“What is the most important musical thing I can teach my baby/toddler/pre-schooler?”

This is the most common question that most parents attending early music sessions ask. And the most common answer is, teach your child to love music. But depending on our own culture or upbringing, we may have insecurities about being measured up and found not to be good enough in different ways. On top of which, different activities come more naturally to some than others, and people who struggle to keep up, especially in front of a group, are often mocked or shamed by their peers for trying. The good news is that with little ones, they have no other source of comparison than you – and you are perfect to them! You are the funniest, kindest, most important person in the world who can do no wrong, and as a parent or carer, you can use this to unleash your inner dancer or singer and perform without worrying! So, how do you teach your child to love music? This article is going to break it down.

A: Be natural

Getting caught up in “appropriate” musical styles or what you think they “should” like is not helpful to anyone, especially you and your little one. But if they see you singing comfortably, playing, dancing and having fun, that will make a greater impression on them. From birth, little ones are watching their parents and the important people in their lives. Babies watch parents to learn how to survive, what to value, and what to avoid so that they do not get hurt. As they get older, children learn to watch to see what gives you pleasure, what puts you in a good mood, and they take in every tiny detail, reading body language better than any professional profiler! So, play the music you love, the music that makes you laugh and cry, the music that makes you feel, that makes you remember. Share this unique part of your life that they can hold on to for the times that you may not be around. And when they see you unselfconsciously sing or dance, it not only gives them permission to explore these skills, it gives them confidence that if you can do it, so can they.

B: Get moving

Different types of music can evoke different reactions. By moving, we can begin to sense the type of song we are hearing, whether we tap our feet or clap our hands, to physically moving arms, legs and bodies in time with the music. Whether you have been taught the difference between 3/4 and 4/4 timing, or whether you can just instinctively feel when to move makes no difference – as long as you move. Lullabies like “Rock A Bye Baby” generally get us swaying gently to the beat, while “The Grand Old Duke Of York” immediately gets us marching along to the song – it would be quite strange to march to “Rock A Bye Baby”! These are examples of fairly powerful movements because of the emotions they convey. For example, rocking has a relational element to it, as children are comforted by the closeness, the smell of mummy or daddy, the sound of the heartbeat and humming vibrations from your chest, and the warmth, which makes it a powerful, secret anti-tantrum tool. In comparison, marching has a communal quality, as an action that is relatively easy to copy, that can be done altogether by a group of any size, and feels like an incredible, choregraphed performance when everyone is caught up in the magic of the moment! In terms of musical skills, moving helps your little one to begin to recognise pulse and rhythm!

C: Experiment with sound

You may be a natural at finding a harmony, or you may not yet notice any difference between the notes in a song – it does not matter to small children because everything is new and exciting! The first steps to hearing more accurately is hearing the differences between different objects or instruments, also called timbre (pronounced tamber). What does metal on metal sound like? What about wood on wood? Glass bottles with different levels of liquid? Strings tied at different lengths and pulled tight? What happens when you blow through pipes of different sizes? Hearing the difference between spoons on pans, or sticks on a plastic tub begins to introduce the idea of low sounds and high sounds. Imitating these sounds with the voice gets the body used to how it feels to sing a high note or a low note. Next steps are singing along with your favourite singer, following their ups and downs, which is great practice for learning to sing in tune. Using funny voices (‘witchy’ voice, ‘fairy’ voice, ‘giant’ voice, ‘dinosaur’ voice, ‘opera’ voice, ‘whispery’ voice) also helps you to find your own unique sound. Experimenting is a natural part of little ones’ lives, so they will love experimenting with you! And in musical terms, this experimentation teaches them to identify pitch and melody!

Once you move to the beat, and hear the differences between sounds, learning music is all about being able to hear and copy smaller and smaller differences in beats and sounds, and the next article will provide more suggestions on musical milestones that little ones may reach. Just as reading takes us to a written world beyond our imagination, music takes us to a sonic world full of emotion. By helping your little one develop a love for music, you are giving them many more life skills than research has been able to identify. You are introducing them to repeated patterns they will use in education; giving them a healthy space to unwind and destress as life gets more complicated; and introducing them to a lifelong friend that always knows just how they feel.


About the author

Frances Turnbull

Musician, researcher and author, Frances Turnbull, is a self-taught guitarist who has played contemporary and community music from the age of 12. She delivers music sessions to the early years and KS1. Trained in the music education techniques of Kodály (specialist singing), Dalcroze (specialist movement) and Orff (specialist percussion instruments), she has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology (Open University) and a Master’s degree in Education (University of Cambridge). She runs a local community choir, the Bolton Warblers, and delivers the Sound Sense initiative aiming for “A choir in every care home” within local care and residential homes, supporting health and wellbeing through her community interest company.

She has represented the early years music community at the House of Commons, advocating for recognition for early years music educators, and her table of progressive music skills for under 7s features in her curriculum books.

Frances is the author of “Learning with Music: Games and Activities for the Early Years“ “Learning with Music: Games and Activities for the Early Years“, published by Routledge, August 2017.


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