Early Childhood Music

One’s potential to learn is never greater than at the moment of birth. The early years of life are crucial for establishing a foundation for lifelong music development. A child’s musical experiences from birth to age five have a particularly profound impact on the extent to which she will be able to understand, appreciate, and achieve in music as an adult. Children must be exposed to a rich variety of music during these years in order to develop the necessary readiness for formal music learning when they are older.

Children learn music in much the same way they learn a language. After listening to the sounds of her native language for some months, a child goes through a stage of language babble, in which she experiments with speech sounds that do not make sense to adult listeners. Soon afterward, she “breaks the code” of her language and is able to first imitate words, and then use them meaningfully in phrases and sentences of her own.

Children also go through stages of music babble, in which they make sounds that typically do not make musical sense to adults. In tonal babble the child sings in a speaking voice quality. In rhythm babble she moves erratically, without consistent tempo or discernible meter.

Children who have not yet emerged from music babble do not benefit from formal music instruction. They should not be taught as if they are young adults or kindergarten children. Parents and teachers should instead informally guide them to an understanding of music just as they informally guide them to an understanding of their spoken language before they receive formal schooling.

Guidance and Instruction

All guidance is informal in nature, because the parent or teacher does not impose information and skills upon the child. Rather, the child is exposed to her culture and encouraged to absorb that culture. Nothing specific is expected or demanded from children in terms of their musical responses.

There are two types of informal guidance. In unstructured informal guidance, which is appropriate from birth to approximately age three, the parent or teacher does not plan specifically what she will say and do. In structured informal guidance, which should take place roughly between ages three and five, the parent or teacher does plan specifically what she will say and do, but does not expect specific responses from the child.

Formal instruction should normally commence at age five, when the child enters kindergarten. In formal instruction, in addition to the parent or teacher specifically planning what will be taught, teaching is organized into allotted time periods, and cooperation, including specific types of responses, is expected of the child.

Preparatory Audiation

The musical thinking of children who have not emerged from music babble is called preparatory audiation. Children in preparatory audiation should receive unstructured and structured informal guidance in music. They will not benefit from formal instruction until they have learned to audiate.

There are three types of preparatory audiation. They are acculturation, imitation, and assimilation. The seven stages of preparatory audiation exist within the three types of preparatory audiation according to the following chart.

TYPE 1 - Acculturation

Birth to age 2-4: Engages with little consciousness of the environment.

STAGE 1 - Absorption: Hears and aurally collects the sounds of music in the environment.

STAGE 2 - Random Response: Moves and babbles in response to, but without relation to, the sounds of music in the environment.

STAGE 3 - Purposeful Response: Tries to relate movement and babble to the sounds of music in the environment

TYPE 2 - Imitation

Age 2-4 to age 3-5: Engages with conscious thought focused primarily on the environment.

STAGE 4 - Shedding Egocentricity: Recognizes that movements and babble do not match the sounds of music in the environment.

STAGE 5 - Breaking the Code: Imitates with some precision the sounds of music in the environment, specifically tonal patterns and rhythm patterns.

TYPE 3 - Assimilation

Age 3-5 to age 4-6: Engages with conscious thought focused primarily on self.

STAGE 6 - Introspection: Recognizes the lack of coordination between singing and breathing and between chanting and muscular movement, including breathing.

STAGE 7 - Coordination: Coordinates singing and chanting with breathing and movement.

The types and stages of preparatory audiation are hierarchical and progressively cumulative, the extent of success with each higher type being dependent upon the extent of success with all types below it.


Acculturation is fundamental to children’s musical development. It takes place as children absorb the music of their culture. Gradually they learn to distinguish the sounds in their environment from the sounds that they themselves produce. Then they learn to discriminate among sounds in their environment.

When a young child engages in acculturation her attention is not continuous, but she is aware of most of what she hears. She will often respond to music, but not necessarily with the response that adults want or expect. Further, immediate results in terms of music achievement should not be expected at this stage. It may take eighteen months or longer before the benefit of guidance in music acculturation can be observed.


Ideally, this stage takes place from birth to age eighteen months. The type of informal guidance is unstructured. In this stage of preparatory audiation, children absorb the music of their culture by listening to music comprised of many tonalities, keyalities, harmonies, meters, and tonalities. Instrumental music is best, as the words of vocal music tend to distract children’s attention from musical characteristics. Children also benefit greatly from hearing their parents and teachers sing and chant to them. They should not be “taught” songs nor expected to respond in specific ways to the music they hear.

Random Response

Ideally, this stage takes place between the ages of one and three years. The type of informal guidance is unstructured. Whereas listening is the emphasis of stage one (absorption), participation is emphasized in stage two. The child makes various music babble sounds and movements. Although listening to live and recorded instrumental music continues to be beneficial, hearing chants and songs “live” from parents and teachers assumes major importance at this stage. Care should be taken in singing and chanting a given song or chant in the same tonality, keyality, range, meter, and tempo.

Purposeful Response

The typical child engages in stage three of preparatory audiation when she is from eighteen months to three years old. At this stage, children should receive structured informal guidance. The structure is not centered around songs and chants. Instead, children are encouraged to participate in the singing of tonal patterns and the chanting of rhythm patterns. Children in stage three of preparatory audiation attempt to echo the tonal patterns and rhythm patterns they hear, although they should not be expected to perform accurately.


In musical imitation the child begins to make the transition from preparatory audiation and music babble to audiation. Her musical actions become more purposeful than in the three stages of acculturation. Whether her attempts to imitate are correct or incorrect, a child profits greatly from engaging in music imitation. She begins to learn how to teach music to herself.

Shedding Egocentricity

In this stage the child first becomes aware that what she is singing or chanting is not what another person is singing or chanting. Guidance from a parent or teacher is crucial. After hearing a tonal pattern or rhythm pattern, the child will usually imitate incorrectly, with her own pattern. At this point the parent or teacher imitates the child’s pattern. In time the child learns to discriminate the differences between the pattern she heard and her own performance of it.

Breaking the Code

In stage five of preparatory audiation the child first attempts to enter and to participate successfully in the adult’s world of music. She develops the ability to perform tonal patterns and rhythm patterns with some accuracy. The parent or teacher assists in this process by echoing the child’s inaccurate performances of patterns first with the child’s version, then a repetition of the correct pattern. The confusion that the child experiences as she engages in stage five of preparatory audiation is good confusion. That the child is attempting to perform the pattern is an indication that she is learning. Eventually, incorrect responses are followed by correct responses.


During the assimilation type of preparatory audiation the child starts to become aware of musical syntax. Whereas imitation is analogous to performing individual words in speaking, assimilation involves the ability to use and comprehend musical phrases. She learns to perform patterns with some precision as she coordinates and assimilates the imitation of those patterns with the movement of her body and muscles.


In this stage the child learns to compare what she is performing with how she is moving. She must discover for herself that the patterns she is performing are not coordinated with her movement. This stage is crucial to the development of audiation, because she must be able to coordinate musically with herself before she can be expected to coordinate musically with someone else.


In this stage the child learns to coordinate her singing of tonal patterns with her muscular movement and breathing, and her chanting of rhythm patterns with her muscular movement and breathing. She is able to learn to audiate as she listens to, performs, reads, writes, creates, and improvises music.