Music is a mystery. What is it exactly? Music is sound certainly, but all sound is not music. It seems that the defining characteristic of music is that it organises sound. Speech organises sound to its own end, that of communicating a prescribed meaning. Music organises sound to its end which is more difficult to define but seems equally to have to do with meaning. And yet we access the meaning in music differently than that in speech. We seem to respond to music with parts of ourselves that have no truck with logic. We are charmed by pattern, enchanted by melody and moved by harmony. We find ourselves engulfed by sadness at a certain turn of phrase or begin to move and tap our foot without premeditation at another. Even experimental music that pushes our interest in repetition to its limit or conversely mystifies us with seemingly random variety can engage, amuse or beguile us in ways that we can't explain in words.
For children, music seems to be as natural as breathing. A pre-verbal child is amusingly intrigued by the sounds its tongue makes against its hard palate, enjoying both the activity and the result. In the same way, the sound of a spoon hitting a cup becomes an absorbing game. Toddlers seem to have an in-built sense of pitch and can usually sing the note at the end of a phrase if it is not supplied by Mummy's voice. The Hungarian composer and music educator, Zoltan Kodály, developed his wonderful method of learning sight-singing, from the observation that all children can sing the two pitches - sol and mi - in tune, almost from the beginning (as in the song Rain Rain Go Away). Meanwhile, the tiniest child will move and dance to music with a perfect sense of rhythm.
A child's fascination with the sound a spoon makes against a cup is magnified a hundred fold when a stick hits a drum or a bow touches a string. This is magic. We are inured to the complete wonder that a child must feel in witnessing this conjuring trick. When this same child is old enough to attempt to create those sounds by itself, he or she discovers that what looked so simple is actually rather difficult. In the manner of Sparky whose magic piano saved him for a short while from the chore of practising, the child hopes that the wonderful music he knows to live in that violin, drum or piano will spring out and come to life with very little effort on his part. But the child has the same lesson to learn as did Sparky and it is a lesson that will touch all of her life. It is the lesson of discipline.
Music affords an arena for study and engagement that is endless and an endless delight. We are unlikely to prevent our children from engaging in this world where music is constantly available at the touch of a button or the click of a mouse, but we can certainly actively bring them to the wonder and fascination of witnessing music live and up close.
Ismena invites you to bring your child or children to one or all of three children's concerts being held in SW18 during the autumn. For information click here.