplaced. Instead of asking how old your child has to be, ask yourself what instruments your child can learn now.

For instance, those brightly colored xylophones for toddlers aren’t just a mindless toy. A xylophone teaches important basics. Your child will learn that different sides of the toy make a different noise. They'll that hitting it in different ways makes it sound different. As they interact with the instrument they learn all kinds of things about the world.

Many kids will even start to learn the basics of rhythm and how to make pleasant noises on tiny xylophones.

Musical learning also improves mathematics scores, critical thinking, and even conscientious behavior. Your toddler might not become Beethoven by playing a toddler xylophone. But they will be developing their brain and learning about music.

Other instruments, like a shaker or rattle, a triangle, tambourine, or even a finger piano can all benefit your child early on.

Most children are also eager to engage with xylophones and other small instruments designed for them. They don’t realize that they’re learning, they just think it’s a fun and curious thing to explore. You can even turn a toddler xylophone into a lesson!

Do Different Instruments Have Different Impacts?

It used to be common knowledge that listening to classical music improved early brain development. The trend of listening to baby Mozart has mostly faded. Its benefits were largely disproven. Many parents (myself included) still wonder if some instruments are better than others.

Is learning to play a small violin better than learning a child-sized guitar? Does learning to play piano improve test scores more than other instruments?

The truth is that some kids will do better on some instruments than others. That’s more about their personality and physical build than mental and intellectual strengths.

Playing almost any instrument improves standard test scores, increases conscientiousness, and creates long-term benefits that last a lifetime. But give a small child a full-size guitar and they’re likely to get bored and frustrated with the instrument.

By the same token, clumsy children, or children with small hands and shorter fingers might benefit from waiting a little longer before starting piano lessons.

But an outgoing child around 8-10 might be a good candidate for a flute or trumpet. Those instruments tend to stand near the front of the band. Since the notes are higher and easy to hear, they often carry the melody and receive a lot of positive attention.

A child detail-oriented child that’s a little quieter and doesn’t crave as much attention might do better with an instrument in a lower register. Children who like puzzles and crave challenges might thrive on a complicated instrument like an oboe.

Child-Size Instruments

One way to get your child started on a more complicated instrument sooner, is to buy a smaller version of that instrument.

Orchestral string instruments all have similar mechanics. But they vary quite a bit in size. A small violin is a great starter option for children learning to play strings, even if they later switch to a cello or upright bass.

Meanwhile, a flute or trumpet can be a good option for kids starting to learn the basics of wind and brass instruments. For kids in the 8-12 range, a French Horn might be another good alternative. But a massive bassoon probably should wait until your kids are a little taller and stronger.

Pianos can be played even by very young kids. You can even get piano lessons for pre-school aged children. But it will take a while for them to learn more complicated chords and some advanced techniques. Their hands need to grow before they can use those techniques.

Matching the Instrument To Your Intent

Beyond matching your child’s instrument to their physical type and personality, you should also keep your goals in mind.

The goal of introducing an instrument to a toddler, age 2-5, is usually less about learning that instrument than it is about helping your child grow and try new things. You want your child to enjoy what they’re doing so that they build a passion for music and for playing instruments.

Yes, toddlers who play instruments are learning instrument-specific skills. They're also developing critical thinking and empathy, and other key areas of their brain. But if you can spark a love of music in your child, they'll be able to reap the benefits of playing an instrument longer.

As your children get older, staying dedicated to learning piano, violin, or another instrument teaches them persistence. It teaches them to value hard work and patience. They’ll also begin learning pattern recognition and building math and cultural understanding.

At all ages, instruments from a toddler xylophone to a grand piano teach kids that their hard work is rewarded. They'll learn that they have agency in their lives. And discover that they can express themselves through creativity and hard work.

Those rewards are long-lasting, even if your child decides they don’t want to continue with their instrument after high school.

Even if your child moves into something completely unrelated to music, you will have helped them develop social and educational skills that will serve them their entire lives.

How To Choose A Musical Instrument To Boost Childhood Learning