Curriculum, Music - Early Childhood Education - Pedagogy

Early Childhood Education

Curriculum, Music


Any educational program designed to promote children’s development in the broadest sense of the word must include a music curriculum because music is one of the defining features of the human species. Engaging in musical behavior, whether as a producer or a listener, individual or group member, is something that characterizes contemporary life for many people across the world. Irrespective of culture, ethnicity or language group, people—particularly the young—engage in musical behavior for significant amounts of time each day. In part, this is because our brains are designed to pay particular attention to the sounds around us, to detect similarities and differences, construct patterns and structures, and infer meanings and to be engaged emotionally in the available soundscapes, especially music. Like spoken and written language, music is processed simultaneously in many different parts of the brain. Musical processing is not an option, for without such hardwired capabilities, mastering other aspects of our sound world, such as language, would be difficult. Not only is music fundamental to our biological and neural makeup, it is embedded in and shapes the social and cultural patterning of our worlds. Music plays an important role in the construction of identity, in our communicative processes, and in the ways in which we negotiate meaning with self and others. By inference, therefore, if education is about nurturing, developing, and seeking to maximize every aspect of our human potential, then opportunities must be provided in any curriculum for participants to engage in musical thought, action, and interaction. Without the inclusion of music, we neglect a basic facet of what it means to be human.

Musical features dominate children’s earliest experiences from prebirth. From the final trimester of fetal life when the auditory systems begin to function, many of the earliest experiences of a world “outside” are musical. This is because the amniotic fluid that surrounds the fetus transfers the melodic contours, rhythmic patterning, and timbral (sound color), and dynamic (volume) variations of the mother’s voice, as well as the musical features of any sounds in her immediate vicinity. Research suggests, for example, that in the first six months, infants are able to recognize musical works heard initially in utero, indicating a sensitivity and awareness of the distinctive musical features of the music that they encounter, and a capacity to recall these over time. After birth, as infants begin to make their own sounds and to make sense of, and imitate, the sounds around them, pitch, dynamic, timbral, and melodic and rhythmic patterns continue to be significant. For example, the sounds that our caregivers offer as they interact with infants over the first year of life are musical, containing many of the features of the dominant musical culture, including melodic contours, rhythmic patterning, changes in dynamics and timbre, as well as consonant and dissonant musical intervals.

Part of our human design is that children are not just receptive to music (what music psychologists term music perception, or music philosophers term music appreciation or aesthetic perception). They are also born with a range of different ways of making music, what music psychologists term “generative” and “performative” skill development. The terms “generative” and “performative” indicate that children are born with innate capabilities to produce certain kinds of musical behaviors. This is not surprising, given the variety of different centers in the brain that are devoted to musical processing and the range of music experience that they encounter from the earliest moments of life. In particular, children can master aspects of the dominant musical culture(s) through their singing and imitative musical play (performative), as well as being able to create through composing and improvising (generative) patterns of sounds that have recognizable musical features. This may occur through the use of ‘formal’ instruments (including the voice) or other sound-making objects. Importantly, music experience is not solely confined to the auditory: engagement with music in and through movement and dance is a powerful means of developing responsiveness to music and to sensitizing the body and mind to the rhythmic, temporal, and dynamic possibilities of music. In some cultures, the notion of music and movement as separate entities is considered untenable and for many infants their first experiences of music are intimately connected to movement experience as they are rocked to sleep to the accompaniment of a lullaby, or swayed to the pulse of a communal song.

By the time that young children have reached two years of age, they have had considerable enculturated experience of their immediate sound world, alongside many opportunities to make sound as performers and creators. They are also able to notate these musical explorations and creations using written “symbols.” Their experiences often embrace a wide variety of different musical styles and genres, particularly if they have been growing up in a modern culture in which music and sound media are omnipresent, whether at home, at child care, in playgroup, at worship and celebrations, when traveling in the car, or shopping in the local mall. The outcome is an emerging mastery of many of the dominant features of their musical culture. For example, through regular exposure, most two-year-olds are capable of reproducing simple musical phrases of songs from the home environment, including those encountered through electronic media, such as TV, CDs, and radio. Some two-year-olds are able to sing complete songs in-tune because of the rich musical experiences that they have shared with their caregivers. They are also capable of generating their own “songs” that draw on features of songs that they have heard. By this age also, they are already able to express a liking for musical sounds and to be particularly attentive to certain pieces of music.

Environment and culture continue to shape musical experience and development across successive months. Cantonese-speaking children in Hong Kong aged two to five years, for example, use the same pitch centers in conversational speech as when singing their favorite songs. In contrast, their English-speaking peers develop increasingly distinct pitch centers, with conversational speech lower than their chosen pitch for singing. Similarly, while at play, Euro-American and Asian children tend to make much use of melody in their singing, whereas the play of Afro-American children tends to contain greater emphasis on rhythmic chants. Importantly, what constitutes musical experience and development differs across cultural and social groups. Consequently, an understanding of the varying ways in which music experience can be defined, described and valued in different social and cultural settings is crucial for educators.

