Learning the Language of Music

This is a transcript of the Preschool Podcast, episode #21 “Learning the language of music”.

Check all episodes of The Preschool Podcast


Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things early childhood education.

In this week’s episode we discuss how providing children in your preschool programs with meaningful exposure to pitch can help them to learn the language of music at an early age. Incorporating musical education helps children sing in tune and understand rhythms, as well as reinforce skills like sequencing and patterning. Our guest, Rob Young, is the host and creator of Preschool Prodigies, a fun, colourful and accessible program for teaching children music. Rob studied music technology at NYU and after teaching preschool in Delaware he realized that this early age was the right time in a child’s life to start learning about the language of music.

If you’re interested in learning about the cognitive benefits of meaningful exposure to pitch and practical tips on how to implement musical education in your preschool then stay tuned for this week’s episode of the preschool podcast.

So Rob you’re our first guest on the podcast who has expertise in the music and auditory domain so we’re stoked to have you on the show. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Rob YOUNG: Yeah, thanks Ron, I’m excited to be here.

SPREEUWENBERG: So tell us about preschool prodigies. What’s it all about.

YOUNG: Sure. Well we’re prodigies is an interactive series of video music lessons that sort of combine video lessons with workbooks and with song sheets and make it nice and easy for people to get a music education. The real trick to preschool prodigies is avoid call meaningful exposure to pitch. And I’ve heard you talk on the podcast before about the sort of critical development period for young kids. So we’re talking about 0 to 5 basically and having a nice consistent meaningful play with music at that age. So what preschool prodigies does really well and what you can sort of do in your own classroom even if you don’t have preschool prodigies is what we call meaningful exposure to pitch. So this is the idea that instead of just sitting a kid in front of a piano with 88 notes to play.

Imagine sitting in front of a color coded bell or just a tube or anything that plays one note and allowing them to sort of experience that one note in a consistent and meaningful way. So we sing a lot about colors. We’re seeing a lot about the Solfeggio notes like do re me. We’re seeing a lot about letters and numbers and it’s all sort of a just different way of speaking about the same language of music. So it just makes it nice and easy. It sort of plays to kids strengths and that’s consistent and easy and you don’t need to read music either which makes it nice for a preschool teachers out there and for parents who maybe don’t have a music background but they do they know that they want to get their kids started playing instrument.

And why is meaningful exposure to pitch important?
Sure. Great question. So if you look at you know if you look at the children who grew up in Mandarin China or grew up speaking Mandarin Chinese and then you look at children who grew up speaking English. There’s actually a massive gap in the what we call the perfect pitch or the certainly the sort of the range of perfect pitch and perfect pitch is the idea that you can hear a note and then say oh that’s a C or that’s an E flat or an F. And it’s also the idea that you can look at a piece of music and because you sort of have this innate sense for pitch you can just sing it off the page. So what we’re really doing by giving kids meaningful exposure to pitch is sort of filling in this gap that exists that’s based mostly on the fact that English is not a tonal language.

So if you look at children who speak Mandarin Chinese they grow up speaking a language based on pitch based on tone. So even at the youngest you know even at six months old or even at six days old Their parents are kind of like you know speaking to them in a in a language that severely or heavily based on pitch rather. So the idea being that they have to learn how to sort of distinguish the pitches jump from one pitch to the next and all that sort of translate to developing a sort of innate musical ear that we unfortunately don’t get speaking English because English even though we do we go up and we go down and we sort of have inflection we’re not really based in pitch it’s not going to change the meaning of the word if you say it at a higher register or a lower register that makes sense.

Totally. And what’s the implication for that for a young child so let’s say there’s a child who is exposed to pitch in a meaningful way and a child who’s not what’s that going to mean for those children going forward?

Right. So give me a couple of things it just as far as just playing an instrument goes into sort of the most obvious place where it jumps out at you. So if you if you givee a young child to have some solid background with pitch you can play them a couple of notes on a piano and they could probably tell you Do re so, or that’s sol ti ray or anything like that. They can really communicate about the language of music. Another child might not even actually hear the difference in those notes a lot of a lot of tests will show that even if you play two notes that are next to each other. The average person or the average English speaking person won’t even be able to distinguish that there are different notes to be like oh that’s just the piano but really a child who has that exposure to pitches and be able to tell you oh that’s this the note versus other note and it’s sort of just a more general scale makes music a lot more enjoyable and makes music a lot more understandable and when you’re actually playing an instrument.

