The Music Environment, from The AMI Journal


The Music Environment from the Beginning to the End
It was an honor for me to be part of this publication on creativity. This article is shared with permission of AMI, The Association Montessori Internationale and NAMTA, The North American Montessori Teachers Organization.
It was published in  AMI Journal 2014-2015 Theme Issue: The Montessori Foundations for the Creative Personality. This 237-page publication deals with the imagination, self-expression, language, music, the Montessori creative view of  childhood, art, and contemporary Montessori research and creativity.

Cosmic Education is a view of how everything is connected. This article has been reprinted in its entirety in this book because it gives an example, through music, of how all of the elements of cosmic education physics, biology, history, geography, the arts—serve the human from birth through old age.

CLICK: The Red Corolla

1 grandpa on guitar

Excerpts from the text
The natural urge to sing, dance, to make and listen to music wells up from the depths of each person, from birth to death. It can be stamped out at an early age or it can be fostered to enrich all of life. In this article you will find ways that music is important to us at every stage of life.  What is music? What words can accurately describe it? We might as easily try to capture all the most poignant sights, sounds, and smells of childhood holiday celebrations into a single black and white collection of letters on a piece of paper! We may not know how to fully describe music but we do know that we don’t want our children to miss out on it.

I have heard fascinating presentations by Adele Diamond, neuroscientist, both at the Annual General Meeting (AGM) in Amsterdam and at the AMI Educateurs sans Frontières (EsF) Assembly in Thailand in 2015.  Dr. Diamond contributes a lot to the Montessori movement of nurturing children because she studies how executive functions—including the abilities to think outside the box, mentally relate ideas and facts, control impulses, focus and concentrate—are affected by biological and environmental factors. Recently she has turned her attention to the possible roles of music and dance in improving not only executive functions, but also academic outcomes, and mental health. In dozens of recent talks she points out that there is a reason dance, play, storytelling, art, and music have been part of human life for tens of thousands of years and are found ubiquitously in every culture; that perhaps we have discarded the wisdoms of past generations too readily.

We need to look back…There was wisdom in previous generations that we’re ignoring…We think we’re going to be ‘modern,’ and that we can do better than our parents and grandparents. There are things that have been part of the human condition for thousands of years—that have been part of the human condition for good reason; otherwise they would have been weeded out.
—Adele Diamond, PhD

Music is made of vibrations felt by the ears and by the whole body. The lower notes, the longest and slowest vibrations, are felt by the human body as touch. Beethoven in his last and very productive years as a composer was completely deaf. So he had the legs removed from several grand pianos and composed by sitting on the floor, feeling the vibrations from the piano strings and the piano wood enter his body through the floor. Today technology has been developed that can do the same thing for deaf musicians. The effects of different pitches, intervals, and timbres evoke different responses in us. Part of this phenomenon is cultural, but it is also psychological and physical. Experiments with plants show us that the music of Mozart and the Indian Ragas support growth and health while loud rock music can cause plants to die.

Wisdom from the past says that there exists a music of the spheres, as electrons spinning around the nucleus of the cell and as the planets spinning around the sun. Laurens van der Post discovered some of this wisdom as he got to know the Bushmen or San of the Kalahari:

As long as the Bushman heard this sound of the sun and stars and could include it in the reckoning of his spirit, all was well in his world. The howl . . . reached me and seemed to change into a minor scale the major key of the music of the stars which resounded over the vast full-leafed garden beyond.
—Laurens van der Post, Witness to a Last Will of Man

2 topponcino


From the first cell, the human infant begins life in touch with the rhythms of the mother’s body. As he grows up, his experience becomes more focused, more refined, sensitive, and educated. Montessori teachers are devoted to keeping the development of humans as close to the divine plans as possible in all areas from birth on, and to do this we must do all we can to keep the child in touch with music. He is the human link with the universe, the past, the future, all of nature, and with other humans.

It is a combination of many different sound vibrations that the child hears in the womb. The rhythm, the pitch, all of the subtleties of sound are taken in by the developing human, in ways we do not yet understand. The child is constantly exposed to, and responding to, the internal sounds of the mother’s body and the external sounds of the larger environment. Many cultures of the past understood this enough to have the best musicians play for the unborn child and for the mother to sing a special song to each yet unborn child. Scientists today can trace the specific muscles which are stimulated by specific sounds. Language tapes played before birth may stimulate the “music” of a second language and improve the child’s ability to learn both before and after birth.  Many mothers know that children keep time to external music by kicks and other movements and that a piece of music sung or played often enough before birth will be recognized by the child after birth and can have a calming effect on him.

Just as the child moved in response to sound in the womb, he does this after birth.  Notice a joyful baby kicking his feet wildly because someone is talking to him.  It may be that this movement begins to lessen in response to spoken language, but it definitely continues in response to the elements of music.

