Music and Early Childhood Development (Part 1): Physical and cognitive benefits
Carla Tanguay
June 6, 2018
Music Facilitator for Groups

Early childhood is a time of wonder, exploration, and growth. The first few years of life have a tremendous and lasting impact on learning, brain development, and physical & mental health. It is estimated that during these formative years, the human brain forms one million new neural connections every second. These connections become the foundation upon which future learning is built.

Do you remember the Mozart Effect? A phenomenon when it was published back in the 1990’s, this book and subsequent products suggested that listening to classical music improved children’s IQs. What followed was a generation of parents pressing speakers against their pregnant bellies with hopes of raising their baby’s intelligence. While the “Mozart Effect” has since been debunked, the desire for parents to give their children every possible advantage and the idea that music may help children learn and grow still applies.There is now compelling evidence that active involvement in music does have beneficial effects on many areas of child development.

Over the next several months, our blog will explore ways that music and music therapy can support early childhood development in a variety of areas: physical, cognitive, social, and emotional. We will provide tips for including music in your daily routine, as well as resources for accessing music therapy services for your child.


Physical Development

Sprouting Melodies

When infants are born, hearing is their most acute sense, and the one that they rely on most as they begin to explore and understand the world. Music is a natural and enjoyable way to promote physical development in young children. Dancing and exploring instruments tap into children’s inherent curiosity and attraction to music.

This pre-disposition to music was explored in a 2010 study by the National Academy of Sciences, which found that babies are born with the ability and desire to move rhythmically to music.

Music and movement are inseparable in very young children. The brain of children up to age 3 interprets music and movement as one and the same, not separate stimuli or actions. This makes music an ideal tool to enhance early childhood development in motor, cognitive, behavior, and executive domains. Here are a few examples:

  • Self-regulation is the ability to understand and manage one’s own behaviour and reactions to the world and various stimuli. It is a skill that does not develop in isolation. Music is a great tool to promote self-regulatory development from the very young to young adult. For the very young child, the simple act of stopping during a musical game requires the child listen, pay attention to changing stimuli, and physically stop moving on cue. Music is also a great way to teach time measurement and encourage turn-taking. Songs like “Duck, Duck, Goose” use melody and lyrics to indicate the amount of time to wait and cue children to select whose turn it will be next. The participants must listen, pay attention, and wait until they are selected. These are all important self-regulation skills.
  • Proprioception is the “ability to sense stimuli arising within the body regarding position, motion, and equilibrium.” It is the sense that allows us to understand our bodies in the physical space around us. Through movement to music- swaying, bouncing, jumping, walking- young children develop their sense of proprioception. These same actions help to strengthen the body as well.

Pairing music and movement has many benefits. Dancing involves processing sounds and responding to rhythms in a way that allows kids to practice coordination, motor planning, and flexibility. Music and movement classes have been shown to improve complex locomotor skills, such as galloping, leaping, and skipping.

Instruments provide opportunities to practice fine and gross motor skills. Children quickly learn that striking a drum forcefully makes a loud sound, while isolating each finger to press piano keys can create distinct tones. Research shows that instrumental training in early childhood enhances fine motor skills and also results in structural brain changes.

music therapy, rhythm and movement

Music Therapy for Physical Development

While music is a fun and effective way to promote the development of essential motor skills for all children, music therapy can provide specific interventions to help children who are not meeting their physical milestones. This includes children with sensory processing disorders, autism spectrum disorders, and a variety of physical and developmental challenges.

Music therapy can help:

  • Improve strength and stamina
  • Improve hand-eye coordination
  • Promote bilateral body movements
  • Reinforce directional and spatial concepts
  • Improve body awareness and motor planning
  • Teach strategies to modulate arousal levels
therapy using piano

Cognitive Development

Parents know that reading to their children is important. But did you know that making music together may have even greater benefits? A large study of over 3,000 two and three-year-old children found that informal music making at home (think making up silly songs or exploring sounds on instruments) improved attention, numeracy, and prosocial skills more than reading together did.

