Music for Children


IN what I have to say about music for children I am not unmindful of the diversity of American life, and of the prevalent idea that Americans do not pay much attention to music (or to any other form of beauty) because they live in a new country in which the greater part of their energy is devoted to subduing nature and carving their fortunes. As a nation we are said to be too diverse to have evolved any definite æsthetic practice, and we suppose ourselves too busy with the practical things in life to pay much attention to it.

While it is doubtless true that there are numberless prosperous American families in which the words ‘art’ and ‘literature’ mean nothing whatever, this condition is due, in most cases, not to lack of time, but to lack of inclination. We, like other people, do what we like to do. No real attention is paid to the cultivation of a love of the beautiful in childhood; very little attention is paid to it in the educational institutions where we are trained; so we grow up and enter upon life with a desultory liking for music, with a distinct lack of appreciation for poetry, and with almost no interest in painting or sculpture.

And this condition is likely to increase rather than diminish as time goes on, until, having finally arrived at moments of leisure and finding that neither our money nor any other material possession gives us any deep or permanent satisfaction, we turn to beauty only to be confronted with the old warning: ‘Too late, ye cannot enter now.’ For we have arrived at the time when, in Meredith’s phrase, ‘Nature stops, and says to us, “ Thou art now what thou wilt be.”' For this capacity for understanding and loving great books and paintings and music has to grow with our own growth and cannot be postponed to another season. The average American man is supposed to have no time for these things. He has time, but he refuses to turn it into leisure, — leisure which means contemplation and thoughtfulness, — though he very likely knows that this has been accomplished over and over again by men who have saved out of a busy life for that purpose a little time every day.

One recalls Darwin’s pathetic statement wherein he describes his early love for poetry and music, and the final complete loss of those faculties through neglect. ‘The loss of these tastes,’ he says, ‘ is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.’

The intellect of man, in itself, is never supreme or sufficient. Feeling or instinct is half of knowledge. ‘Whoever walks a furlong without sympathy,’ says Whitman, ‘walks to his own funeral drest in his shroud.’ Of any man, American or otherwise, who lives his life unmindful of all beauty we may justly say, as Carlyle said of Diderot, ‘He dwelt all his days in the thin rind of the Conscious; the deep fathomless domain of the Unconscious whereon the other rests and has its meaning was not under any shape surmised by him.’

Must not the education of children in beauty begin, then, with their parents? Must they not be aroused, at least, to an intellectual conviction of its value, even though they have missed its joy? Can the matter be safely left to the jurisdiction of the schools themselves, whose curricula are already overcrowded with methods of escape from this very thing? Does not the school answer the general conception of education obtaining among the fathers and mothers of the school-children? Can it be expected — is it possible for it — to rise far above that conception? Our object is therefore to suggest, first, that the perception of beauty is, in the highest sense, education ; second, that music is especially so, because it is the purest form of beauty; and, third, that music is the only form of beauty by means of which very young children can be educated, because it is the only form accessible to them.

Need we point out that there has never been a time in the history of mankind when human beings have not paid tribute to beauty? In their attempt to escape what may be called the traffic of life and to rise above its sordid limitations, have they not always and everywhere created for themselves some sort of detached ideal by means of which they justified themselves in an otherwise unintelligible world? This ideal may have been a god of stone, but it figured for them a perfect absolution. Surrounded by brutal forces about which they knew nothing, subject to pestilence, to war, to starvation, to the fury of the elements, unable safely to shelter their bodies, they built for their souls a safe elysium. This ideal was always one of order and beauty; every civilization has possessed it, and it was to each civilization not only religion, but also what we call ‘art.'

I have spoken in a former article 1 of that quality in art which consists in its ‘ holding a mirror up to nature,’and thus focusing our attention. Browning expresses this in ‘Fra Lippo Lippi,’where he says, —

For, don’t you mark, we ’re made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see.