The newborn child responds to sounds and other experiences, such as a loud crash or a familiar face with his whole body – clenched fist, thrown-back head, great smile accompanied by wildly, joyfully kicking legs, or sometimes the motionless stillness of focused attention and study.  It may be that the lack of music in our culture at this stage accounts for the fact that this movement expression tapers off as our children grow, because it certainly continues in children from cultures where music and dance are a daily part of life.  Percussion instruments provide more variety in the natural inclination to move and clap rhythms.

Dr. Montessori spoke of this period of life as the time of the “unconscious absorbent mind.”  During these years the child develops in response to what he finds in his environment.  Today some scientists believe that if the cells that are designed to be stimulated by sound are not so stimulated by eight months of age, they will begin to die off. We already know that certain sounds are detrimental to health and others are supportive. So we have a great responsibility to examine carefully the sounds in the child’s environment.

In the first few months of life the child will begin to make music with his voice. I have often had the joyful experience of beginning a singing dialogue with a child at this age. When the child makes a cooing sound, we can repeat the pitch, the time, the length of the sound. Very rapidly, the child will catch on and begin to make a variety of more and more sounds intentionally. If we carefully imitate these attempts, longer and longer joyful duets of music will result. This is a very important experience in the development of the child’s self-image, his attitude toward communication, a preparation for singing and talking.

In the early days and months a child is attracted to faces and carefully watches the faces of the person who’s talking and singing. When we change or bathe the child it can be disturbing if we distract the child with toys, or to rush the task, to get it over with. It is better to relax, smile, and explain what we are doing while looking at the child’s face. Slowing down and involving the child gives a feeling of respect, of belonging, of communicating, and it provides a wealth of vocabulary about the child’s world.  If we sometimes sing this communication, we give a wider range of pitch and the vocabulary of music.  This is interesting to the child and he will focus and listen. These moments of dressing, changing, and bathing then provide important quality time of communication between adult and child.

The year I was taking the AMI Assistants to Infancy course in Denver, Colorado there was a piano in one of the course rooms that I played when we were on break. I remember Dr. Montanaro, my trainer along with Judi Orion, coming into the room with a slightly distressed look on her face. At first I thought maybe the music was disturbing to others but then she said, “We must find a way to let the children in the Infant Community in this building watch and listen to you.” This brought home a very important point she had made during one of the neuropsychology lectures — that from an early age children should be shown music being created by the hand and the movement of the human body.

3 touching guitar strings

Since then, having been brought up in a family where everyone played an instrument, I have been very surprised to discover that many children have never seen this. When music always comes out of a car radio, a CD player, how can children be inspired to make music? Wherever I go now in international work I look for ways to share this experience, either by percussion sounds or a piano when I can find one. Even the youngest child, as in the picture above, delights in being shown how to touch, to pull on a guitar string gently so that the sound is the same as when the adult does it. The development of the hand and movement of all kinds is something that children at this age are very interested in.

As adults we have the ability to close off unpleasant sounds, but the child does not—he hears everything. One day I was in the bedroom reading to my young grandchild. Suddenly he looked at me and said, “Bird!” I put the book down and listened and could hear some crows far up in a tree outside our window. I would never have heard them if my grandson had not shared his experience with me. In the home and the Montessori community, we should pay special attention not only to what can be seen, touched, tasted, and smelled, but also what the children are going to hear. If the child is in an environment where the sounds from a TV, a passing car, a wind-up toy, music from the radio, the running of a dishwasher, etc. can be heard, this is the “music” the child will become accustomed to and will want to recreate in his life.  If the child grows up with this cacophony, he will continuously try to recreate it in his life, no matter how detrimental it may be to his body, mind, and spirit.  If he is in an environment of peace and quiet, soft beautiful voices and lovely music, he will recreate this in later life and be nurtured physically and emotionally.

In the Montessori Infant Community the children have a strong sense of order, not only of place or environment but also of schedule.  So the morning can often end, after a snack or lunch, with singing. But the teacher is also very likely to sit down at any time of the day to give a language lesson to one child or to sing a song with one or two children.  Because children are not required to come to these lessons and because they love the language and music, many, if not all of the children, will participate, being free to go back to other work at any time. Concentration on independent work is always considered more valuable than group experiences.

The period of these first three years is the most intense in all of life for storing up sensorial experiences. We do not talk baby talk to these children because we know that this is the time when they are absorbing the music, grammar, and vocabulary of the language he is exposed to daily. For the same reason, we do not limit their musical experience to baby music. As long as we carefully observe the children and their response to the music we offer, there is no limit to the music we can provide.

During these years the child learns to sort, classify, and arrange the sensorial experiences that began in the first three years, to organize the brain and to make the information available for creative expression. If supported by the environment, children at this age can easily and effortlessly learn to write and read music and to play instruments. It is thought that rhythm instruments were the first used by early man, and this is a good place to begin with children. In their hunger for spoken language it is the easiest time to learn the names of pieces of music and composers, not for this information on its own, but so that they can ask for and talk about the music of their choice.  As we give children the elements of culture it is quite natural that we give them the music of all cultures.



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