Two areas of particular interest to researchers exploring the connections between music and cognitive development are literacy and numeracy (math skills). We now know that literacy is strongly connected to sound patterns, or phonological awareness. In fact, how well preschool-aged children can detect rhythms correlates with their future reading abilities. Engagement in music is all about sound awareness and exploration, and strengthens the same areas of the brain associated with reading and language skills. There is also a relationship between musical training and math skills. Music engagement builds spatial reasoning skills, pattern awareness, and counting skills. Active involvement in music provides opportunities to practice many important academic and pre-academic skills. For example:

  • Categorization is an important cognitive skill for young children to develop. The ability to categorize things as the same or different and to understand groupings are important milestones. Music offers many opportunities for categorization- through grouping instruments, identifying sounds as the same or different, or teaching colors through song.
  • Many children’s songs include opportunities to work on counting. “5 Little Monkeys” is a great rhythmic chant that counts down from 5 to 0. Use your fingers to represent the monkeys and hold your other hand flat for the “bed.” “This Old Man” and “Ants Go Marching” pair counting with rhyming words and give children lots of opportunities to add movements and engage in creative play.

Music Therapy and Cognitive Development

Music therapists work with children of all ages on goals related to learning and cognitive development. Long before they are enrolled in school, children are using their senses to explore and learn. Music therapists use the structure, rhythm, patterns, and sounds of music in a deliberate manner to promote success, reinforce skills, and help children reach their potential.

Music therapy can help:

  • Increase attention spans
  • Improve executive functioning
  • Teach academic concepts
  • Teach life skills
  • Develop pre-academic skills such as attending, cause-effect, turn-taking, and following directions

Music At Home

music time with dad
What does all of this mean for your very young children? Music is good for their bodies and minds, and should be a part of daily life in your family! The best news is that you don’t have to be a great musician to include music in your family’s life. Children naturally enjoy music and they want to explore it with you. Repetition is key with young children and their brain development. Not only do they enjoy and benefit from hearing the same songs or repeating the same patterns, it helps their brain’s overall development. Keep in mind that if you have reached your limit on repetitions, your child has not, so do it again! As children age, you can add novelty by changing the tempo, volume, or lyrics.

Singing: Singing with young children is a meaningful, bonding experience that combines focused attention, repetition, and surprise. Parents in all cultures sing to their infants to soothe and calm them. Create songs that are associated with tasks at home like cleaning up, setting the table, and riding in the car. A quick search on the internet can provide you with many options. Also, allow yourself to be creative and make up your own songs, or use an existing children’s song and change the words. Peek-a-Boo songs are a great option for building anticipation and cause and effect. Try using “Where is Thumbkin?” Cover your child’s eyes (with your hands, scarf, or towel- or let them do it themselves). Change the words to “Where is [insert child’s name]? At the point of “here I am!”, make a big reveal by removing hands from eyes or pulling the item off their head.  As children age, try singing songs that encourage them to make choices. Pause at the end of a phase and have your child fill in the last word (ex. Mary had a little ____ [lamb, goat, sock], and whatever they say, you continue with the song with that idea).

Playing: Quality learning and maximum participation happen when children experience the joy of play. Exploring sounds and motor skills using musical instruments is a fun and interactive way to learn. Having a variety of instruments around the house is great, but not necessary. Children can explore sounds with common household objects like pots and pans, containers, safe wooden or metal objects, or pasta boxes.

Moving: Opportunities to move and dance to music at home are everywhere! Put on your favorite tunes and have a family dance party. Expose children to a variety of musical styles and sounds. You don’t have to stick to traditional children’s music, and are probably more likely to put on music and interact with your child to a song that you love. If you are concerned about inappropriate lyrics, there are music services now that clean up popular songs to be more kid appropriate. Don’t forget to include traditional songs that you grew up with, or songs from your family’s culture.

Accessing Music Therapy Services

Music therapy takes the compelling ways that music engages and benefits children, and uses it as a tool to help children meet their developmental and learning goals. Music therapists work as part of the IEP (Individualized Education Program – ages 3-21),  IFSP (Individual Family Services Plan ages 0-3 by using music to meet their goals.

For children who are receiving early intervention services, music therapy can be an important addition to their treatment plan. Music therapy is considered a related service under the Federal IDEA Law. This includes both Part B (for children ages 3-21 years) and Part C (for babies and toddlers ages 0-3). . Adding music therapy services through these programs may be possible with an assessment by a board-certified music therapist and collaboration with the IEP (school-aged/3-21 years)) or IFSP (0-3 years)  team.

To inquire about our Sprouting Melodies early childhood music classes,
Go here.

Contact us for information about music therapy services for children: