This post is for parents who are interested in raising musical children, starting early with encouraging their infant or toddler’s musical abilities.
Most of the activities revolve around singing, but a few do not, and no formal music training or experience is needed.
So without further ado re mi…
How to Stimulate Your Child’s Musical Mind: Birth to Age 5
Do Short Musical Activities, Every Day
This may seem obvious, and the rest of this post goes much deeper, but doing music often is important: try to make music a daily part of your child’s life, even if only for 5 to 10 minutes a day.
You can incorporate simple activities into your existing routines, such as playing music over the stereo or singing a song, while you feed your child or get them ready for bed. The point is to make a concerted effort to do some type of short musical activity, every day.
Learn to Sing
Singing is the single best activity you can do to stimulate your child’s musical mind during their infant and toddler years. If you’re not comfortable singing, it’s okay (some of the activities below don’t involve singing), but I encourage you to try. Your voice is the ideal instrument to engage your child musically: from an early age they naturally pay attention to your voice, they can respond with their own vocal sounds, and you can encourage them to sing by example.
Tips for Singing with Infants and Toddlers
Here are a few tips on singing, specifically with your child’s musical development in mind, (including some for parents who don’t want to sing!):
Learn the Basics
It’s worth practicing some basic singing skills, including learning to:
- sing with decent pitch, and to ‘carry a tune’ (or stay ‘in key’)
- sing songs within your comfortable vocal range (how high or low you sing the song)
- sing songs starting from a reference note (e.g. from a pitch pipe)
- sing and move in-time with the rhythm of a song (like stepping or swaying)
If you’re not sure whether you can do the above, seek out a voice teacher; they can explain and evaluate you for these skills, give you honest feedback, and design a practice plan to help you improve.
Take Away the Words
When you sing to your child, sing songs without words or lyrics. You can sing songs you already know, just sing the melody and replace the words with a repeated vocal syllable (like ‘la la la la’). You can also hum the melody, but using a vocal syllable allows you to better express the melody’s rhythm and phrasing.
When you sing and remove the words, you encourage your child to focus on the music instead of the song’s language.
Interact and Imitate
You can encourage your child to sing and interact with you musically, even at a very early age, by imitating their natural vocal sounds, adding short bits of singing, and pausing to let them respond, engaging them in ‘call and response’ patterns.
The activity below Infant Pitch Matching describes in more detail how to encourage your child’s interaction, and is borrowed from a study in which mothers successfully guided their infants to imitate and match sung pitches at only 3 to 6 months of age!
To encourage older children and toddlers to sing and interact, you can sing short phrases, and then prompt them with smiles and positive encouragement like “okay, your turn now”. Even if at first they don’t respond, if you continue to sing and give them the opportunity as part of your everyday life, most children will eventually join in.
It’s best not to correct your child’s singing, and instead encourage them to sing freely and creatively.
Most children won’t be able to sing complete and accurate melodies until starting around ages 3 to 4 and most often around age 5 (Moog 1976) (Sloboda pg. 206), and during their infant and toddler years they likely won’t even be aware that what they’re singing is significantly different from you or ‘incorrectly’ (Gordon pg. 250).
It’s more important your child sings often, and less important they sing correctly.
Seek Out Caregivers Who Sing
If you have the opportunity to choose someone who helps you care for your child (grandparents, daycare, babysitters, etc.), seek out people who sing, and encourage them to sing when they spend time around your children.
Sing with Other Children
Music educator Edwin Gordon emphasizes how important it is for children to develop their “singing voice”. To help them along, he recommends we regularly expose our children to good singers, and in particular to other children who sing. Gordon argues that children learn best how to produce a good singing voice by listening to other children who can already sing (Gordon pg. 256).
It’s unlikely your child will sing complete songs before the age of 4 or 5, in key and on time, so as to sing accurately with a structured group, but it’s worth engaging them with a local children’s choir or group music class, especially one that includes older children, to surround your child with examples of other children singing.
Here are four more activities you can use to stimulate your child’s musical mind.
