Music activities—from singing to writing songs to learning to play an instrument—help build physical and language skills, self-confidence, and cooperative behaviors. A music teacher at Philadelphia’s Settlement Music School explains the importance of helping young children discover their singing voices; a couple in Lexington, KY sing with their infant; artist-in-residence Victor Cockburn introduces Massachusetts kindergartners to the fine art of songwriting; music therapists use music to build preschool skills; and classical musician Keith Cook teaches inner-city youngsters in Louisville to play the violin.
In the Program
- About community arts partnerships
A dancer from the Center of Creative Arts teaches 1st graders at Adams Elementary in St. Louis the Jansa, a traditional dance from Mali.
- Key points
Educators discuss the benefits of dance and movement activities.
- More about movement basics
New Hampshire movement specialist Rae Pica teaches basic movement to a group of preschoolers.
- Movement and lap games
Parents and toddlers have fun together at the Music and Motion class at the Center of Creative Arts in St. Louis.
- More about ballet
“Ballet Babies” learn the stories of classical ballets and begin to explore the basic movements of the style.
- Ideas for parents
Educator and parent Jennifer Rose discusses traditional dance as a community activity for all ages.
- More about cultural dance
Youngsters learn the Mexican Hat Dance and explore creative movement at Philadelphia’s Settlement Music School.
- More about modern dance
Audra White gives inner-city youngsters in Louisville a variety of movement experiences, from walking with self-confidence to modern dance.
- Dance basics and terms
- Dance styles
Music activities help build physical and language skills and self-confidence while promoting cooperative behaviors. A music teacher at Philadelphia’s Settlement Music School explains the importance of helping young children discover their singing voices, a couple in Lexington sing with their infant, an artist-in-residence introduces Massachusetts kindergartners to songwriting, therapists use music to build preschool skills, and a classical musician teaches inner-city youngsters in Louisville to play the violin.
Music with Preschoolers
Music activities have many benefits for young children, from contributing to the development of coordination and language to developing social skills such as cooperative behavior, says music specialist Martha Glaze Zook. In the classes she teaches at Philadelphia’s Settlement Music School, Glaze Zook focuses on developing basic musical skills such as the awareness of the steady beat, what it is, and how to keep a beat in many ways.
From there, she moves on to teaching an understanding of rhythm patterns, tonal patterns, and melodic patterns. “My goal is to bring them all together and to have the children really feel competent singing, dancing, moving, and playing instruments in a way that is powerful and very satisfying to them,” she says.
A Sound Start
A single class session may include a variety of activities, beginning with the children in a circle—a “natural gathering point,” Glaze Zook says—for a warm-up session. “Sometimes we stretch, sometimes we sing a greeting song. We might sing about the weather. I have them make up new verses, what day it is or whatever. That gets them thinking about ideas they have or something new to put in the song.”
The purposes of the warm-up are to get the class organized and to get the children’s singing voices going. The warm-up also includes what is called “body percussion,” Glaze Zook says. “Body percussion is a way of keeping the beat with the hands clapping, patting. Sometimes we include the feet with stomping—all of those things that help children get that musical skill working.”
The Beat and Beyond
After the warm-up, the class moves on to the day’s main activities. Glaze Zook works with organizing concepts. When Art to Heart visited, the month’s organizing concept was groups, so the class worked with groups of different instruments, such as xylophones and maracas, and explored group games and activities. Another organizing concept she was working with was the senses. So she used a small snake puppet in class, going around the circle and stroking each child’s cheek with it—“just a little sensory experience,” Glaze Zook says.
Older children may play hand rhythm games—“another good tactile way of keeping the steady beat, cooperating with a partner.”
To help children find their singing voices, she gives them lots of opportunities to sing. The class might also do silly voices or puppet voices that “help them get into that beautiful quality singing voice” as well as one-on-one singing activities like the “Hello” and “Goodbye” exercise shown in the Art to Heart program.
Exploring and Making Music
Other activities might include exploring sound—such as asking children to make different kinds of sounds (clicking, rattling, scraping) so they can learn to categorize them—or games with rhythm sticks or simple instruments such as xylophones. “I can’t think of any child who doesn’t love to get out the instruments,” Glaze Zook says. “They’re a great draw. They’re fun, they’re interesting, they make cool sounds. Plus, we get a whole bunch of instruments together and we have a band or orchestra. So it makes the whole program that much more interesting, engaging, and full of learning.”
Why is Music Important
“Art is a natural expression of everything that is good, everything that is hopeful, everything that is beautiful about the human experience. Also, art is a great social developer. Getting together for games or dances—experiences like that really help us to learn cooperation.”
Martha Glaze Zook, preschool music teacher, Settlement Music School
“Songs and music help people learn about themselves and learn about the world.”
Victor Cockburn, artist-in-residence
“All art really, but music specifically, binds us all together; it gives us a commonality. And it’s never too young to learn that, or to experience that, or to share that. Music is also a way that children can express themselves. The more avenues we have for these expressions at an earlier age, the better we are able, as we grow up, to communicate with people, to make the world a better place.”
Victor Cockburn, artist-in-residence
“I think it is important to make music available to young children, particularly now, because the schools focus a lot on the test scores and academics—and I think anything that really enhances the learning and retention and the other academic skills, is highly beneficial.”
Greta Gillmeister, music therapist
“Anybody I’d had that was taking an instrument, I could see that their attention span was better, their comprehension was better, they were better critical thinkers and better listeners.”
Keith Cook, professional violinist and music teacher, West Louisville Talent Education Center
Music at Home
You don’t have to be a musician to enjoy music with your child. Here are some simple activities:
- From infancy on, play music for your child. Play a variety of music—not just “children’s music,” but also jazz, country, folk, classical, and music from different cultures. You can check out CDs from your local library.
- Sing songs when you are with your child. (Don’t worry if you don’t think you have a pop-star voice—your child won’t mind.) Repeat songs that your child likes. Sing songs with movements, like “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” As your child’s language and motor skills develop, he or she can sing along and do the movements with you.
- Hold your baby or toddler in your arms and move to music. Gently bounce in time to the beat.
- Provide opportunities to play with musical instruments. They can be homemade, like a saucepan and a spoon “drum” or “maracas” made from empty plastic containers filled with beans or beads.
- Attend live performances. Share music you love and expand your own range of musical experiences. Look for informal performances appropriate for youngsters, such as music at local festivals, arts centers, museums, community centers, and parks.
More ideas on sharing music with preschoolers:
- The KidsHealth web site includes an article on introducing preschoolers to music.
- Children’sMusic.org has numerous resources for parents, teachers, and children.
- The National Institute of Environmental Health Services kids’ pages offer MIDI files and lyrics to singalong songs.
- Parents and children will find activities to enjoy together in the Sesame Street Music Zone.
- The Sphinx kids’ pages offer information about composers (including minority composers) and instruments as well as hands-on activities.
- The PBS Kids web site has lots of video and music files.
Songwriting with Young Children
“Young children are very open to singing,” says artist/educator Victor Cockburn, who is featured in Program 3 of Art to Heart. “They sing all the time. They sing when they play. And they make up songs all the time in their heads. They’re excited about the possibility of actually writing them down because often they are really good and if they aren’t written down, they’re forgotten.”
Bringing songwriting into the classroom empowers students with the idea that they can use language to express themselves, Cockburn says. “And in order to do that, they have to increase their vocabulary. They have to find out about new words, especially when it comes to rhyming words, but also how to describe the world as well using metaphor, simile, and other writing techniques. For example, sometimes we use persona, sometimes we write odes, and sometimes we write ballads. There are different forms of telling a story, real or imagined. And by exposing them to the different voices that people have used, it really helps them to get a repertoire not only of music but of the language they can use.”
Using Folk Music and Songs
Cockburn often uses folk music from different cultures when he goes into a school. “We talk about how people all over the world are writing about similar things—in different languages and different styles, but similar things. There are lullabies all over the world. There are ‘play songs’ all over the world. I also take songs that other children have written,” he says.
