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Top 5 Instruments for the Young Child

As a musician, a classroom teacher and a music teacher, I often have parents ask me what instruments to buy for their children.

For years, I went with the generic suggestion of “whatever your child seems most drawn to.”

And while it’s important to adapt curriculum and materials to meet your child where they’re at, simply giving your child free reign over what their first instrument is NOT the method for getting the best results out of your child’s formative musical years.

Most three year olds, for one reason or another, end up gravitating toward the guitar or the drums. Maybe it’s the loudness of the drums, the popular nature of the guitar, or because it’s what their dad plays.

But to make the most of your child’s critical period for auditory development (the formative language years between birth and age ~7), there are more ideal starter instruments than the drums or the guitar.

And as amazing as the piano is, there’s a starter instrument that’s even better.

Let’s take a look at the Top 5 Instruments for Young Children — the pros and the cons of each — as we make our way toward the ideal starting instrument for young kids.

5. Drums

The drums start this list at Number 5 by simultaneously being the best AND the worst instrument for a Young Musician. Here’s why:

Pros

  • Percussion and drums (like the bongos pictured above) are an easy instrument to start on. You hit it and it makes a sound. Tah dah!
  • Because drums only have one (or a few) sounds, they are predictable and consistent, which is pleasing to young children.
  • The loudness and the heartbeat like pulse that comes with banging a drum is a very human and powerful force.
  • Drums are the most gross motor of the instruments, which allows for a lot of energy and movement to be channeled through the drums.

Cons

  • The drums don’t give children any “meaningful exposure to individual pitch.” Infant, toddler, and preschool years are essential in developing a strong sense of musical pitch and if your child only play drums, the likely won’t grow up with a strong sense of pitch
    • I grew up in a family of drummers (myself amongst them) and when I got into college to study music, I struggled through many of the courses that other musician found easy. Even despite my intermediate skills on piano and marimba, I simply wasn’t practiced enough with identifying musical pitches and relationships.

Summary

While I highly recommend that every child have some drums in their life, and while I personally enjoy and perform on the drumkit more than any other instrument, only giving your preschooler drums is doing them a disservice. From birth until age five, children undergo massive auditory growth. Therefore, they are uniquely equipped to build their sense of pitch, which makes the need for a tonal instrument (one that plays notes like C, D, E, etc) essential.

4. Guitalele and/or Ukulele

Many children gravitate toward guitar and there are many child-guitar products out there. The Yamaha Guitalele comes in at number four on our list because it is the best quality small guitar out there (it’s a real guitar in make and feel and only costs $100). It is also more likely to survive your preschooler than many of the lower quality kid guitars out there.

Pros

  • Playing the guitar is fun. You can wear it around the house, easily sing-a-long and you’ll feel cool all the while doing it.
  • It’s an ideal instrument for any traveler, singer-songwriter, or casual picker.
  • There a lot of amazing educational resources out there for the instrument.

Cons

There are several problems with preschool children playing the guitar.

  • The guitar requires simultaneous action from both hands to produce any note other than the open strings (which in standard tuning, don’t sound like much played together).
    • Pressing with one finger and plucking with another is difficult for preschoolers. More often than not, you end up with a child strumming the open guitar without any idea of what note they are playing.
  • While the guitar is a tonal instrument, strumming an open chord (which most preschoolers tend to do a lot of) does not present either individual or meaningful exposure to notes
  • Children tend to play with the tuning knobs on a guitar without the knowledge of how to put it back in tune, and so they end up playing an random string of pitches instead of something consistent and predictable.
  • Furthermore, where a piano only has each note one time (there’s only one middle C on a piano) the guitar repeats notes (you can find 4 or 5 middle C’s on a guitar), which can be confusing for a preschooler to understand.

Summary:

I do have some strategies for young guitarists to make it simpler and fun, but on the whole, I would not recommend the guitar as your child’s first principle instrument.

A note on the Ukelele:

Ukelele’s have four string instead of six and many of the chords only require one or two fingers to play. While this does make it easier on young children, you still run into many of the same problems as the guitar. For a kid of five six or seven, the Uke is a great starting instrument (and learning Uke is all the rage these days).

3. Boomwhacker Xylophone  or  Chroma Notes Tube Resonator Bells

Both of these color coded xylophones are a great way to give children meaningful exposure to individual notes.

Pros

  • The benefits of the Boomwhacker Xylophone (first picture above) are that they are inexpensive. Also, the tubes can also be held and swung like a stick to produce pitch.
  • The resonator bells have a clear pitch and a long sustain, which is helpful for learning and identifying pitch.
  • Both instruments follow the Chromanotes (TM) system which we highly recommend for Young Musicians. Both instruments are also a collection of individual pieces that can be manipulated or organized in their own right, which is good for limiting a child to two or three simultaneous notes.