So you’ve got your favorite song they heard on the radio you sit down to have a guitar piano and just kind of figure it out because you’ve got this sort of ability to speak the language as opposed to sort of having to reverse engineer it from looking up a tab or looking up a cord chart and then playing it and then trying to sing that as you play it. So instead of just kind of reverse engineering music you can sort of just take it from the ground up and actually speak the language in a very fluid and natural kind of way.

Got it. Very cool. And what’s the origin story behind preschool prodigies When did you realize that this was an interesting opportunity that you wanted to devote yourself to?

Yeah that’s was a great question and a good story. It kind of started in high school and college in the sense that I grew up playing the drums and my whole family is a family of drummers. We used to have the most epic family Thanksgiving drum circles ever but see the problem with being a drummer and then going to music school is that you don’t really have any exposure to pitch that like you know 12 years or whatever price and the drums every day all the time. But then when it came to team time to sing in front of a class or to take time to listen to somebody play a piano piece and write it down I was totally lost. So in college I had to do a lot of like sort of blitzkrieg Sprint style. You’re training to sort of catch up. And I built a computer program that helped me do that. And then a couple of years later after I got out of school and everything, I was teaching preschool in Delaware I was kind of playing a gig that night doing the musician thing at night and teaching by day and I was like wait a second like these are these are the kids who need or who can really respond well to you know stimulus at that age to learning an instrument to memorizing the sound of pitch. This is exactly what I was missing.

I did what I really needed all of that all along to sort of get through all that sort of more difficult training stuff and to just be able to speak the language of music on a piano or on any kind of tonal instrument. So I started by using what they called boom wackers. They’re pretty popular in classrooms. They’re musical tubes. There are a great alternative or a great affordable alternative to the instrument that we tend to use. We can use a lot of dust balls in our program but the boom wackers are great because they’re a little bit cheaper they’re super terrible they’re easy to clean. And the first rendition of preschool prodigy is just a bunch of kids in my music classes with their boom wackers and then I would take just index cards as colorable index cards and hold them up or point it out on the board. And the kids would ball along and eventually I was like man it would be way better.

I didn’t have the point if I could just have a video or song that did this for me. And then I can help the kids I can interact like you’d like to pause the video and talk to them. So then it was like how do we make a little slideshow with the color. So we did that and then it was like OK let’s take it up a notch how do we make it. You know how do we have a host how do we get sort of the grants that are the you know reading sheet music inside of that video. So we sort of approached it that way and you’ve seen things like Guitar Hero or any of those dance games like Dance Dance Revolution or let’s dance or anything like that where the music sort of scrolls and then hit the certain spot and then you play. So that was sort of the inspiration the idea was to take that and apply it to really reading music and to you to give me the young kid making a super accessible to young kids is that make sense.

Totally. And so is it geared more towards preschool child care programs or more towards parents or both?

It started out being here toward parents. The idea was we had a lot of you know home school family a lot of individuals who wanted to give their kid music lessons. And so that’s sort of how it started out just in the marketing really just in the way that we spoke to people. But very quickly we shifted. I mean I worked in preschool for about eight years if not you know much longer if you count my pretty professional life just you know my mom worked in preschool so I was ok kind of shadowing and helping her out and she ran a holistic learning center in New York.

So just a lot of that with proud of is that it’s really easy to implement in the classroom for sort of a whole group or it’s really easy to do one on one at home and the workbooks themselves to sort of like sort of the integrated worksheets that go with each of them.
Definitely more geared toward the preschool classroom there’s a lot of you know handwriting exercises sequencing exercises patterning practice so things that you would normally see in a preschool curriculum. I mean I know a lot of I know a lot of preschool these days stay away from dittoes or worksheets or anything like that and they focus more on play. But this is definitely sort of based in that ditto. Daily Ditto daily exercise. Morning routine. That a teacher could pop on a video that could do some hand signs with their morning meeting and then boom five minutes later that had abused it for the day and they can move on in the rest of their class. The rest of their day. But they’ve also got this really awesome exposure to patch and it sort of it’s different in that it’s not we’re not like dancing and doing the wheels on the boss and like you know shaking our sleeves outworks singing about the notes we’re using and signs to go with each note.