When he is introduced to a class, many times Cockburn doesn’t even play his guitar for the first 20 minutes or so. “We sing a cappella, so the children understand that you don’t always have to have a musical instrument to make music. You are the music.” He often reads or recites poetry—not to music—so that children can hear the rhythm of the language.
Taking a Bow
Ending a songwriting residency with some sort of performance—either a formal performance in the school auditorium or an informal one of one class performing for another—increases the impact on the young songwriters, Cockburn says. “I watch the children’s faces when people are singing along to a chorus they have written or when people comment about the song, and I know it’s made an effect in their lives; that they’re actually empowered to go and create more songs.”
Find Out More
Victor Cockburn is a producer, songwriter, performer, and teacher who has worked as an artist/educator since 1972. His nonprofit education organization, Troubadour Inc., presents K-12 programs throughout Massachusetts and New England and offers curriculums and recordings for sale.
The Lesley University web site has a detailed article about Cockburn’s model process for writing songs with students.
More About Music Education
Keith Cook, who is featured in Program 3 of Art to Heart, is a professional violinist with the Louisville Orchestra who also teaches violin to students ranging in age from 3 to 18 at the West Louisville Talent and Education Center. His goal is to bring the benefits of music into the lives of youngsters who might not otherwise have the opportunity to study music.
A performance major who went back to school to get his master’s degree in elementary education, Cook became more aware of how music positively impacts learning. “I noticed how music was being used a lot in the teaching of other academic subjects, so I decided I would like to have a way of using the two together—academics and music—to make life better for kids and to make academics easier in an area where students don’t normally have an opportunity to do music.”
Although his youngest violin students are 3, Cook does an introductory program for the 2-year-olds at area day care centers. “I play for them and show them the instrument. Sometimes we bring the students that are 4 or 5 years old to perform to them so they can see kids closer to their own age performing. And it arouses their curiosity.”
The Suzuki Method
Cook uses the Suzuki method to teach violin. It was developed by a Japanese violinist and educator named Shinichi Suzuki who believed that musical ability is not an inborn talent but an ability that can be developed in any child. He proposed using the way children learn to speak their native language as a model. Beginning at a very young age is part of the Suzuki approach. Parents take an active role by attending lessons with the child, and children become comfortable with the instrument before learning to read music. Listening to music, repetition, and an encouraging environment are all important components of the approach.
Suzuki originally developed his method for his own instrument, the violin. Materials are now available for viola, cello, bass, piano, flute, harp, guitar, and recorder. To find out more, visit the Suzuki Association web site.
Nurturing Musical Ability
Should your child take music lessons? And what else can parents do to nurture musical interest and ability?
The National Endowment for the Arts guide imagine! Introducing Your Child to the Arts recommends taking a cue from your child rather than your own desires or agenda. Your child may not become the next prodigy or American Idol winner, but there are many scientifically proven social, emotional, and academic benefits to making music, says Laura Johnson, executive director of the nonprofit American Music Conference. “Parents need to think about their child’s development needs and look at their musical desire in terms of their social and emotional growth and identity development,” Johnson says. “As a parent of a young singer or musician, there are many important steps you can take to help support your child’s aspirations while allowing him or her to do what they do best—be a kid.”
Focus on Enjoyment
The joy of making music should always be at the heart of music experience in the early years. According to the National Association for Music Education’s position statement on early childhood education, “Music is a natural and important part of young children’s growth and development. Early interaction with music positively affects the quality of all children’s lives.” The association recommends that early musical experiences be “integrated within the daily routine and play of children. In this way, enduring attitudes regarding the joy of music making and sharing are developed.”
Other recommendations from MENC:
- Music education for young children should involve a developmentally appropriate program of singing, moving, listening, creating, playing instruments, and responding to visual and verbal representations of sound.
- The content of such a program should represent music of various cultures in time and place.
