Music Aptitude and Music Achievement
Just as all children are born with the potential to learn to speak and understand their native language, all children are born with the potential to learn to “speak” and understand their native music. This means that all children can learn to sing in tune and keep a beat with some kind of body movement such as tapping, clapping, or walking. These milestones can usually be achieved by age six or seven, if not earlier. If a child can sing in tune and move rhythmically at an earlier age or with special ease and grace, we often think of him as talented or “musical.” Many children however, never achieve these skills at any age, or do so only with great difficulty.
As a culture, we tend to make the mistake of judging these children to be inherently “unmusical.” Such a mistaken judgment is a result of not understanding the difference between music achievement and music aptitude. Music aptitude is the inborn potential for music learning and growth. It is determined, so far as we know, biologically. Music achievement is what we actually are able to do with that potential, and it is determined environmentally. It is important to understand that singing songs in tune and keeping an accurate beat are learned achievements, as opposed to inborn talents. They indicate the child’s level of achievement in music, but they do not, in and of themselves, indicate his level of music aptitude.
We understand this very well in the case of language. We do not judge a child’s present aptitude or future achievement in language by the intelligibility of his earliest attempts to talk. Furthermore, we do not expect two-, three-, and four-year-olds to speak in coherent paragraphs with uniformly correct pronunciation and emphasis (sometimes a difficult proposition for adults!). We expect them to speak as children speak, in their language of the moment, filled with the energy and earnestness to communicate, however difficult and cumbersome the big adult words may seem in their mouths. When a baby or toddler is in the midst of this period of primary language development, we call his language “babbling,” and we consider it charming and appropriate—even, some would say, superior to our own language in expressiveness.