It’s 2006 and I have a new baby. I love music, so I look for a local baby music group. I’m not even sure what to look for, and as a new mum, I cannot find a central directory of services. Finally, I google the right keywords to find a local franchise, but it has a waiting list. (A waiting list? For baby music?!) I look further afield. I find another franchise about an hour’s drive away, with free spaces. Chatting to the teacher after the session, she suggests that because I live so far away, I sign up to the same low-cost franchise and start delivering my own sessions – that way, my little one will definitely attend! Being fairly musical (I had taught myself guitar as a child and sung in the school choir for a couple years), I did it.

Supporting skills: (Part 1)

  • In a circle, children can: (learning relationship)
  • In a line, children can: (learning sequencing)
  • When leaving out the last line of a song, children can: (planning skills)

Supporting skills: (Part 2)

  • Children use language by: (language skills)
  • Weekly sessions: (concentration skills)
  • Children can learn: (memory skills)

Musical skills: (Part 3)

  • Children keep the pulse through: (pulse skills)
  • Children recognise: (rhythm skills)
  • Children can use: (percussion skills)

Musical skills: (Part 4)

  • Listening to music, children can: (listening skills)
  • Children match the pitch by: (pitch skills)
  • Children recognise: (interval skills)

While I was studying my part-time psychology degree, I ended my franchise license arrangement and started planning my own curriculum. Having worked with children from birth (youngest student ever was 6 days old!) to 7 years old, I had begun to recognise patterns in both the children and the music education styles. Children developed interests at different times (child development studies), and since the music education styles had no age-limited order, just a general progression, they worked perfectly for everybody. The more children I was around, the more I could see that their engagement with stories lasted longer than incidental skills training (memory skills from psychology training), so I wove child-appropriate themes into initial skills. To understand it better for myself, I created a table of musical skills/ages and a table of child development skills/stages and then combined them. This turned into a table of musical skills progression, starting with the ideas from the August musical article: Music ABC’s for Littlies, on “being natural”, “getting moving” and “experimenting with sound”. Researching the music education approaches, I noticed a clear progression in 12 skills, loosely divided into supporting skills and musical skills, and all easily introduced using easy-to-learn singing games. This article is part three of a four-part series describing the musical behaviours that we can see and encourage from birth to 7 years old.

Children keep the pulse through: (pulse skills)

The pulse is the foundation of rhythm, or keeping a beat, and is developed through experience. Although the regularity of clapping or walking to a beat comes relatively naturally to adults, this is not true of children. Sometimes it is due to a lack of experience (they have not had other adults keep a beat with them), lack of attention (they may match their own heartbeat instead of an external beat), or lack of understanding (they may not understand the purpose of the exercise), but research has shown that the skills of under 5s tend to only match the pulse approximately 50% of the time. Little ones start recognising external beats by tapping or clapping. As they start walking, keeping a beat progresses to stamping. As they get better at controlling their limbs, they are able to click or flick their fingers, hop on one foot, and progress to skipping – interestingly, it becomes easier to keep a beat with longer heavier limbs, like our legs, than our (lighter) arms! Older children will begin to gain control in activities like patsching (tapping knees), and then be able to use a combination of skills. To date, research does not show whether keeping a pulse is a predictor of future musical ability, but is almost certainly a sign of past experience. From swaying to clapping, stamping to tapping, matching movement to the pulse seems to indicate the ability to internalise music. And when we can internalise music, or hear it in our heads, we can start to invent or create our own music.

Children recognise: (rhythm skills)

Music is often compared to maths because of its additive qualities, and fractions is one part of maths that is said to come easier to children who formally learn music theory. Before children even begin school, the ability to learn successfully in the future depends on providing a wide variety of learning experiences early on. The same is true in music. Foundational music skills begin with rhythm, keeping a beat, and little ones are already used to their own and their mother’s regular, ongoing heartbeat. The crotchet or quarter note beat is the first step that little ones take after matching their internal heart beat when tapping instruments, because it is regular, called the “pulse” in musical terms. As little ones master this skill, they can be introduced to doubling that speed as the quaver or eighth note. We introduce these ideas naturally through starting with bouncing or clapping to the beat/pulse, and as they get older, walking to the beat. As they become more confident at changing from jogging to walking and back to jogging, we can show how that sounds musically, that jogging is twice as quick as walking (it is helpful to use the term “jogging” first, as quavers/eighth notes, as soon we introduce semiquavers/sixteenth notes which are twice as fast again as the jogging quavers/eighth notes!). Once confident in walk/jog changes, skipping can be introduced as an experience of the dotted rhythm (e.g. Girls And Boys Go Out To Play). “Slow walk”, or the minim/half note, introduces even more self-control through taking twice as long as a crotchet/quarter note. Games involving walking and changing to jogging at a signal, and then changing back to walking, not only reinforce musical notes, but develop listening, self-control (inhibition/excitation) as well as physically introducing them to maths skills like fractions and physics skills like frequency.

Children can use: (percussion skills)

Accessible instruments depend on size (i.e. can the child hold the instrument comfortably?); and purpose (can the child play it/perform clearly/appropriately?). If the purpose of the session is exploration, it will not matter how it is held or played, but whether the child remains engaged (sounds exploration will be different for most children) and careful with the instrument. However, if the purpose of the session is to develop musical skill, the child will need to hold and play the instrument conventionally for activities including basic accompaniment, playing together, or maintaining a rhythm by keeping a beat. Starting simply is a good rule of thumb but following the child’s interest is a more important priority, as musical skill and technique can be built from literally any of these interests. And whether with adults or children, it is useful to remember that people are not inanimate, unchanging objects, but constantly interactive. So while it is helpful to have goals in early years sessions, it is always necessary to be aware and respect that every child or learner comes equipped with skills and abilities from previous experience, so be prepared for surprises and changes!


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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