- Time should be made available during the day for activities in which music is the primary focus of attention for its own value. It may also serve as a means for teachers to facilitate the accomplishment of nonmusical goals.
- Musical experiences in early childhood should be play-based and planned for various types of learning opportunities such as one-on-one, choice time, integration with other areas of the curriculum, and large-group music focus.
Questions To Ask
As a parent, ask your child care provider or teacher:
- What types of musical opportunities are offered? Experts recommend that young children have a variety of opportunities to sing and play simple instruments, to respond to music through movement, and to create music.
- Do teachers at the school have special training in early childhood music? Does the school bring in outside specialists or visiting artists?
- Is space devoted to music activities? Does the school have instruments and equipment for recording and playing music?
- Do students get to experience music representing a variety of styles and from a variety of cultures?
- Do all students have an opportunity to sing and play instruments?
It’s often in the primary grade years that children express an interest in learning more about playing musical instruments. The decision of when to start lessons—and on what instrument—should reflect the interest, skill, and maturity of the individual child.
Teachers from your child’s school may be able to help you make decisions about the timing of lessons and choice of instrument. According to the NEA, to be ready for piano lessons, children should be able to sit on a piano bench and concentrate for a long time. Lessons on violins and other stringed instruments often begin very early using scaled-down instruments; in a school setting, string instruction typically begins at 3rd or 4th grade. Band/orchestral wind instrument lessons typically begin around 5th grade, but younger children might enjoy the experience of learning to play an instrument such as the recorder.
In setting a lesson schedule and expectations, “It’s important to realize that your child has other aspects of his life to develop and mature. You want to prepare them for a life rich with music, but you also want them to find other ways to achieve happiness and success. Make sure the music teacher you choose is on course with you,” says Amy Nathan, author of The Young Musician’s Survival Guide.
Every family will want to base its selection of a music teacher on compatibility in terms of both personality and teaching style, plus professional and educational qualifications, Nathan recommends. “You want to choose a teacher who makes an effort to understand his or her students’ musical tastes, ambitions, and goals. What’s more, make sure your child has a good rapport with his or her teacher. It’s important that the relationship always stays fresh and positive.”
Once you have decided to begin formal instruction, create a schedule for your child to commit to music each day without taking away from other interests.
“Encouragement and follow-through are the two most important things I can say to a parent who has a musical child,” says Aaron Dworkin, founder of Sphinx, a national nonprofit organization that encourages African-American and Hispanic students to get involved with classical music. “Parents need to create opportunities for their child to express and be involved in his or her art form. Also, parents want to create excitement around the instrument that is ongoing.”
Contrary to popular belief, parents do not have to support the “star-making myth” to encourage a child’s musical ability or dreams. “As a parent, you would be wise to help your child avoid locking oneself into a narrow concept of musical success. Keeping your child constructively engaged and growing in the direction of his or her dreams are appropriate goals,” says Jessica Baron Turner, author of Your Musical Child: Inspiring Kids To Play and Sing for Keeps.
The National Association for Music Education web site has information on the benefits of music education and other resources for parents.
The American Music Conference web site includes extensive information about brain research relating to the benefits of music. It also offers advice to parents, information specific to music and early childhood, a list of the top 100 communities in the United States for music education, and toolkits for advocacy.
The Sphinx kids’ pages offer information about composers (including minority composers) and instruments as well as hands-on activities.
Music Basics and Terms
Becoming familiar with the elements of music can help parents and teachers become more comfortable about doing music activities.
The tempo of music refers to how slowly (andante) or how quickly (allegro) the music is played. The beat is the underlying pulse of the music. Like a heartbeat, it can be fast or slow. Music specialists agree that understanding and being able to respond to the beat of music and the tempo of that beat is a fundamental skill that should be started early and practiced often. In the Baby Artsplay class featured in Program 1 of Art to Heart and the Music in Motion class featured in Program 4, parents and children engage in activities designed to get youngsters moving to the beat—like walking, bouncing, and clapping in time to the music.
Rhythm in music is created by combining sounds and silences (notes and rests) of various durations. The beat provides the foundation over which rhythm is organized.
