A stage of child development that I encounter on a regular basis is one that is both a) super-frustrating and b) one that we’ve all experienced—or are soon to experience. It’s that period in your child’s growth where he or she has discovered that they can “converse”, that they can mouth strings of words in rapid succession and grownups take notice. Not only do we notice and smile with delight, but we also respond back, with more strings of words. The frustrating part is that this is the time that follows the point where your child has developed a simple vocabulary and gotten you to understand some of their “words”, but before the time when they are skilled enough to make their sentences intelligible. They are literally babbling. It sounds like the cadence of speech, but what the heck are they babbling about?! It’s going to take a few weeks to get real conversations going, but in the meantime, they are so sweetly earnest about imparting their opinions and describing their activities and getting adults to understand what they say. I’m elated when I encounter one of these babblers in our classes who approaches to tell me something very important, and then I deflate when I verbally respond to what I think they said (“Yes, I love the stamp on your hand!”) and I get a confused look back, as if to say “No, you don’t get it, Mr. Mark. Your response is not making sense to me!” In gatherings (like a Music Together® class), all the adults in earshot will try to help translate the babble sentences into something like sense. “It sounded like she said she her brother fed an orange to the cat?”
Of course, children improve their vocabulary, diction, sentence structure, etc. in short order, and the frustrations on both sides (not being understood and not understanding) fade, to be replaced by intelligent discourse between adult and child. (“I have to go poopie!”) Why? Because we adults keep talking back to our children, praising their efforts, modeling conversational behavior with other family members, friends, and store cashiers. Our children observe these interactions, keep practicing, and they eventually get it right. Children start linguistic communication with simple words and progress to sentences and grammar, but—Important development milestone distinction—through a hazy time of verbal babble! We recognize the babble for what it is: Progress! We encourage and promote it and voila, sentences.
Since this is Mr. Mark writing, you might have guessed where this is going two paragraphs back. Yes, child development in music follows a similar trajectory—infant vocables (coos and chirps and la-las and animal sounds) leading to what is clearly identifiable as toddler singing. (Simple songs like “Happy Birthday”, “Baa Baa Black Sheep” and “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye”) But in between all that is a period of, ta da, Musical Babble! (Researchers call it “Primary Musical Development Period” because “Musical Babble Period” looks silly in grant proposals, but that’s what it is!) And, analogous with language development—where there is a period where a child’s language efforts kinda, sorta, um maybe, sound like words but actually more like gibberish—there is a period in your child’s musical development where their efforts to revisit what they just heard on the stereo or from the singing of the person behind the wheel in the car, or from Mr. Mark and his minions (that would be you or nanny, dear reader) sound, well, unrelated to what just came before. Those cooing sounds and yelps that an infant makes at the end of song, those nonsense syllables that a toddler makes while walking (supposedly) aimlessly around the room while recorded music is playing, that seemingly random humming that preschoolers engage in while, among other pursuits, staring out a window: those are examples of musical babble. How can we adults help that babble turn into the rudiments of musical behavior (with all the inherent benefits to brain and body develop that follow)? By singing back to our children, praising their efforts, modeling musical behavior with other family members, friends, and—maybe—store cashiers.