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Is my toddler musically gifted?
Selynn Northfield
Your son seems to be gifted musically—and, I must say, he has good taste. Mozart gets a lot of attention in early childhood circles days because of research suggesting that listening to his music has a positive effect on learning math. But in my book, if Mozart is good for something, Beethoven would be even better!

Seriously, it does appear that your son is giving vent to talents that go beyond the ordinary. Actually, in teaching very young children, we probably don’t make enough use of rhythm and pitch, though variations in these domains have made their way into folk songs and games for centuries. Reflect on the song “London Bridge.” Through the tune children learn a variety of concepts—bridges go over things, we move over bridges, bridges can fall down, etc. And I’m sure it is no accident that at the end, when the fall is announced with “My fair lady,” the melody goes down, not up.

The importance of repetitive melody and rhythm was brought home to me vividly some years ago when I was working with retarded and autistic children, many of whom did not talk at all. We had one virtually mute boy who could sing perfectly the jingle for a soft drink commercial. If we tried to help him merely say the words, he couldn’t. He would blankly look at his teacher or walk away. For him—and probably for many other children—the tune and the rhythm were essential.

As for how you can encourage your son’s talent, it sounds as though you are already doing a good job. Let him listen to good music as much as possible. In addition to your CDs, there is probably a classical music station in your area. And I would buy him Prokofiev’s “Classical Symphony” and Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.” Although he might not be able to remain the entire time, take him to a live concert. Also, teach him little songs and sing with him. There are many wonderful tapes and CDs for young children that encourage the listener to sing along and dance.

In a year or so I would make every effort to make available to him a versatile musical instrument. If you don’t have a piano, or don’t have room for one, a digital keyboard can be just as effective. Actually, for little children during the banging stage, a keyboard that can either be set up in a playroom or laid across a table can be better than a regular piano. Not only can a young child reach it more easily – you can turn the volume down and not have whatever sound he produces bother the whole family. Play simple tunes for him, such as “Row, Row, Row your Boat” and “Three Blind Mice.” See if he can reproduce them. If he can and then starts transposing them into different keys, get him a good teacher without delay!
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education