So there’s sort of a nice kinesthetic way I memorize the pitches. And there’s also now we have we have it in so many iterations this point we’ve got lesson plans or teachers in a group we’ve got parent correspondence for a one on one setting. So we definitely have a very like Choose Your Own Adventure as far as whether it’s for parents or teachers and there’s definitely a lot of people on both sides of that spectrum using it.

Interesting and so you’ve mentioned things like OK there’s a video and I can use this in my program but can you explain to us sort of like OK I’m early child an educator this sounds really interesting Rob I want to go try preschool prodigies.

What would that look like for me to go find your product and then how would you suggest that I use you or the preschool prodigy program in my preschool or early learning program?


Yeah totally. So the best way to start out is with all of the free content that we have on YouTube. OK. And on our blog also a lot of it just gets aired on a sort of simultaneously we also have a podcast. You can find a lot of that as well. Pretty much the same free stuff go up on YouTube go up on our podcast go up on our blog. It’s pretty easy to find and that was and a lot of the lessons have to do with the hand signs so we’re saying and do ray me and things like that and we’re using these hands so that we don’t have an instrument or if you’re not totally sure of you want to invest in an instrument know you can get a good feel for like what my kids really enjoy this. It makes a lot of sense. It’s really easy for my class and that we don’t go in and invest in it right away and then if you’ve gone through some of the free lessons and you’re seeing that it’s working you might want to check out the free starter program which we have which is sort of more geared toward playing an instrument about four to six videos that are just about like playing the instrument sort of.

And we really recommend using the set of bells so that’s sort of the next investment that everybody makes is they get to do the free videos on YouTube with the hand signs and then they invest in a set of colorful desk bells which are really nice because they’re durable and they’re colorful and they’re also by being a bell, they’re individual notes so you can just give a kid one or two or three. Sort of helps to limit and guide their play to make a little bit more air proof which is a big part of what makes that balance so nice as opposed to like a piano because of having 88 black and white notes. You have three colorful ones and you can’t miss that kind of thing.

And then if you’ve got the bells and you’re really loving it or if you’re you know kind of cruising along then we have the preschool prodigy’s playground and that’s where we have you know 75 video music lessons all the parent correspondence step by step checklist. You know what a digital curriculum looks like but that’s the that’s definitely the idea and that’s where it lives and it’s it’s really really user friendly it’s really really colorful with a lot of fun and we’re constantly adding stuff to it. Right now at time to leave 60 videos in level 1 and there’s about 15 supplemental videos. And right now we’re actually gearing up for level 2 which will be geared more towards school age kids or toward kids in preschool who have finished the first level if that makes sense.

Very cool. I was poking her on your Web site and looked at some of the videos. Looks like a really good quality stuff for sure. Have you gotten any feedback from people saying anything about their experience with preschool prodigies program so far?
Yeah definitely if you go to preschoolprodigy.com/testimonials we have a lot of a lot of awesome feedback from some of our users up there. Some videos of parents doing it. Some not just some pictures of the kids working on them worksheets and playing their bells. I had a phone call a few minutes ago with somebody who was saying how like they love it because this combines actually reading music with numbers and with color. And then the kids love it because it’s sort of an instant gratification guitar hero esque videogame feel so it’s definitely a nice people but I only see it as a nice mix between the sort of more fun colorable gratification world that we live in and the more traditional music curriculum that’s focused on the reading the treble clef and things like that.

Great. So sounds like the children can get a bit more engaged with it.

So it’s not just like you’re watching a video for example and it’s also not like your you have a musical instrument that you don’t know what to do with it kind of tries to bring both of those together. Is that fair.


Yeah that’s it. That’s spot on. I mean I’m actually I tend to be surprised when I find out that kids are just watching the videos. A lot of times the oh my kid loves to watch your videos and I’m like but what about the hand signs? What about the instrument that they’re supposed to play.

So there’s definitely you know there’s definitely kids on both sides of the spectrum kids who want to be more passive and enjoy the observation side of it and then there’s obviously the kids that have you know a ton of energy and they want to play all the balls at once and give me all the bells and three and things like that. So you definitely get a nice you know reviews from all sides of the spectrum if you will.

And you’re also running a Kickstarter campaign right now. Can you tell us a bit more about that.

Yeah totally. So the Kickstarter was specifically so that we could get to sort of two or three, depending on how you look at it, big things sort of in motion for preschool prodigies one of those and the biggest one is that we’re getting our own brand of desk bells manufacturer that’s going to allow us to ship a little bit more really allows the ship with a little bit more confidence with a lot more speed. So we’re sort of moving from the whole like we buy bells and then we send them people. So now we have our own line and we have our own shipping facility and it’s going to drop ship directly from when you order. So between the time you order and I’m going out the door it’s just a couple of minutes or maybe like three hours at most.

That was a big part of the Kickstarter was to prefund or pre order pre-cell and bells for us to meet the minimum order quantity from Taiwan. So that was a big piece of it and thankfully we raised enough to do that so that actually already underway and happening right now which is really exciting.

Good to have Mr. Rob on a box which is kind of a kick.
And then we’ve also got we have sort of had a little bonus in there. We were to develop a PSP Bells app with a nice simple app that allows you to just have some colorful bells on your iPad or your Android device. That way you don’t want to deal with the cost of the bells or the shipping or if you don’t want a nice simple alternative and also for a lot of schools that have iPads and have a tax budget but they don’t have an instrument budget right now they can get a you know for 20 boards looking at 20 versions of the app on every iPad and all the kids can have an instrument to follow along with. So those were the two big forces behind the Kickstarter and the sort of third is the better international shipping fulfillment you get. You have a lot of international customers and that’s getting as we grow that’s getting obviously a little bit more complicated with the legality of things so we just need a little bit of a boost to get through the amount of paperwork and also some of the logistics behind shipping internationally which thankfully we’re working out right now.

Okay neat. And you actually have quite a bit of experience in early childhood education as you said. Even your mother was involved in preschool programs and so you had exposure to that from an early age and now you’re devoting your life to helping out preschool children with Preschool Prodigies. What excites you about what’s happening in early education right now?

Oh I definitely appreciate the technology side of things in the sense that I know that sort of what you guys have and have talked about in the podcast in the past, and I know that HiMama you know bringing the tech love to the sort of more logistical sort of preschool and I just as a sort of a nerd I guess but I definitely love the idea that more schools are going the steam are out and they’re making sure that technology and like tablets and computers are just sort of integrated into the classroom. I know that that’s sort of controversial in the sense that there’s a lot of parents out there who want less screen time or more nature based and obviously there’s merit to all that. I’m not going to pick a fight with anybody but I do just really love the introduction of technology and especially with the iPad and everything it just makes so many of the more of the basic things. Kind of what I was saying earlier we used to use flash cards than we used to use that. But now I have more of like the kids can use the video and I can go help the kids who are struggling or trying to get involved with the kid who is you know picking his nose and not doing what he is supposed to be doing or whatever.

So I definitely sort of flipped classroom mentality where we’ve got you know the instruction happening from technology and then the sort of interaction and the more like personal one to one interaction happening with the teacher and the kid that’s always to me been just really exciting when I used to run preschool classrooms. We used to do all kinds of stuff with the computer tech lab we’d have kids like walk up to their house on Google so they could show us like their walk home and you know kind of bring technology into the class. And there’s been this and again started of as a child of technology growing up like right when computers were sort of in the mainstream. I definitely just love geeking out and that kind of stuff that makes sense.


Yeah totally. And our stance as a technology company in early childhood education has always been that balance is the key and we actually hope that our products I’m all for example creates more time for educators to spend with the children instead of less time with the children having screen time. But I do think one of your really great points is just making things more accessible and your app that you’re doing the Kickstarter for I think is a perfect example right of something where you know maybe you can’t afford to get the physical bells in your program or you don’t have the budget for that or whatever. You now have an app potentially where you know all you need is a tablet and a tablet these days you can even buy for $30 on Cyber Monday for example. And it’s something that’s an asset that you can have for many years and you can download apps to access things that otherwise you wouldn’t be able to access which is I think phenomenal. So that’s a very good point.

Well Rob thank you so much for using your expertise to devote yourself to a cause that’s helping early childhood education. Personally I think preschool projects is a fantastic program and I hope some of our listeners will check it out. Yeah I really do. I think it’s fabulous I think. And more exposure to music in the auditory domain is really cool. And also the fact that what you’re doing has a lot of science behind it and a lot of research behind it. And that’s another trend that I personally am seeing as being very interesting in early childhood education right now. So Rob thank you so much for coming on the show today appreciate it.

Hey Ron. Yeah definitely. Thank you so much for having me.

Ron Spreeuwenberg

Ron is the Co-Founder & CEO of HiMama, where he leads all aspects of a social purpose business that helps early childhood educators improve learning outcomes for children.

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