Activity: Infant Pitch Matching (starting at ~3 months old)
In a 1979 study, The Imitation of Pitch In Infants, researchers successfully trained 3 to 6 month old infants to vocalize and match pitches sung by their mothers, or played on a pitch pipe by mothers unable to sing.
The following activity follows the general training process the researchers used in their study:
Stage 1: Parents Imitate
For 5 to 10 minutes a day, begin by imitating your infant’s natural vocalizations, attempting to match your baby’s pitch, inflection, and vowel sound as closely as possible.
Continue this imitation for 1 to 2 weeks, and try to engage your infant in back and forth ‘call and response’ vocalizations.
Stage 2: Introducing the Target Pitch
Begin with 5 minutes of imitation, as learned above in Stage 1.
After 5 minutes, instead of responding to your baby’s vocalizations with imitation, instead respond by singing the target pitch (F above middle C) using the vocal sound “ahhhhh”; use your pitch pipe often to check for accuracy.
Continue responding to your baby’s vocalizations by singing the target pitch.
If you’re unable to sing the target pitch, or you have trouble in general singing on-pitch, instead play the target pitch on your pitch pipe, and follow each tone with the vocal sound “ahhhh” (this is the procedure used in the original study).
Practice this interaction for 5 to 10 minutes a day, and listen for your baby to begin occasionally matching the target pitch.
Stage 3: Introducing More Target Pitches
Once your baby matches the target pitch 5 or more times, you can introduce a second target pitch by singing/playing A on the pitch pipe. Repeat the A until your baby begins matching the A consistently, and then switch back to the first target pitch F.
Gradually introduce a third pitch D, periodically switching between three target pitches.
Notes and Materials
The researchers chose F, A and D above middle C, after observing the infants in their study, and determining these pitches fell within the infants’ natural vocal range.
The babies in the study successfully matched pitches on average only 68% of the time, so don’t expect flawless performances. The study’s authors also noted a tendency for babies to lag when switching between target pitches, lingering on the previously matched pitch before switching to the newly presented target pitch.
Pitch pipes that reproduce the pitch frequencies used in the study include:
(For the Tombo, the ‘A above middle C’ is the highest A on the pitch pipe)
Activity: Rock, Sway and Pat… with Chant! (starting at birth)
This activity helps infants and toddlers experience gentle rhythmic movement, guided by their parents and synchronized to music.
Step 1: Learn to Chant
Learn to chant by improvising and repeating short rhythmic phrases, vocalizing them with a ‘nonsense’ syllable (e.g. “bahhh bah bah bahhh bahhh”).
For added rhythmic effect, you can punctuate your chants with rising and falling vocal inflections, varying your pitch and volume to give them a ‘sing-song’ quality and adding a sense of pulse and movement. These inflections should fall within your normal speaking range, versus singing the chants using distinct pitches.
Step 2: Add Movement and Tapping
Be sure to first practice this step away from your child. Because this step requires you coordinate and move your body as you chant, you should only involve your child once you’ve learned to move gently and carefully.
As you chant, learn to move gently in time with the beat of your chant.
Experiment with different ways you can move to the beat:
- Swaying back and forth, by shifting your weight from left to right (both seated and standing)
- Walking in small steps, including in-place
- Sitting with your feet on the ground, and lifting your heels to ‘bounce’ your knees upwards
- Tapping your body with your fingers, or patting with your hands
If you find moving doesn’t come naturally, or you’re not sure you’re moving “in time” with your chant, first try chanting while standing still, and then use your hand to gently tap the underlying beat of your chant (the “underlying beat” is the basic pulse of the rhythm; if you’re unable to find the beat, or you find yourself automatically tapping exactly what your chanting, ask a musician for help).
Once you’re able to chant and tap the underlying beat on your chest, experiment with shifting your weight from foot to foot, or taking small steps, in time with the beat, eventually you will try to move smoothly and gently in time with the beat underlying your chant’s rhythm.
Step 3: Chant and Move with Your Child
Finally, chant and gently move with your child.
Your goal is to help your child experience a smooth back and forth shifting of balance and weight as you sway, step or rock, in time with your chanting.
Step 4: Chant and Move in Different Meters
Learn to chant and move in different meters, for example a ‘two feel’ like a march (one-two, one-two) vs a ‘waltz’ feel (one-two-three, one-two-three).
If you’re a musician, learn about meter (often confused with time signatures) and experiment with duple, triple and complex meters, simple and compound. Here’s a good video that explains the basics of meter:
At an early age infants can comfortably perceive many meters, but as they grow their openness to different meters closes and they tend to prefer familiar meters (Hannon & Trehub 2005 – B).
Additional Tips on Your Child’s Movement with Music
As you chant and move your body to help your child experience movement and music, it’s just as important they learn to move their own body to music, and that you encourage them to move with music in a variety of ways. Here are some tips to keep in mind:
Be Gentle and Safe
When you move with your child, of course always be gentle and safe. Depending on your child’s age and size, you may find it easier to hold and carry them, or just let them sit on your lap or knee.
Do Not ‘Correct’ Their Movement
Many children will move naturally in response to music. As babies they may kick their legs and wave their arms, or as toddlers they may bounce, jump and dance.
When your child is moving by themselves, it’s best to let them move freely and to avoid interfering with or guiding their natural movement. It’s okay if they aren’t moving ‘musically’ or ‘in time’ with the rhythm (in fact, most children do not move reliably ‘in time’ with an outside pulse until around age 5). Although it can appear your infant is moving to the beat, it’s more likely they’re moving repeatedly in a pattern, which by chance occasionally syncs up with the beat.
However your child moves to music, the more the better!
Model Different Ways of Moving
You can encourage your child to move on their own by modeling the behavior and showing them examples of how you move while music is playing. You can model traditional ways of moving, those we usually associate with music, like clapping and dancing, and you can expand your movements to include running, swaying, or even waving your arms (think interpretive dance).
Activity: Pitch Peek-a-Boo (starting ~6 months old)
This activity is a variation of the game peek-a-boo, and it encourages your child to pay closer attention to musical pitches.
To play Pitch Peek-A-Boo, you’ll first need to practice performing two different pitches; you can sing or play the pitches on an instrument, or you can play the pitches by striking two different tuning forks.
Once you can perform the two pitches, next choose two different facial expressions, for example a smile vs. looking surprised.
During Pitch Peek-A-Boo, while you’re hiding or covering your face, you’ll play one of your pitches, letting it sustain for a moment while you remain hidden, then when you reappear you’ll make one of your two facial expressions while the pitch sustains (or while you keep singing). Always pair the same pitch with the same expression; for example, you’ll always smile after the first pitch, and you’ll always look surprised after the second pitch.
Your goal in this activity is to focus your infant’s attention on pitch, by associating different pitches and facial expressions. As you play Pitch Peek-A-Boo, your infant can learn to anticipate your expressions based on the pitches they hear.
You can experiment with as many pitches and facial expressions as you can muster.
Activity: Listening to Music (starting at birth)
You have an opportunity during your child’s infant and toddler years to expose them to a wide variety of musical styles and cultures, hopefully before they can complain coherently or run away!
As your child grows, they become enculturated to the music of their dominant culture (Hannon & Trehub 2005 – A). Music from around the globe typically offers a wider variety of rhythms, meters, tonalities and tunings, than those found in popular Western culture. Infants are particularly open and sensitive to different and complex musical structures, for example they can perceive subtleties in rhythms from different cultures that are lost on adults (Hannon & Trehub 2005 – B).
All this means, in general, the more music in your child’s environment the better, and the greater variety the better. Check out my post here on Music for Infants, which offers recordings that aim to stimulate infant listeners, and may offer some variety beyond your normal listening habits.
I hope this post gives you some ideas on how you can stimulate your child’s musical mind. Please let me know in the comments if you have any questions, feedback or ideas. Also as I find time, slowly but surely, I’ll be writing future posts on encouraging children’s musical development; visit the Subscribe page to receive these posts via e-mail.
(apologies to my cringing English teachers…)
Hannon & Trehub 2005 – B
Tuning in to musical rhythms: Infants learn more readily than adults
(back to citation above)