Early Childhood: Recognizing & Nurturing Music Behaviors

How can we nurture music behaviors in young children? NAfME member Susan Kenney says, “Because the foundation for all future music growth is built in the first years of life, music educators must find ways to help parents and caregivers understand the musical behaviors of the young and to learn strategies for nurturing musical growth.” Here’s a quick overview of music behaviors and ways to promote learning from Kenny’s article in General Music Today (October 2008):

Birth to 3 months

Music Behaviors

What to do to Promote Learning

Will babble in response to singing or recorded music Sing gentle songs in a medium high voice while rocking, bouncing, and stroking infant to the beat.

3 to 8 months

Imitates rhythmic movement in response to music Incorporate gentle rhythmic movement while chanting nursery rhymes and singing.

8 to 18 months

Awareness of past and future begins to develop, making memory possible, which is necessary for song acquisition. Sing and encourage children to sing along.
Tries to match movements to music rhythm (try to keep beat, etc.) Play music and move children’s feet, legs, and hands to beat or rhythm.

18 months to 3 years

Interested in flow of words rather than meaning of words Sing many songs and singing games.
Loves to improvise on simple percussion instruments, which becomes a way to exert independence. Provide an environment of simple percussion instruments for children to freely explore.


Enjoys playing group games like “Ring Around the Rosy.” Singing helps form relationships. Play many group singing games that involve working as a group.
Variety of movements in response to recorded music increases, and movement energy is more controlled. Help children develop muscular control by stopping and focusing on stillness or balancing on one foot sometimes while moving to music.
Experiments with short and long sounds on instruments, especially drums. Continue to provide many opportunities for free instrument exploration and found-sound exploration.

4- and 5-year-olds

Wants to conform, do things “correct” way. Provide many opportunities for children to hear you sing and to see you play instruments, followed with opportunity for them to try.
Can conceptualize music ideas. Describe musical events such as high/low, fast/slow, steady beat, same/different, etc., and begin to form concepts about pitch, duration, form, dynamics, tone, color.
Can echo tonal patterns and rhythms with voice. Harder to echo with clapping. Provide many opportunities for children to imitate tonal and rhythmic patterns.

Read more in Kenney’s article, “Birth to Six: Music Behaviors and How to Nurture Them,” in the October 2008 issue of General Music Today.



General Music Today (October 2008) Special Focus Issue on Early Childhood Music

Music Educators Journal (July 1999) Special Focus Issue on Music and Early Childhood

Susan Kenney is an associate professor of music education, with a specialty in early childhood music education, at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

—Linda C. Brown, January 6, 2010, © National Association for Music Education (nafme.org)