Music and development

Music in baby/child development

Today I have had the pleasure of visiting a parent-child music activity session in London. I was invited by Caroline, the UK general manager of Jo Jingles, to come and supervise three classes in one morning (for different age groups all under 5 years) to see what kind of activities go on and to see the reactions and interactions between the parents and the children. I am not one to turn down such an interesting invitation!

In the past couple of years I have become more and more interested in how music is used in the real world for positive benefits: As such, as I have been involved in projects looking at music in shops, music in language learning, music in film and music in therapeutic contexts. But to date I have not yet seen how music is used in a parent-child bonding/learning situation.

Children love music!

Parent-child interactive music session classes are becoming increasingly popular in the private sector in the UK. Studies from the US/Canada have investigated the positive impacts of these classes, as compared to listening to music passively in the home. You can read about some of the results in one of my previous music psychology blogs.

You can also read an excellent article by Alex Lamont on the importance of music in young children’s lives here, The results of studies like Laurel Trainor’s have been so encouraging that I was keen to see how the sessions were run, what was involved, how the parents reacted and how the babies and children responded.

The first Jo Jingles session of the day was for children from ‘walking’ to about 2 years old. There were around a dozen children with their mother or carer. Each pairing had a little mat that was part of a larger circle. Laura, the session leader and my guide for the day, was already in full swing with the ‘Freeze’ song. Here the parents move around the room in rhythm to simple child-friendly music, either carrying the child or walking them, and occasionally have to freeze when the music stopped. The aim of this type of activity, Laura told me, was to get the children moving, feeling rhythm, and also to teach them listening (for their freeze cue) and learning skills.

All the sessions were full of these types of little games, with varied music and movements. They were short enough to hold a child’s attention and to get them trying different movements, with different parts of their bodies, and to different rhythms. There was a lot of happy giggling going on!

There were also games that involved playing different instruments. These varied according to the age group of the children – from little maraca-type colourful fishes for the babies up to drums and cymbals for the 2-5 year olds. Laura used the instruments to again teach listening and attention skills, but also to teach simple word meanings (fast, slow, loud, quiet – they definitely understood ‘loud’ the best!) and numbers, manual and bimanual coordination, and balance.

Then there were the relaxing songs in between the more energetic activities. Here the little ones could be sung to and cuddled for a bit. This seemed a great idea to me as I can imagine a child getting a little overexcited if there was just drum bashing for 45 minutes! Laura also used the music for both ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye’ songs, as well as little warm ups and cool downs.

How might the music be helping in this type of class? What does it provide that any other type of parent-child class could not accomplish? In my opinion:

1) Music grabs the child’s attention: Laura used her voice well to  try to attract the children’s attention but they were always more focused when she did the activities with music in the background as compared to when she was showing them what to do before the music.

2) Music is internally motivating: This explains why it grabs a child’s attention in the first place. They get a sense of reward from listening to music. We know that the adult reward system in the brain responds to music and, even though it has not yet been demonstrated, I would guess the same is true for children.

3) Music facilitates fast transition: With an average of 8-10 different activities in each session the child must move quickly from jumping to cuddling. I am sure that this would not have been so effectively accomplished with verbal instruction alone. The children seemed to recognise that quieter and slower music meant it was time to return to mum and have a sit down – to consider putting the drum beater down for a minute!

4) Music stimulates vocalization/communication: Many of the older children were relatively quiet until the music came on, perhaps shy, but then began happily babbling or trying to mouth the words to the songs. Some of them even appeared to have learned the words and were happily engaged in singing with Laura or their mum/carer.

5) Music blends easily with other stimuli and boosts their effects: My favourite part of the morning was probably the baby class and the bubble song. Laura played slow, calming music and blew tiny bubbles into the air over the babies – every single child sat or lay watching, in complete awe. When the music stopped, the bubbles remained around us but the effect on the children was not the same.  Fascinating…and worth remembering!

In conclusion I thoroughly enjoyed my day at Jo Jingles. I think there is much work to be done in looking at the effects of these music classes on child development and I very much hope that I might be able to do some research into some of the effects that I observed today. There should certainly be more music in young children education, not less, judging by the happy smiling faces of these little ones.


  • Diana Hereld

    Dear Vicky,

    I’ve so enjoyed hearing about your experience with Jo Jingles! When I am not teaching private lessons, I work for a music therapist and owner of an early childhood music program called Music & Movin’ in Los Angeles. My absolute beloved part is what we call the “mommy and me” classes for very young babies. My favourite aspect of your post was in speaking of the way various stimuli can almost blend into one another, and the way music may boost it. We end all of our classes with bubbles too, and let me tell you, the moment that music stops, they know the class is over and chaos again reigns hehe! Looking forward to future research you have into the topic.

  • vicky

    Hi Diana, sounds great! Jo Jingles are now collaborators in our research program and we will hopefully run a study in the classes as part of the MMB this year. Hopefully this is a collaboration that will continue in the future and will provide loads of interesting insights into the role of music in baby and child development. Thanks for the comment! Vicky

  • Tim

    Good read, and completely agree… my work is linked with music and preforming and this has allowed us to get our kids involved from a young age. Music and dance is so good for kids on many levels ie not get keeping active and fit and keeping the brain fit 🙂

  • Roy

    Hi, thanks for the information you have provided here. I father a 4 year old son who loves to listen to old albums like Cliff Richards, Elvis Presley, George Michael etc. He infacts sings a few nos. quite well and hums them when he’s not listening to any songs. For e.g. one of his fav songs is ‘Wise men say only fools rush in.. the famous Elvis number’ and ‘You are my theme for a dream.. by Cliff Richards’. Now here’s the problem. His kindergarten school teachers oppose me making him to listen to such songs and have advised me to play him only ‘kiddo’ songs, rhymes etc. (if at all required) that are very soothing to tender ears. Their take on that is that the brain of a child of that age is not ‘trained’ or matured enough for songs like that and such songs should be introduced to the children at the right age. Although I was not particularly convinced, I tried (half-heartedly) to follow their orders and stopped playing his fav. songs to my son. He gets very upset at times when he’s not getting to listen the song that he wants to listen to and I feel very bad and guilty. I just wanted to know if what they (his teachers) asked me makes any sense.. Do such songs really have such negative impacts on tender aged kids? Thanks.

  • vicky

    Hi Roy. Thank you for the email. First, I know of no research that suggests brains are ever ‘too immature’ to listen to a certain kind of music. However, the teachers might have a point (though not exactly the one they intend by the sounds of it). Children’s music – the simpler sound textures, rhythms and contours – may be easier for children to process. That is probably why lullabies, the songs we sing naturally to children, are very simple. So my advice, taking into account what I know from the scientific literature is to play children’s music sometimes (or, even better, sing/play yourself) as there may be something to the idea that the simpler musical constructions help support learning about sound and language. But at the same time if a child is soothed by Cliff Richard then play Cliff Richard! If I had children then I would be trying to achieve a balance of the two kinds of music (child and adult) depending on what is more appropriate at the time. All the best, Vicky