Early Childhood Listening Activities

“Children need opportunities to learn that listening to music can be a pleasurable and fulfilling activity for its own sake,” says NAfME member Wendy L. Sims. Today, music is often the background for other activities. “Early childhood is also an ideal time for children to develop vocabulary to describe music and concepts about various musical elements.”

Listening attentively can be abstract and complex, so design and present listening activities carefully. Active student involvement is key.

Listening and Moving

Movement engages young listeners. Design movement activities to focus student attention and demonstrate what they’re hearing, so you can observe and evaluate responses.

Make sure movements don’t detract from the listening activity.

  • Hand movements while seated work well.
  • Large body movements work also as long as children remain attentive to the music.

Visual Aids

Visual material can direct student attention to specific places in a musical example.

Simple and uncluttered charts and maps work best.

Puppets, small dolls, scarves, or ribbons can help illustrate a listening example. Be sure they enhance the music without getting in the way of listening.

Drawing activities should focus on listening. For example,

  • Making marks to show the short and long sounds of a piece
  • Illustrating the form of music by changing colors of crayons

Less useful drawing activities, because these don’t typically result in attentive listening (although it is fine to have children engage in artwork inspired by music to meet different goals):

  • Drawing to the music—often impedes listening intently
  • Painting a picture inspired by music playing in the background—unlikely to help children listen attentively.

Listening Behavior

Model good listening behavior. Use “being a good audience” to define the behavior.

  • Use eye contact and nonverbal communication to keep children focused on the music, not on the child making funny faces.
  • Show your pleasure with an expressive face and energetic posture.
  • Teach that good listeners are quiet listeners, whether the performance is live or recorded.
  • Give instruction or feedback before or after listening or through visual cues or non-verbal signals to avoid speaking during the music.

Music Selection

Present music that’s beyond students’ everyday listening experiences or performance capabilities.

Expose them to many different types of music (classical music with various instrumentations from a variety of periods, jazz, folk music from around the world).

Select music to match the young child’s limited attention span. Use short pieces or segments of longer works that are 1 to 2 minutes in length. An interesting activity can extend the attention span.

Use examples that are complete music works or that present a complete musical idea. Short movements from the following work well:

  • Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition
  • Georges Bizet’s Jeux d’enfants
  • Dmitry Kabalevsky’s The Comedians
  • Zoltán Kodály’s Háry János Suite
  • Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals

Discuss animal activity or stories when the composer attached them to a piece, but don’t impose an artificial description.

Encourage children to discuss how a piece makes them feel or what images it evoked.

Additional Considerations

Provide opportunities for children to attend live performances in the community. They’ll learn that many people listen to music for pleasure.

Use good-quality equipment to play music. The quality of the equipment can have a dramatic effect on learning and attitudes.

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



Music in Prekindergarten: Planning & Teaching—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, December 8, 2010, © National Association for Music Education (nafme.org)