But the highest office of art is not so much to attract our attention to beautiful objects as to make us realize through the artist’s skill what the objects signify. It is the artist who so depicts life as to make it intelligible to us; it is he who sees all those deeper relations which underlie all things; he, and he only, can so present human aspirations and human actions as to lift them out of the maze and give them order and sequence. Through all the welter of political theories, of philosophies, of dogmas insisted on at the point of excommunication; amid the discoveries of science and the tendency to make life into a mechanically operated thing, the still small voice of the poet rises always supreme — supreme in wisdom, supreme in insight, the seer, the prophet, the philosopher; when all else has passed he remains, for beauty is the only permanence. To eliminate beauty from education is to destroy its very soul.

From the law of gravity to Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark,’beauty is the central element. In physics, in mathematics, in astronomy, in chemistry, there is the same perfection of order and sequence, the same correlation of forces, the same attraction of matter which, operating in the fine arts, brings about what we call ‘ painting,’‘sculpture,’‘ poetry,’and ‘ music,’The whole of nature is a postulate of this doctrine, and there is no subject taught from kindergarten to college, which may not be taught as in accord with it. There is a rhythm of beauty in all things animate and inanimate — an endless variety around a central unity. The individuality in nature and in human life is as a rhythmic diversity to a divine and central unity. The leaves of a maple tree are all alike and all different; the difference between the mechanical arts and the fine arts is a difference of rhythmic flexibility: one is fixed in rhythm in accordance with physical laws, and acts in perfect sequence and regularity; the other is a free individualized rhythmic play around a fixed centre. The painter may not dispose the objects on his canvas as he pleases — nature allows him only a certain freedom; the sculptor may distribute his weights and his rhythms around the axis with only so much freedom from the demands of nature as his particular purpose justifies; even the strain of music, which seems to wander so much at will that it is often called a ‘ rhapsody,’— it, too, is merely a play of rhythms and contours around a fixed centre, and conforms to a common purpose just as a maple leaf does. A machine acts in mechanical synthesis, a melody acts in æsthetic synthesis; neither is free. So we say there is no such thing as an isolated fact, or subject, or idea.

Thus everything taught to children can be taught as beauty, and if it is not so taught, its very essence must dissolve and disappear. ‘The mean distance from the earth to the moon is about two hundred and forty thousand miles’; ‘two and twx> make four’; ‘an island is a body of land entirely surrounded by water’; — so a child learns his lesson in what are called facts (the most deceptive and soulless things in the world). To him ‘the moon’ and ‘a mile’ are little more than words; 2 + 2 are troublesome hieroglyphics; ‘an island’ is, perhaps, merely a word in a physical geography book; but to you all these objects and quantities are, perhaps, beautiful; for you

The moon doth with delight
Look around her when the heavens are bare;

for you numbers have come to have that significance which makes them beautiful; an island may have touched your imagination as it has Conrad’s, who calls it ‘a great ship anchored in the open sea ’; you have seen that beauty which lies behind facts when they fall, as with a click, into the mechanism of things. So must children be taught to realize at the very beginning something of that great unity which pervades the world of thought and of matter. Some comprehension must be given to them of that marvelous sense of fitting together, of perfect correspondence, which all nature reveals and which is ultimately beauty. It is this quality, residing in every subject, which constitutes the justification for our insistence on beauty as a part of education.

With our present systems of education all ideality is crushed, for this ideality is a personal quality, whereas all we are, we are in mass. ‘You are trying to make that boy into another you,’ said Emerson, some fifty years ago; ‘one’s enough.’ Modern education, subject to constant whims, has become a capacious maw into which our children are thrown. Everything for use, nothing for beauty; for use means money, while beauty — what is beauty good for? — (a question which Lowell, in one of his essays, says ‘would be death to the rose and be answered triumphantly by the cabbage’). This is indeed an old thesis, but never has it more needed stating than now. It applies everywhere. Literature taught as beauty is uplifting and joyful; taught as syntax it is dead and cheerless. All other forms of instruction lose their force if they are detached from that poetic harmony of which they are a part. Numbers, cities, machines, symphonies, the objects on your table, you yourself, — all these are to be seen as belonging to this harmony, without which the world is Bedlam.

