Early Childhood: Exploring Sounds

Young children enjoy discovering the expressive qualities and possibilities of a variety of sounds—body sounds, animal sounds, sounds of nature, sounds of familiar man-made objects, or sounds of music instruments. NAfME member Wendy L. Sims recommends some activities for exploration.

Found Sounds

Make use of classroom or household objects for sound exploration.

Take advantage of the variety of sounds paper makes (ripping, crumpling, etc.) and how different kinds make different sounds.

Have children use found sounds to accompany a poem or song.

Hold a “sound hunt” to find things that make interesting sounds.

Help children develop concepts of timbre and sound production by asking them to compare and describe sounds, discuss similarities and differences, and create sound pieces or sound effects.

Percussion Instruments

Keep a collection of nonpitched percussion instruments (drums, tambourines, triangles, maracas, woodblocks, sandpaper blocks, finger cymbals, jingle bells, etc.).

Give children the opportunity to explore each instrument by itself and become familiar with its sound qualities and possibilities.

  • Encourage children to explore, describe, and create sounds with the instruments.
  • After introducing an instrument, place it in the music center for further individual exploration.

Once children are familiar with an instrument (e.g., triangle), put it away and introduce another (maracas). When the maracas are also familiar, bring out the triangle again so children can compare and contrast them.

Introduce instruments slowly and systematically so children can get to know each without over-stimulation or confusion.

Group instruments into families (shakers, scrapers, jinglers, or tappers) to create ensemble experiences. You or the children can conduct by signaling to each group when to play and when to stop.

  • Students can examine the various sounds and their combinations and the effect these combinations have on the resulting sound piece.
  • When instruments are available to explore, children often create their own ensemble experiences.

Have students use percussion instruments to create sound effects for a poem, story, or dramatic experience. Children benefit from choosing sounds and discussing their choices in an accepting and nonjudgmental environment.

 Pitched Instruments

Pitched instruments are best for exploration, rather than for learning to play songs.

The piano offers many possibilities:

  • Exploring pitches and ranges
  • Seeing how sounds are produced
  • Improvising and playing familiar tunes by ear

Resonator bells or xylophones may be used similarly. Set them up so that the bars or bells form various patterns (e.g., a 5-pitch pentatonic scale), and children can improvise accompaniment to songs.

Folk and Orchestral Instruments

Offer direct experiences with the instruments when at all possible—for instance, invite guest performers or arrange a field trip to a local school or college music department.

Use pictures, picture books, and audio or video recordings that feature musical instruments to follow up direct experiences, or when direct experiences are not possible.

Instruments in the Classroom

Establish guidelines for treating instruments with respect and for their care.

When passing out instruments, invite children to try out the instrument by playing it a few times. Then ask them to place it in their laps until the appropriate time for its use in the activity.

Help children learn to take turns and to play their instruments at the appropriate times.

Teach “When the music stops, we stop.”

Use real, high-quality instruments, rather than toys whenever possible.

Mix in constructing homemade instruments.

Adapted from “Guidelines for Music Activities and Instruction,” by Wendy L. Sims, Music in Prekindergarten: Planning & Teaching.



Music in Prekindergarten: Planning & Teaching, edited by Mary Palmer and Wendy L. Sims—includes model classroom music experiences.

Music and the Young Mind: Enhancing Brain Development and Engaging Learning, by Maureen Harris

Spotlight on Early Childhood Music Education: Selected Articles from State MEA Journals

Strategies for Teaching Prekindergarten Music, compiled and edited by Wendy L. Sims

TIPS: The Child Voice, edited by Maria Runfola and Joanne Rutkowski

TIPS: Music Activities in Early Childhood, edited by John M. Feierabend

Wendy L. Sims is director of music education at the University of Missouri—Columbia. She is the editor of the Journal of Research in Music Education.

—Linda C. Brown, January 12, 2011, © National Association for Music Education (nafme.org)