Learn how to play, sing, and move with your baby or toddler to help them grow into budding musicians.
The earlier you engage your child with music the more you can increase their musical aptitude and provide them with a lifetime of rich musical experience (Gordon 1987) — and you can get started without any music training or experience.
This post gives you specific steps to get started but first let’s talk about your baby’s favorite musical instrument: their voice.
Babies can start to sing as early as 3 months old, and you can teach them to sing and match pitches with this activity below (Kessen et al. 1979). At first listen we might not hear babies’ early vocal expressions as music, but they are experimenting with basic musical properties like volume, timbre, and pitch. By 12 months they can spontaneously sing short phrases as they slide around between different pitches, and by 12 to 15 months they may imitate the melodic contour of songs sung to them by their parents (Papoušek 1996).
Toddlers will begin to sing small parts of songs they hear around age two and a half, although the melodies won’t sound precise to our ears as they slide around general pitch contours (Haroutounian 2002).
By ages 5 and 6 most children will start to sing in the traditional sense, when they’ll be able to carry a tune consistently and sing with steady rhythm; some children will develop these abilities as early as ages 3 to 4 (Moog 1976) (Sloboda 1976).
Singing is the best way you can bring music into your child’s life. It’s okay if you’re not comfortable singing, and you don’t need to sing for some of the activities below, but it’s absolutely worth trying. Your voice is an ideal and convenient instrument: even from the womb babies naturally pay attention to your voice (Haroutounian 2002), and as infants they can respond with their own vocal sounds and you can encourage them to sing by example.
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!):
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 without a vocal syllable 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.
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’ singing.
The activity below Infant Pitch Matching describes in more detail how to get started with call and response vocalizations, and is borrowed from a study in which mothers successfully guided their infants to sing, imitate, and match 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, now your turn”. Even with children who don’t respond, you can continue to sing and give them the opportunity as part of your everyday life, and most kids will eventually join in.
Instead of correcting your child’s singing instead encourage them to sing freely and creatively.
During your child’s infant and toddler years they won’t be aware that their singing is significantly different from other people’s singing or that they’re singing ‘incorrectly’ or off-key (Gordon pg. 250), so it’s best you encourage them to sing in whatever way comes to them naturally.
If you have the opportunity to have someone help you care for your child (grandparents, daycare, babysitters, etc.), seek out people who sing, and encourage them to sing when they spend time with your children. Share this post with them!
Music educator Edwin Gordon emphasizes how important it is for children to develop their “singing voice”, a voice of a distinct quality different than a child’s natural speaking voice. To help your child develop their singing voice, Gordon recommends you regularly expose your child to people who sing well, 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).
You can visit a local children’s choir or group music class, especially one that includes older children, to surround your child with singing children.
As a parent I recommend 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, find a voice teacher or experienced musician; they can demonstrate these skills, give you honest feedback, and design a practice plan to help you improve.
Try to make music and singing a daily part of your child’s life, even if only for 5 to 10 minutes a day. You can add activities to your routines like playing my music for babies playlists over the stereo while you feed them, or singing a song while you get them ready for bed.
It’s more important you do some kind of musical activity with your child consistently and often vs any one activity for a long time.
Here are four more activities you can use to foster your child’s musicality.
Requisite disclaimer: these activities are described here for educational purposes only; you undertake any of these activities at your own risk.
In this activity you can teach your baby to sing pitches in response to your singing. The activity is adapted from a 1979 study The Imitation of Pitch In Infants where researchers successfully trained 3 to 6 month old infants to vocalize and match pitches sung or played on a pitch pipe by the infants’ mothers.
The activity will take you less than 10 minutes per day over the course of a few weeks, and it’s a pretty magical way to introduce singing so early in your child’s life!
For 5 to 10 minutes a day, begin by imitating your baby’s natural vocalizations, attempting to match your baby’s pitch, inflection, and vowel sounds 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, with each of you taking turns.
When you and your baby can consistently engage in imitation call and response, you’re ready for stage 2.
Begin with 5 minutes of call and response imitation, as learned above in Stage 1.
After 5 minutes, wait for your turn and instead of vocalizing a response, instead respond by singing a target pitch using the vocal sound “ahhhhh”; researchers used a target pitch of F above middle C, which you can find using a pitch pipe (see the notes and materials below).
After you sing the target pitch, let your baby take a turn responding, and continue the call and response, with your ‘call’ being your sung 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 a 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. Each time you begin the interaction, start with a few minutes of the vocal imitation call and response you learned in Stage 1 and then introduce the target pitch.
Once your baby matches the target pitch 5 or more times, you can move on to Stage 3.
Stage 3 is similar to Stage 2, except that you now introduce a second target pitch by singing/playing A on the pitch pipe. Repeat the A until your baby begins matching the A somewhat consistently, and then switch back to the first target pitch F.
Gradually introduce a third pitch D, periodically switching between the three target pitches.
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 pitches used in the study include:
For the Tombo, the ‘A above middle C’ is the highest A on the pitch pipe.
This activity can develop your infant’s or toddler’s sense of rhythm, as you help them experience gentle rhythmic movement synchronized to your voice and to music.
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 musical pitches.
If you find improvising chant rhythms difficult you can sing songs you know but vocalize the song with the nonsense syllables as described above, then borrow those rhythms and turn them into chant by shifting your voice away from the musical tones and into your normal speaking range.
In this stage you’ll practice changing while moving and tapping.
To start, begin chanting and then learn to move gently in time with the beat of your chant in whatever way feels natural.
You can experiment with these different ways of moving with 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 it with your hands
If moving doesn’t come naturally, or you’re not sure you’re moving “in time” with your chanting, 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.
Once you’re able to chant and tap the underlying beat on your chest, experiment with stepping in place at the same time you tap and adding the chanting, eventually try swaying and stepping smoothly and gently in time with your chant’s beat.
If you’re unable to find the beat, or you find yourself automatically tapping exactly what your chanting, ask a musician for help. And don’t worry if this takes some practice!
Finally, chant and gently move with your child, holding them securely and safely as you normally do. Only try this once you are completely comfortably moving in a safe, gentle, and coordinated way as you chant and hold 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. Make sure you’re moving and chanting to a slow enough beat for the movement to be safe, comfortable, and natural.
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.
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).
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:
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.
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!
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).
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 (recommended!) 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.
Pitch Peek-A-Boo is like normal peek-a-boo, except when you hide or cover your face, you’ll play one of your two pitches and 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 with 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.
While your child is an infant and toddler you have the valuable opportunity to expose them to a wide variety of musical styles and cultures.
As children grow they become enculturated to the music of their dominant culture (Hannon & Trehub 2005 – A). If your child listens to popular music from the United States they will learn to anticipate and prefer the meters and rhythms of this music. You can play music from around the world what will expose your child to a wider variety of rhythms, meters, tonalities, and tunings, hopefully enriching their musical experience later in life. Infants’ brains are particularly open and sensitive to perceiving different rhythms, for example they can perceive subtle differences in rhythms from different cultures that adults cannot (Hannon & Trehub 2005 – B).
The more music your child hears the better, and the greater variety the better. Check out my post here on music for babies – you can play those recordings for your baby or toddler to enrich their musical environment.
I hope this post gives you some ideas for activities you can do to foster your child’s musical development. Please let me know in the comments if you have any questions, feedback, or ideas.
In February 2021 I’ll be publishing my next post on how to raise musical children. Subscribe to receive this post via e-mail.
Sloboda 1976 pg. 206
The Musical Mind: The Cognitive Psychology of Music
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