American children are musical, American adults are not, and the chief reason lies in the wasted opportunities of childhood. If the natural taste of our children for music were properly developed, they would continue to practice it and to find pleasure in doing so, and thus would avoid the fatal error of postponing their heaven to another time — the great mistake of life and of theology.

So we deal chiefly in this article with the possibilities which music offers to children, not to a few children in playing the pianoforte, but to all children in love and understanding. It is obviously desirable to make them all love music, and, since few of them ever attain satisfactory proficiency in playing instruments, our chief problem lies in trying to develop their taste and thereby keeping their allegiance.


In a former article I discussed the qualities and properties of music as such — music, that is, in its pure estate, unconnected with words as in songs, or with words, action, costume, and scenery as in opera. And now, in writing about children’s music, it is still necessary to keep in mind that, even when music is allied to words, it has the necessities of its own nature to fulfill, and that the use of suitable or even fine words in a child’s song does not change this condition.

In beginning this discussion I propose to ignore for the moment the effect in after life of what we advocate for children, and I also discard (with a certain contempt) the common notion — true enough in its way — that music is for them a rest and a change after burdensome tasks. For we must see music, in relation to children, as it really is. I go behind the psychologist2 who says, '... the prime end of musical education ... is to train the sentiments, to make children feel nature, religion, country, home, duty, . . . to guarantee sanity of the heart out of which are the issues of life’; for I say that music, by itself, cannot make children feel nature, religion, country, home, or duty, and that these sentiments are aroused by the heightened effect of words set to music, and not by the music itself. The prime end of music — and of the other arts

— is beauty. Song is not story, melodies have nothing to do with morals, and all the theories about music — such as those of Darwin and Spencer

— are wrong when they attribute to it any ulterior purpose or origin whatever. Music is an end, not a means.

Now this beauty which the soul of man craves, and always has craved, cannot be brought to little children in literary form, because they cannot read or because their knowledge of words is too limited; nor can it be brought to them in the form of painting, because they are not sufficiently sensitive to color-vibrations; nor of sculpture, for their sense of form is not sufficiently developed. In fact, their power of response is exceedingly limited in most directions. They can neither draw nor paint nor write nor read, so that this beauty which we value so highly seems shut out from them. This were so but for music.

By singing, and by singing only, a little child of five may come in contact with a pure and perfect form of beauty. Not only that, but the child can reproduce this beauty entirely unaided, and in the process of doing so its whole being — body, mind, heart, and soul — is engaged. The song, for the moment, is the child. There is no possible realization of the little personality comparable to this. Here, in sounds, is that correlation of impulses in which the stars move; here is the world of order and beauty in miniature; here is a microcosm of life; here is a talisman against the cold unmeaning facts which are driven into children’s brains to jostle one another in unfriendly companionship. Through this they can feel a beauty and order and sequence which their minds are incapable of grasping. The joy which a child gets in reproducing beautiful melodies is like no other experience in life. It is absolutely a personal act, for the music lends itself to the child’s individuality as nothing else does. Music, in this sense, preserves in children that ideality which is one of the most precious possessions of childhood, and which we would fain keep in after life; which loves flowers and animals, which sees the truth in fairy stories, which believes everything to be good and is alien to everything sinister, which sees the moon and stars, not as objects so many millions of miles from the earth, and parts of a great solar system, but as lanterns hung in the heavens.

Heaven lies about us in our infancy. . . .
At length the man perceives it die away,
And fade into the life of common day.


The prime object, then, of musical education for children is so to develop their musical sensibilities as to make them love and understand the best music. Does this bring up the question, ‘What is the best music?’ By the ‘best’ music I mean exactly what I should mean if I were to substitute the word ‘literature’ for ‘music’ — I mean the compositions of the great masters. And if you say that the great masters did not write music suitable for little children, I reply that such music has nevertheless been produced by all races in their childhood, that it exists in profusion, that it is commonly known as ‘folk-song,’ that it is the basis upon which much of the greatest music in the world rests, and, finally, that it is the natural and, indeed, the inevitable means of approach to such great music.

