Dear Mr. Dad: My 2 ½-year old is learning lots lot of new words, but has trouble singing even the simplest song. And although he sometimes rocks in time to music, he’s almost never on the beat. Is there a connection between language, music and rhythm, and is a problem with any of them a developmental red flag?
A: In a word, yes. During the second half of your child’s third year, his language skills make a sudden, often dramatic spurt forward. You’ll see this development in two distinct yet connected ways. First, you’ll notice that his imitation skills have become quite sharp: he can now repeat nearly any word or two-word phrase. He can also tell when he’s imitating something correctly and when he’s not.
Second, now that he’s got a good grasp of the sounds that make up his native language, he’ll begin using them as toys, amusing himself, and you, by making up his own “words.” Musically, a similar development is taking place. “Once they’ve acquired a simple vocabulary of tonal patterns and rhythms, [young children] can start creating their own songs,” says music educator Edwin Gordon.
Eventually, your toddler will combine these skills, and by his third birthday he may be able to sing all the words of a short song (like “Happy Birthday”) or entire phrases of longer, familiar songs (“Baa, baa, black sheep, have you any wool? Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Three bags full,” for example). But he won’t be able to sing the whole song for another few months. He may also make deliberate changes to songs he already knows (“Baa, baa, blue sheep . . .”) just for the fun of it.
Your child’s sense of rhythm is also developing nicely. And even though his dance moves may seem random, within a few months, he’ll be rocking, bobbing, clapping, and stomping in time with the beat.
This is a great time to try some imitation games with your child. Sing a note, then wait for him to repeat it. If he does that pretty well, try two notes, then three (a lot of kids can’t do three-note patterns until well after they turn three, so don’t get your hopes too high).
Expose your child to a wide variety of music and play it wherever you are. You can get children’s CDs, but whatever you’re listening to will work just as well. Just keep a lid on the volume. Loud music can damage his hearing. If you play an instrument, let your child see you in action. If he wants to participate, and your instrument isn’t too fragile, let him. And if you don’t have a musical keyboard around, now’s the time to get one for him.
There’s a fascinating connection between rhythm, language, and reading. Kali Woodruff Carr and her colleagues note that the rhythm of whatever language your child is hearing gives him cues about boundaries between words and syllables (if you pay attention to your own speech when you’re speaking to your toddler, you’ll notice that you emphasize certain syllables more than others). Children who can synchronize themselves to an external beat (say, from a song they’re listening to) score higher on tests of language skills and reading readiness. Conversely, children who have trouble finding and staying with the beat are more likely to have language processing and, later on, reading difficulties, such as dyslexia, which Usha Goswami, director of the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at the University of Cambridge has described as being “in tune but out of time.”
If your toddler doesn’t seem able to stay on beat when listening to music, you might want to do a simple experiment. Using your hand or hands, tap or clap once and ask your child to do the same. Then tap twice, slowly, again asking him to imitate. If he can do that, add a third tap. Try different patterns—two fast and one slow, three fast, one slow and two fast, and so on. If your toddler has trouble with this, it’s worth mentioning to your pediatrician.
Previously published on Mr. Dad