Noise vs. music: Seeking better toy instruments for young children

There's a bell curve of children's musical instruments that looks something like this:

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As you can see, under this distribution a crappy birthday-party noisemaker actually fares better than a Steinway grand piano. Why is this?

It's the same reason we give kids washable markers and paint instead of Sharpies and acrylics: They can do some real damage with professional tools.

The range of sounds and intensity of volume of a full-size piano bring out the best and the worst in a child's musical experimentation repertoire. Since it takes some skill to actually make music on a real piano, the child is unlikely to happen upon a familiar melodic pattern by chance. This means that noise, rather than music, carries the day.

Unfortunately, most musical instrument manufacturers for young children seem unconcerned with this phenomenon. There are very few instruments that allow children to experiment with music as opposed to sound. Think about it.

The solution is to create musical instruments that have just a few notes that sound pleasant together in various combinations.

Toys that play an entire electronic melody with the touch of a button are verboten. Full-featured miniature versions of real instruments are out until the child is old enough to really learn how to play them. Percussion instruments should be well-made and offered relatively sparingly in unstructured play time.

So what does that leave us with? Well, you do have to do a little digging to find the good stuff. In future posts I will share some of the great kids' instruments I've found, as well as some ways to improve your child's experience with the toy instruments you might already have.


Baby Tap-a-Tune pianoIn the meantime, here's an example of a mass-produced toy that many families already have that fits the bill: the Little Tikes Baby Tap-a-Tune piano. Yes, it's plastic and everything, but it's pretty good. It has only four "keys," first of all; even better, the notes actually go together. If the toy is in reasonable tune, you can play all four notes together and create a major chord. Try singing "Row Row Row Your Boat" or "Are You Sleeping" while playing any of the notes in combination with each other. It will sound good, and your toddler can actually do it.

Teaching your young children to love music doesn't have to be a traumatic sacrifice of hearing and piece of mind. I wish most toy instrument manufacturers believed that, too.