With this objective in mind and with this material as a means of attaining our object, let us examine what is actually taking place in the teaching of music to children.

The most common fallacy consists in putting knowledge before experience, or theory before practice. Children are taught about music before they have had sufficient experience of it. They are taught, for example, to pin pasteboard notes on a make-believe staff; they are told that one note is the father-note and another the mother-note (one supposes the chromatics to be irascible oldmaid aunts); all sorts of subterfuges are resorted to in an attempt to teach them what they are too young to learn and what, in any case, can have no significance whatever except when based on a long process of actual experience. One might as well try to satisfy a hungry child with a picture of an apple as to show a child notes before it has dealt with sounds.

But even these artificial and false methods are less harmful to children than are the poor, vapid, and false songs by means of which their taste is slowly and surely disintegrated. Now the nature of music is such that many people are unable to see why one child’s song is better than another. There is a considerable number of people having to do with children’s music who seem quite incapable of distinguishing between a really beautiful folk-song and a trivial copy of one. Long association with the latter has produced the inevitable result. Only one argument can be brought to bear on such persons, an argument having nothing to do with eesthetics — namely, that the current music for children of one generation is inevitably displaced by that of the next, whereas the same folk-songs are continually reproduced, and are sung by increasing generations of children the world over. Any musician can string together in logical sequence a series of notes to fit a verse of simple poetry — almost every musician has; any poet can put together simple and æsily understood verses; but the hand of time sweeps them away to oblivion. Out of the depths of simple hearts, in joy or sorrow or privation, as a balm to toil and labor, as a cry from a mother’s heart, in battle, in moments of religious exaltation — wherever and whenever the depths are stirred, song springs forth. A composer can express only what is in him; his limitations are as confining as are those of every other artist. Dickens could no more create a Clara Middleton than could Tschaikowsky a theme like that at the opening of the Ninth Symphony; and to suppose that the creation of a child’s song is a simple matter of putting notes together in a correct and agreeable sequence, is to misconceive the whole creative process.

It is our cardinal error that we think any tune good enough which is attractive at first hearing. In the musicbooks provided for kindergarten and for home singing there is an endless series of poor, vapid, over-sweet melodies which children, hungry for any music, will sing readily enough for lack of better. Some of these tunes smack unmistakably of a Broadway musical comedy; many of them are full of mawkish sentiment and affected simplicity. No real progress can be made until we reach definite conclusions on this point and act on them. Our taste and that of our children is never stationary, — we continually advance or go backwards, — and the subtle disintegration of the taste of children by bad songs results inevitably in indifference to good music in later life.

I must reserve for another place the discussion of this difference and the possible remedies for it; let me here content myself with saying that nearly all children love good songs, and that, as a part of their natural or normal endowment, they possess in this respect, and to a remarkable degree, that quality which we ignobly call ‘taste.’ (I recall an old Egyptian manuscript in the Bodleian Library containing a letter which ran thus:—‘ Theon to his father, TheonGreeting. It was a fine thing that you did not take me to Alexandria with you. Send, me a lyre, I implore you! If you don’t, I won’t eat anything. I won’t drink anything. There! ’)

The number of musical nostrums for children is legion, and I have no desire to enumerate them. Their effects are in inverse relation to their extensive and — sometimes — expensive paraphernalia. But I will quote a single sentence from a popular song-book for children as an illustration of the tendency which they represent: ‘Understanding as we do the innate fondness of children for rich harmonies, we have given special attention to the harmonization of the melodics; and although it is occasionally necessary for children to sing without accompaniment, yet such a lack is to be deplored, as the accompaniment often serves as the rhythmic expression of the thought.’

The foregoing specimen is almost a compendium of what children’s songs and the teaching of them should not be. If children are fond of ‘rich’ harmonies, the fact is to be regretted. (I do not believe that the average child is.) The best possible thing for them, in that case, would be to hear no harmonies at all for some time, but to sing entirely unaccompanied (just as you would deprive them of sweetmeats if they had been made ill by them); special attention given to the harmonization of children’s songs is given in an entire misconception of their character and their uses; for the essence of a child’s song lies in its own rhythmic and melodic independence, and if it depends on an accompaniment for its rhythm, it is by just so much a poor song; the very essence of all the musical expression I have been advocating for children is destroyed by an accompaniment, for the instrument does for the children precisely what we want them to do for themselves, namely, reproduce correctly the metre and the rhythm, the pitch and the contour of the melody.

