Musical Talent: Nurturing Potential from the Start

Posted by Kathryn Brunner on

Contributing writer, Dr. Joanne Haroutounian, is an international consultant in music and arts talent identification and development. She shares an excerpt from her chapter, “Musical Talent: Nurturing Potential and Guiding Development” from the publication Early Gifts: Recognizing and Nurturing Children’s Talents (Olszewski-Kubilius, P, Limburg-Weber, L, Pfeiffer, S. (Eds.). Prufrock Press, Waco TX, 2003).


"Of all the gifts with which individuals may be endowed, none emerges earlier than musical talent."  Howard Gardner 






Infants listen before they are born. They are aware of their mother’s heartbeat, voice, and different environmental sounds filtering into their cozy womb. Hundreds of prenatal  studies have measured movements and startle reflexes to show that the perception of music and sound is in place prior to birth. Newborns can distinguish their mother’s voice from other female voices. Songs and stories that were heard prior to birth are recognized by newborn infants through excited sucking responses, versus relative inactivity when hearing an unfamiliar story or song.1      

Once a child enters the world, parents communicate through speech that is slow, high-pitched, with broad fluctuation - “baby talk” or “infant-directed speech.” This creates a heightened response from infants. A rising voice captures an infant’s attention, a falling voice is soothing, and bell-shaped contours communicate approval. Interestingly, these same vocal patterns occur globally in parent-infant conversations, regardless of native language.2 Singing a lullaby while rocking a baby to sleep combines the gentle tone of voice, slow tempo, rhythmic movement, and soothing melody to naturally transform infant-directed speech into musical communication. The aural sensing that is basic to musical talent is stimulated by these intimate musical experiences between parent and child.

Infants are not only listening, but learning to communicate through sound, creating “cooing” sounds at two months, followed by “vocal play” at four to six months. During vocal play infants simply use their voice as a toy, discovering how to make new sounds. Vocal play develops into babbling (ma-ma, da-da) by nine months, gradually developing into bits and pieces of songs in a limited vocal range by the age of two and a half. A majority of the studies mark the six year old framework as the normal age when children can sing an entire song with stabilized pitch.3 Parents should take notice of youngsters who have mastered singing relatively in tune before the age of five, realizing that children who naturally sing while playing from an early age will be more prone to develop this ability.                                  

Rhythmic awareness begins with bobbing and swaying to music as soon as a child can sit upright. Children by the age of two learn to match the movements of others, naturally “coalescing” or merging together to establish a single rhythm as a group.By the age of  three, children can make broad distinctions between fast and slow, but usually the ability to maintain a steady beat is not established until beyond the age of six.4 Again, children who show a natural “feel” of the beat in music through fluid rhythmic movement earlier than normal may demonstrate potential musical talent. 

The most obvious early sign of musical potential is the fascination of listening to music, playing through music, and showing curiosity about sound. For example, singing and dancing become a natural part of play for potentially talented youngsters. Creating nonsense songs indicates early signs of musical invention. Preschoolers who recognize particular instrument sounds on a CD or call attention to subtle environmental sounds unnoticed by adults show the perceptive listening capacity that is at the heart of music aptitude.


This brief overview of the development of early childhood musical abilities highlights the importance of parental and environmental influences in the growth of musical potential. Although there may be some biological givens (“nature”) inherent to musical talent, music psychologists on both sides of the “nature-nurture” debate agree that early environmental influences (“nurture”) play a decidedly important role in nurturing the earliest stages of musical potential. Studies show that many parents of talented musicians were not musically trained themselves, but did enjoy sharing musical activities with their children.5 A child will naturally play through music if music is a part of the everyday home environment. Musical communication between parent and child does not rely on the quality of a parent’s voice, simply on its desire to express emotion through music. Playing through song with a child surely invites musical creativity in the future.

Ways to Nurture Musical Potential in Your Young Child 

• Make music a natural part of the home environment 
• Communicate with your baby through “infant-directed” speech as outlined above. 
• Stimulate rhythmic awareness through physical movement with your child while responding to music 
• SING - often, any old way, sharing the joy of song with your child. 
• Encourage your child’s musical play: listening to CDs, playing with early childhood percussion instruments (rattles, jingle bells, drums), moving to music and other creative musical activities. 
• Seek out family or “tiny tot” musical performances available in your community. 
• Enroll your child in an early childhood music program in your local community or here at Musik at Home. If you are already enrolled in a music class outside the home, consider supplementing your child’s musical growth at home by also enrolling in the classes offered here at Musik at Home.
1 Irene Deliege and John Sloboda, Musical Beginnings: Origins and Development of Musical Competence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 3-55. 

2 D. N. Stern, The Interpersonal World of the Infant (New York: Basic Books, 1985) and Mechthild Papousek, “Intuitive Parenting: A Hidden Source of Musical Stimulation in Infancy,” in Deliege and Sloboda, Musical Beginnings: Origins and Development of Musical Competence, 88-112. 

3 H. Moog, The Musical Experience of the Pre-school Child, trans. C. Clarke  (London: Schott, 1976) and Lyle Davidson and Larry Scripp, “Conditions of Giftedness: Musical Development in the Preschool and Early Elementary Years,” in eds. Rena F. Subotnik and Karen D. Arnold, Beyond Terman: Contemporary Longitudinal Studies of Giftedness and Talent, (Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1994), 155-85, and P. E. McKernon, “The Development of First Songs in Young Children, New Directions in Child Development 3 (1979): 43-58. 
4 Arnold Bentley, Musical Ability in Children and It’s Measurement (New York, October House, 1966), and Rosamunde Shuter-Dyson and Clive Gabriel, Psychology of Musical Ability (London, Methuen, 1968), and Davidson and Scripp, “Conditions of Giftedness: Musical Development in the Preschool and Early Elementary Years.” 

5 Michael Howe and John Sloboda, “Young Musicians’ Accounts of Significant 
Influences in their Early Lives: 1. The Family and the Musical Background,” British Journal of Music Education 8 (1991): 39-52.


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  • Hi Kathryn! I love your blog! These tips are so great and just what I need right now for my kids! I love the bright and happy pictures too. I’ll definitely be back to read more soon! :)

    Megan on

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