At age 6, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart went on a European performance tour, showcasing his virtuosity on multiple instruments. While child musical prodigies with the extraordinary gifts of Mozart are rare, many children today do show early signs of exceptional musical ability.
The history of great performers in music is filled with such prodigies, including Daniel Barenboim, who performed in his first piano recital at age 7 and began to study conducting at 11; pianist Evgeny Kissin, who recorded an album of Chopin concertos at age 12; and operatic and pop music singer Charlotte Church, who also released her first album at 12.
Parents and teachers who have worked with highly musically gifted children—and musically talented young people themselves—point to a number of signs that can help identify talent as early as possible. Particularly for adults who are not themselves musical, this list can serve as an important guide.
1. Perfect pitch
An innate grasp of pitch is one of the most obvious early indications of strong musical ability in a young child. Experienced teachers point out that being able to sing on pitch and to identify when a musical composition or another singer is not in pitch is common among gifted young students.
The capacity to match any given pitch is one of the central qualities in musically gifted individuals. Many adults lack the ability to sing on pitch, so when a child easily matches pitch and sings on key, there is a strong indication of giftedness.
2. A sense of rhythm
A great sense of rhythm is another easy-to-spot characteristic of children with musical gifts. They may stomp their feet, clap, spin, or jump up and down in time to a favorite beat. It’s rare for young children to be able to keep time for the duration of an entire song, so any who do could be signaling their giftedness.
3. Quick song recognition
Being able to identify a song after hearing only the first few notes can be a sign of early musical talent. Memorizing the pitch and rhythm of the first few notes of a tune heard on the radio or on YouTube comes easily to children who are musically gifted.
4. A sense of movement
Additionally, children may show an extraordinary feel for music through their sense of movement in the space around them. While most younger children tend to collide with others on the dance floor, rhythmically and kinetically gifted kids often display rare gracefulness and a mature sense of spatial relationships when engaged in a classroom dance activity.
5. Fine-tuned emotions
A heightened emotional reaction to music is another hallmark of a child who possesses unusual musical gifts. Does your child cry when hearing sentimental or sad music? Does he or she become lighthearted in tune with a joyful song? If a child’s mood appears to deepen or brighten more so than similarly aged children in response to music, it may be a signal that he or she is more attuned to its power than others.
6. A quick study
Music teachers note that when a student who is beginning to learn an instrument is able to play a new piece with technical proficiency within a few days (sometimes within the first few minutes), he or she is very likely to be musically gifted.
Whereas an average student takes days or weeks to learn the proper dynamics, pitch, and execution of a piece, a gifted student often seems to have an immediate understanding of these concepts after first being introduced to a song.
7. A depth of appreciation
Some experts point out that musically talented people have the ability to hear music “vertically.” This simply means that they can easily identify the harmonics and instrumentation of a piece, along with its melody. A child who can pick out and sing along well with the bassline of a composition is demonstrating a deep, innate sense of the properties and character of music.
8. Original compositions
Composing one’s own musical works is another sign of early giftedness.
One contemporary musical prodigy, Ethan Bortnick, a Guinness World Record-holder as the youngest solo touring musical headliner, began to compose his own pieces at age 5—about the same age Mozart was when he began composing. By age 3, after being denied piano lessons because of his young age, Bortnick used a toy piano keyboard to reproduce tunes from popular media, playing them by ear.
Another of today’s gifted young composers, Alma Deutscher, was creating her own operas at age 10 and has also completed concertos for the violin and the piano.
9. Dedication to craft
No one should forget the fact that a passion for and dedication to improving one’s music skills is often a hallmark of great ability. Children who continue to show a desire to increase their musical knowledge, constantly listen to or begin to produce music, love to practice even the most rigorous drills, and display a pattern of the type of self-discipline necessary to gain proficiency, can certainly be identified as someone with significant musical potential.