This is a question I have been asked and heard asked numerous times over the years I have been in education. It is a fully understandable one as there are so many urban myths or alleged historical accounts of child prodigies beginning to excel on the piano by the age of five or six. Mozart is famously supposed to have been a confident pianist and composer around this age, but can this be considered to be a reliable guide for the ‘right’ time to learn to play the piano?
YouTube is littered with performances of living child pianists who seem to range from the tender age of around five upwards to the early teens. Some of these outstanding and very unusual children have been coached, cajoled and encouraged from what must have been their earliest years into playing the instrument with breath-taking results. Others I discovered are self-taught. Jay Lewington, aged eight years, is captured here performing the well known ‘Fantasie Impromptu’ by Chopin that he said he learned from YouTube.
If he did indeed accomplish this performance alone, or with the help of a teacher, it is a remarkable achievement.
What should not be overlooked is that this question is not simply about age. It is also, I would suggest, very much about the child. Every child is different and each child grows both mentally and physically at their own pace. Some children show an interest in music at an early age whilst there may be an equal number who do not. My feeling is that encouraging a young child to explore the piano is something that can be hugely beneficial and fun for the child. If the child demonstrates a curiosity that has come through this opportunity or even through their own initiative, then I would be inclined to allow this to develop naturally with or without the help of a teacher. Often the key to enduring learning is the encouragement of natural curiosity that is supported and nurtured by an adult.
There are, however, physical limits. Very small children, simply do not have the hand size to be able to ‘play’ the piano. Until around the age of four, this is likely to be a deciding factor whether they are ready to learn the instrument. Posture is also and eventually the ability to reach the pedals on the piano. That said, giving even a very young child the chance to sit at the instrument and explore the sounds I feel is rewarding and enjoyable for them.
The lovely thing about the piano is that to produce a sound you do not need any skill at all. Once a key or keys are depressed with sufficient velocity the strings will ring and the tone is produced. This is understandably appealing to children who would not perhaps have such good fortune if trying to make a sound from a bassoon. From these often highly percussive beginnings can come a more focused desire to study the instrument.
Another question that naturally arises from the age to start learning the piano is are there genuine benefits to beginning to learn the piano at say around the age of five or six years old? There are many different schools of thought on this conundrum with many claiming that this is dependent on the individual. If a child as young as five or six is motivated to learn the piano, is sufficiently grown for their hands to manage the size of the keys and has a reasonable degree of finger independence, then why not give them that opportunity.
There seems to be little evidence to suggest that if you begin a few years further on that you will be overtaken every time by the early starter, but that chance does exist. I have encountered people who began learning piano at age six who are certainly no more accomplished pianists that many who have begun in their early teens. A combination of innate ability, supportive and intuitive tuition and many hours of dedicated study are the key factors in achieving mastery of the piano.
What some studies suggest is that there is a highly positive effect of learning the piano on children’s cognitive facilities, especially if they begin early on. There is the further inference that the study of a musical instrument begun early in a child’s life will have a lasting and positive influence on their ability to learn and develop across other subject areas too. Further reading on this fascinating area of science can be found here.
There is often a considerable focus on the young when we consider the question of when to start learning the piano. Supposing you reach the age of sixty and suddenly yourself with the time, enthusiasm and energy to learn the piano? Is this a foolish endeavor, or could it yield wonderful results similar to those we might anticipate with younger musicians? Until relatively recently, it was a commonly held belief that the human brain tended not to have the capacity to learn as fast or as easily once past the age of forty.
At that time, it was felt, the human brain was somewhat set in its ways and taking on new skills was largely a fruitless task. Thankfully more recent science suggests that the ‘plasticity’ of the human brain continues into old age, implying that there are real benefits of learning the piano at almost any age and it seems it is certainly possible to choose to learn whether you are eight or eighty.
Interestingly, a further piece of research I read recently claimed that musical memory seems to be untouched by the effects of dementia. It may be that with more research in this field that a deeper understanding of the lasting benefits of studying a musical instrument will be revealed.
Returning to the original question, then there is not a ‘perfect’ or ideal’ age to start learning the piano. The starting point depends on so many other factors that it can only be judged on individual merits and the desire to learn.