Such training as I have advocated, if carried on through early childhood, brings with it a natural desire to continue singing and makes learning to sing from notes much easier than it would otherwise be. The capacity to sing music at sight is a valuable acquisition for children, for it enables them to take part in choral singing and provides them in after years with a delightful means of access to some of the finest music. The advantage to the individual of this acquired technique is that it is of the mind and not of the muscles; it does not desert its possessor as finger technique deserts the player who ceases to practice. To sing part songs with friends, or to be one of a larger number singing a composition by Bach or some other great composer, in which each singer is contributing to reproduce a noble work of art — this, in itself, is a highly desirable experience. But the process of learning to sing at sight has sometimes led far away from true æsthetics and has resulted in a certain debasing of the taste through singing inferior music. Vocal exercises for sight singing are necessary, and we can accept them as such, for they do not evoke the aesthetic sense; but bad songs taught to illustrate some point of technique are unnecessary and inexcusable.


But the majority of the children who have private instruction in music take lessons in pianoforte-playing. It has become a custom; the pianoforte is an article of domestic furniture (and a very ugly one); pianoforte-playing is a sort of polish to a cursory education. But the reason is chiefly found in the fact that this is the line of least resistance: there are plenty of teachers of pianoforte-playing but few teachers of music, so parents accept that which is available.

There is here a confusion between performing music and understanding it. Learning to perform seems (and is) a tangible asset — something definitely accomplished; while merely learning to understand music seems to parents a vague process likely to have somewhat indefinite results. They want their children to produce tangible results in the form of ‘pieces’ well played. Here again we find the same misconception. Music in this sense is half titillation of the ear, and half finger-gymnastics. Such music instruction consists in finding the right key, black or white, holding the hand in a correct position,— patented and exploited as the only correct method, — putting the thumb under, and finally, after going through an almost endless series of evolutions covering many years and carried on at fearful cost of patience to every one within hearing, in dashing about over the glittering keys with an abandonment of dexterity positively bewildering. Nine tenths of the aspirants, however, fall by the wayside and some time later look back grimly on a long procession of endless hours almost wasted. One pictures to one’s self a little girl of seven or eight seated before that ponderous and portentous mass of iron, steel, wood, wires, and hammers which we call a ‘ pianoforte ’ (sixty pounds of tender, delicate humanity trying to express itself through a solid ton), her legs dangling uncomfortably in space, her little fingers trying painfully to find the right key, and at the same time to keep in a correct position, struggling hard the while to relate together two strange things, a curious black dot on a page and an ivory key two feet below it, for neither of which she feels much affection. And then one pictures to one’s self the same child at its mother’s knee, or with other children, singing with joy and delight a beautiful song.

I do not advocate the abolishment of pianoforte-teaching to children, but I do advocate the exercise of some discrimination in regard to it, and particularly I insist that it should not be begun until the child has sung beautiful songs for several years and has developed thereby its musical instincts, — and even then only when a child possesses a certain amount of that physical coördination which is absolutely essential to playing the pianoforte. For pianoforte-playing is by no means a sure method of developing the musical instinct in children. In the first place it lacks the intimacy of singing, and in the second place the playing itself demands the greater part of a child’s attention, so that often it hardly hears the music at all. Any method of teaching music is, of course, wrong which attempts to substitute technical dexterity for music itself. The foregoing is not typical of the most intelligent instruction in pianoforte-playing, for there are many teachers who reason these matters out, and there are some parents who see them clearly enough to allow such teachers a reasonable latitude. But it is true of pianoforte-teaching in general, as doubtless almost every one of our readers has had some evidence. It is obvious that even a slight capacity to play the pianoforte is useful and delightful provided one plays with taste and understanding, for one gets from it a certain satisfaction which mere listening does not give. I deplore only an insistence upon playing as the only means of approach to music; I question the wisdom of forcing children to play who are not qualified to do so; and I think playing should, in any case, be postponed until the musical faculties are awakened by singing.