Cons

  • Boomwhackers do not have a very clear or sustained tone. If you purchase additional Octavator caps (which drop the tubes one octave) they are a little bit longer in sustain and warmer on the ear.
  • The only drawback specific to the resonator bells is that they are a bit expensive ($80).
  • Both instruments have the major drawback of needing a stick to play them. The average toddler or preschooler doesn’t have a ton of coordination and they won’t always hit the intended note. Even coordinated preschool children tend to swing for the fences instead of making deliberate contact. Furthermore, if the stick breaks or isn’t present, then the child cannot play. All of these disadvantages are manageable but they do make these xylophones less than ideal for young children.

Summary

Both of these instruments are great for slightly older kids (4-6) or for teachers that want to split the 8 notes among a group of kids. The need for a stick to play them as a xylophone is indeed a little difficult but it’s also not out of your child’s reach. If it weren’t for the instrument at Number 1, I would definitely recommend these.

2. The Piano (or keyboard)

The piano comes in at Number 2 because of it’s broad musical application and because it is time-tested and true as an powerful first instrument.

Pros

  • From fine motor coordination to a musical ear, the piano builds a wide range of musical skills. Knowledge of the piano converts to knowledge of a MIDI Keyboard, which many producers and technologists use as their primary musical instrument when composing on a computer.
  • Most important for preschoolers is that the one-to-one nature of the piano. Like a drum, a child hits a key and a sound comes out. There is no stick to swing, no pick to use, no bow to master, no simultaneous pressing and plucking. Press it and it goes.
  • Though the different black and white keys don’t make reading the pitches of a piano easy for a child, some Chromanotes Stick-On’s on will make the different notes of the piano easier to identify.

Cons

  • The major con to the piano is that there is too much information for a two and three year old to focus on individual notes. With guided help you can definitely achieve that result, but because all of the keys are together, it is hard to let a child free-play with an individual note.
  • Very often, if left to their own devices, children on a piano end up with such a mix of sounds and keys that it sounds too chaotic and all over the place to create a meaningful musical moment.

Summary

I recommend playing the piano to everyone… everywhere… always. It’s never too late to learn and it’s never too early to star and it is the best instrument for visualizing the relationship between notes, chords, and scales.

Despite it’s all around awesomeness, there’s still one better option for your Young Musician. Drum roll please…

1. C  Diatonic Desk Bells

C Major Diatonic Deskbells - Chromanotes Instrument for Early Childhood Development
C Major Diatonic Deskbells – Chromanotes Instrument for Early Childhood Development

For several reasons, the best starting instrument for a Young Musician is a C major Diatonic Desk Bells.

There are numerous advantages to Chromanotes desk bells that make them the ideal starting instrument for a child. There are also a few disadvantages, that can be remedied with a few tricks and tips.

Pros

  • The bells are color coded, which makes them easy to identify. Most children learn to identify and communicate basic colors before they can do the same for individual letters of the alphabet; therefore, they will find the red bell much faster than the C bell.
  • Like the piano or a hand drum, the bells are a one-to-one experience for a child. There is no stick to swing, no bow to master, no string to press and pluck. Their ease of play means more time spent getting predictable responses from individual notes.
  • They are tuned to the C-Major scale, which is the simplest scale to learn on the piano as well as the scale most often used in early music methods, Fixed-Do systems and other perfect pitch methods.
  • Where the piano and the guitar have dozens of notes on them, there are only eight notes in this bell set. This is much less overwhelming to a child. It also means they have a higher chance of finding the note they are looking for, which means more successes and more learning moments.
  • Each bell is an individual object, which means you can focus on as few or as many bells as you want. Limiting a child to one or two or three bells will help them to focus on each bell’s pitch. Better yet, you eliminate every parent’s favorite sound of the child smashing all the piano keys at once.
  • You also get the ability to move them, use them in free play (very powerful), have a catch with them, and group them in different ways to illustrate different intervals, chords, and patterns.
  • Finally, they have a clear and simple timbre that rings out well, which makes the pitches easier to detect.

Cons

  • The only complaint I’ve heard about these bells is that they can be quite loud. To remedy this, pick up an inexpensive pack of furniture pads and stick one on the inside of each bell to mute the sound a little. The pitch will not be affected and if your Young Musician is a little heavy-handed, the muted sound will be easier on the ears of mommy and daddy.

Summary:

I cannot recommend these bells enough!! Use them in free play, use them as musical cues, and play listening games with them!

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