Pitch refers to how high or low the sound is. Instruments and the human voice have a range of pitch—think of how high you can sing a note and how low you can sing a note. Teachers note that identifying high and low pitches can be difficult for children to learn. When they hear a high note, it sounds softer to them, so they think it is low. The low pitches sound loud to them because of the timbre (tone quality) of the voice, so they think they are high. They also confuse pitch with volume, which is natural because adults tell them to turn up the radio or turn down the radio. Therefore, it takes a while for them to hear the really high pitches and realize that you can play either soft or loud on that pitch, but the pitch doesn’t change.
Melody is the combination of pitch and rhythm that we usually refer to as the tune of a song. Music specialists teach primary students to read music by using notes, lines, and spaces on the treble clef staff. You can reinforce this idea by providing many opportunities for children to sing. Showing the music as you sing helps with reading both music and words.
Harmony is the simultaneous sounding of two or more pitches. This vertical aspect of music is often characterized as the music that supports the tune. A way to reinforce this aspect of music is to provide opportunities to sing songs like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in rounds. This activity will also reinforce listening skills and sharpen attention.
Form is the plan or structure of a piece of music. Some of the forms suitable for primary grades are call and response, AB, and ABA. In call-and-response form, one part is sung, then another part is sung in response. “Hole in the Bucket” is an example of a call-and-response song. In AB form, there are two parts; a song with verses and a chorus (such as “Jingle Bells”) would be in AB form. In ABA form, there are two parts, with the first part (A) repeated after the second (B), as in “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”
Timbre (pronounced tam-bor) is the tone color or unique sound created by an instrument (including the voice). Primary students can learn to recognize different qualities of musical sounds and identify instruments by family: brass, woodwind, string, percussion, and human voices.
Dynamics is the relative loudness or softness of sound. You can reinforce this concept by asking students to sing, play instruments, or speak fortissimo (very loud), forte (loud), piano (softly), or pianissimo (very softly). Children enjoy the opportunity to experiment with their voices.
Exploring the Elements of Music
- Echo singing (singing a line and having the children sing it back to you) is a good way to build listening skills. Be sure that you do not sing back with the children because you will not be able to hear whether they are doing it right if you are singing, too. (When you are echo singing with kids, pitch it pretty high. Children need to learn to sing in their head voice, not in their chest voice. When they are singing in their chest voices, they cannot project their voices as well.)
- If you are not comfortable singing, you can enhance listening skills with a drum. Play different beats or different rhythms at different tempos. Have children move when you play the drum, but stop when the drum stops. That forces them to listen.
- Take some of the poems, stories, or nursery rhymes you are reading and have children say them in their “head voice.” Encourage them to use different voices to represent different characters or to make silly sound effects. This gets them ready for vocal expression.
- Practice clapping rhythms. Or, one child or group of children can clap a beat (a steady pulse, fast or slow) while you or other children clap rhythms over it. This activity helps point out the difference between tempo/beat and rhythm.
- Play diverse styles of music. With infants and toddlers, bounce or move along to the music. In the classroom, you can start each day with music playing as children enter.
- As children’s language skills develop, encourage them to make up new words to familiar songs. In the classroom, this activity can be tied to a variety of subject areas—for example, making up new words to help remember science concepts or to practice the alphabet or numbers.
- Look for opportunities for children to hear and explore different musical instruments. Some orchestras and philharmonics hold “instrument petting zoos” or other special events for younger children.
- Don’t tell your children or students that you are not musical or that you cannot sing because it might give them the idea that they can’t sing, either. If you feel uncomfortable in your singing, use tapes or CDs.
Other Programs in this Series
Why are arts experiences important in the early years of life? How do music, dance, drama, and visual art contribute to growth and learning? How can parents and educators foster young children’s creativity?
Art to Heart is an eight-part KET production that explores the importance of visual arts, music, dance, drama, and literature in the lives of infants, toddlers, and young children, providing useful ideas and information for parents, caregivers, and early childhood teachers.