When children show an aptitude for playing the pianoforte there exists still the important question of developing their taste. Playing loses much of its value if there is any lack of musical taste and judgment on the part of the teacher. An examination of the programmes of what are called ‘pupils’ recitals’ will reveal how lax some teachers are in this respect. There is no excuse whatever for giving children poor music to play, for there is plenty of good music to be had and they can be taught to like it — but the teacher must like it also. Children are quick to discover a pretense of liking, and it is difficult to stimulate in them a love for something which you do not love yourself.

These questions now inevitably arise: ‘How can children be taught music itself?’ ‘By what process is it possible for them to become musical?’ Obviously through personal experience and contact with good music, and with good music only, first by singing beautiful songs to train the ear and awaken the taste, second by learning how to listen intelligently, and third (if qualified to do so) by learning to play good music on some instrument. Intelligent listening to music is obviously such listening as comprises a complete absorption of all the elements in the music itself. It is not enough to enjoy the ‘tune’ only, for melody is only one means of expression. The listener must be alive to metric and rhythmic forms, to melodies combined in what is called ‘counterpoint,’ to that disposition of the various themes, harmonies, and so forth, which constitutes form in music. The groups of fives, for example, which persist throughout the second movement of Tschaikowsky’s Pathétique Symphony constitute its salient quality; the steady, solemn tread in the rhythm of the slow’ movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony defines the character of that piece; the weaving of the separate, individual parts in a composition by Bach is his chief means of expression, and his music is unintelligible to many people because they are incapable of answering to so complex an idiom; the latitude in melody itself is, also, very great, and one needs constant experience of the melodic line before one can see the beauty in the more profound melodies of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.

What we are seeking to do is to make ourselves complementary to the music. We need to see that æsthetic pleasure is not by any means entirely of the senses, but rather of the imagination through training of the feelings and the mind. We want our listeners to assimilate all the elements in a piece of music and then to re-create it in the imagination. It is the office of art to express beauty in such perfect form as shall make us reflect upon it.

This principle applies, of course, to the appreciation of any artistic object whatsoever. One cannot appreciate Whistler’s portrait of his mother by merely realizing that the subject looks like a typical Victorian dame, any more than one can appreciate Whitman’s ‘To the Man-of-War-Bird’ by locating Senegal. Whistler’s idea is expressed through composition, drawing, and color, and each of these qualities has a subtlety of its own; the pose of the figure is a thing of beauty in itself; the edge of the picture-frame just showing on the wall, the arrangement of curves and spots on the curtain, the tone of the whole canvas— all these make the picture what it is, and all these we must comprehend and take delight in. Whitman’s poem is a thing of space and freedom; the sky is the wild bird’s cradle, man is ‘a speck, a point on the world’s floating vast’; the poet’s imagination ranges through the whole created universe and flashes back over vast reaches of time as if to incarnate again man in the bird. So this music, which reaches our consciousness through rhythms, melodies, and harmonies, through form and style, through the delicate filigree of violins, or the triumphant blare of horns; which says unutterable things by means of silence; which means nothing and yet means everything, — this Ariel of the arts, — this, in all its quality, must find echo within us.

Observation, discrimination, reflection; cultivating the memory for musical phrases and melodies,disciplining the senses, enlarging the scope of the imagination, nurturing the sense of beauty — these are the means and the objects of musical education for children. By such a process we attain in some measure to that joy which is one of the chief objects of art, and of which our present situation almost completely deprives us.

So let us say finally that we wage war here against patent nostrums, against enforced and joyless music-teaching, against the development of technical proficiency without taste or understanding; and that we uphold here a process of musical education which has for its object ‘ being musical,’and which takes into its fold every child, boy or girl, and keeps them there as man and woman.

  1. ’What is Music ? ’ in the Atlantic Monthly for February.
  2. G. Stanley Hall.