When given the opportunity to make music using simple instruments, preschool children usually focus on an initial exploration of the sonic possibilities and draw on the characteristic rhythmic, melodic, and dynamic features of their musical cultures. This sound making is intentional as the young child manipulates the chosen instrument in order to make sense of, and enjoy, its particular sonic properties and musical possibilities. Preschool children’s invented song-making, a common feature of young children’s musical experience, draws on musical and textual themes that they encounter in their daily lives. For example, young children may produce “potpourri” songs where elements of a number of known songs are mixed together with original musical and textual ideas. In later work, children tend to abstract elements of known songs (rhythmic, melodic, structural, dynamic), rather then simply reproducing known elements, to produce original “invented” songs.

As mentioned earlier, when provided with the opportunity, young children are also capable of expressing their creative musical ideas in some form of visual symbolization—their own form of musical notation. Typically, initial “invented” notations appear to be scribble-like, before developing with a focus on one particular feature that is perceptually dominant (e.g., dynamic change). With further experience, this develops into a capacity to notate several different musical features at the same time (such as pitch and rhythm). With appropriate structured experience over a relatively short period (three months), preschoolers are capable of developing their notational skills from “scribbles” to more formal symbols that portray distinctive musical features, such as musical pulse (the “beat”) or melodic contour. In preschoolers’ notation of songs, both invented and known, words tend to predominate, but greater notational variation is evidenced when they are asked to notate the same music from an instrumental source. The presence of language (as song text) can sometimes distract from musical features. Through invented notation experiences, preschoolers are able to record and retrieve meaning over time, and to reflect on their own and others’ music making. Such cognitive work assists in shaping musical thought and action for the young child.

While the preschooler’s capacity to “talk” about music may be limited, the lack of a specialized vocabulary does not mean that children are not capable of responding insightfully and appreciatively to music listening experience. Early exposure to, and engaged response with, a range of musical forms and genres provides the building blocks of later musical thought and activity. Through the provision of alternative means of responding other than the verbal, children are able to expand their musical vocabulary and to build incrementally a store of musical patterns and possibilities. Nonverbal responses may include movement and dance, drawing, following music maps visually and kinesthetically, conducting, or tracing the musical contour in the air, on the body, on the ground.

Overall, there is a considerable body of research evidence to indicate that young children are not only able to respond to the music that they encounter, they are also able to reproduce, create, and notate both their own music and components of the music of their dominant musical culture(s). These behaviors are evidenced when opportunities are provided for children to engage in musical exploration and play with a wide range of sound-making artifacts and in a context in which the adults show a keen interest and valuing of children’s musical output, acting as “audience” and as comusic-maker, as well as a source of musical ideas and development activities. Young children are not empty vessels that have to be “filled” with music. They are developing musicians who have already acquired considerable skills and understandings informally and who bring to the music learning environment a depth and richness of experience that is often underestimated.

The early music curriculum, therefore, should provide young children with opportunities to explore, play, and engage with a wide variety of musical activities— as composers, improvisers, listeners, movers and dancers, soloists and group members—that build on their early and continuing informal encounters with music. They should be encouraged to create musical narratives that provide evidence to the teacher/caregiver of emergent musical understanding that can then be deepened and developed through further musical engagement. They should be encouraged to engage consciously with a wide range of musical styles and genres as they build the musical vocabulary that will underpin their future musical development. The underlying pedagogical philosophy is for the teacher (or caregiver in non-school contexts) to act as comusic-maker, guide, facilitator and enabler to the richness of musical cultures, rather than assuming a master-apprentice role in which musical knowledge is simply transferred from expert to novice. Children are musical!

Further Readings: Barrett, M. S. (2003). Meme engineers: Children as producers of musical culture. International Journal of Early Years Education 11(3): 195-212; Barrett, M. S. (2005). Musical communication and children’s communities of musical practice. In D. Miell, R. MacDonald, and D. Hargreaves, eds. Musical communication. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, pp. 261-280; Bresler, L, and C. Marme Thompson, eds. (2002). The arts in children’s lives: Context, culture, and curriculum. Dordrecht: Kluwer; Deliege, I, and J. Sloboda, eds. (1996). Musical beginnings. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press; McPherson, G. E. (2006). The child as musician. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press; Welch, G. F. (2006). The musical development and education of young children. In B. Spodek and O. Saracho, eds. Handbook of research on the education of young children. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 251-267; Welch, G. F., and Adams, P. (2003). How is music learning celebrated and developed? Southwell, England: British Educational Research Association. Available online at

Graham F. Welch and Margaret S. Barrett