Enabling young children’s language in musical ways

Why do we need music to support language?

Much of my time - like so many music specialists - involves justifying why music makes a critical difference to a young child’s language development, reading and subsequent life chances.

Our knowledge of sound, song and music making goes back to pre-historic times. It is even said that Stonehenge was often used as a set of musical stones to accompany song and dance (Devereux and Wozencroft, 2013)! Our world resonates with vibrations of rich sounds of every shape  and size.

Approximately one in six children between 1 – 6 years old in the UK are diagnosed with language delay (The Communication Trust, 2014). Much of my practice involves teasing out language development through child-initiated musical activities with illuminating results. Enjoying musical activities with a young child makes practical sense. It is nurturing, fun, educational and for the most part, free. Music is healthy, persuasive, emotionally positive, distracting, communicative and sociable (MacDonald et al 2012).

The voice is driven by the movements of breathing (Power and Trevarthen:214). Using movement to nurture vocalising, language and music making has been the basis of The Music House for Children’s practice and research since 1994. Our fascination with sound comes from the common assumption that sounds are created by the voice, and heard with our ears. But is it? How is sound actually made? When air moves it vibrates. It moves because we have moved it with our bodies. Every time we speak we move up to 36 muscles!

A particularly successful approach initiated by The Music House for Children is our musical story tales. Inventive and ultimately self-initiated these musical adventures compel young children imaginatively, physically and vocally. Nurturing imaginative response helps children move from being the audience to being the performer. By gently withdrawing our voice as the performer through questions such as “…but what if?” or, “…and where (did he) go?” children become the performers, their imagination runs riot, and language begins to flow.

My starting point for nurturing language, engagement and musical alertness in whatever context, need or setting is always through repeated, rhythmic, playful, pitch undulated welcoming sounds:

La, la la la la la la la la la… Doo dah doo dah doo dah…

Over time, even the most resistant talker will begin to utter sound, or create vocal and visual letter shapes – always helped by a loved adult joining in. This clip shows children with language delay, all joining in…


These rhythmic, playful sounds may feel silly to make at first, but silly sounds achieve four important things - they...

  • Warm up the voice

  • Compel participation

  • Directly engage adults with the children

  • Are fun


Links between music and language

Music and language are hierarchically arranged and inextricably linked:

Music = notes and keys; chords and progression

Language = letters and syllables; words and sentences

The process of speaking involves interesting up and down sounds, making particular parts of a word louder or softer, creating different rhythms and stressing different parts of a word, letter or phrase. If we take out music from a child’s vocal learning we take the soul out of speaking.

Try saying the following to a friend with no change in pitch (up and down), no emphasis on any word, or rhythm, and with as little movement as possible…

It was a lovely, sunny, warm day. I ran on the sand, by the sea and jumped over two sandcastles. Wee!"

© Charlotte Cleveland 2015

© Charlotte Cleveland 2015

Now say it again in your normal way. A little gesture here, an animated expression there. As the listener, can you now visualise a sunny day on a sandy beach, smell the salty air and feel the warm sun on your arms as you run? Musical, moving play is taking place! (Bannan and Woodward, 2009)

Just as with music, an interesting conversation has melodic ups and downs and rhythmic patterns. We also work with babies and their parents to encourage attachment through playful sound making. One of our studies showed just how effective reciprocal communication can be with babies, especially when carer and baby establish musical patterns in their interactions.

Affectionate vocal interaction with a loved adult plays a critical part in helping a child to develop language, particularly in the context of musical play (Buckley, 2003). So, what else can we, as early childhood educators, do to help children develop language acquisition?


Repetition and imitation

Repetition and imitation in musical activity is hugely empowering for a child – particularly one who has language delay or English as an Additional Language (EAL). In repetition there is a feeling of security (Turino, 2008). The following clip shows R (with EAL and language delay) having heard the same song over four weeks, now taking charge. The child who answers is normally non-verbal.


Using irresistible props

Presenting a few relevant props provide visual affirmation and helps a child to ‘own’ the song. In another project involving language delay I present a song“All around the daffodils”. Each child stood on a piece of fake grass holding a daffodil. Y (language delay and EAL) opted to sing about the rain. D (language delay and autistic) joined in with a spider song. Off we went, on an adventure about a spider and the flowers growing with water splashing everywhere. H (language delay) wiggled his body to emphasise his point about the flower growing whilst uttering “up, up, up”.

By asking open questions such as, “what happened then?” or “Where did (the spider) go?” I initiated verbal and physical responses. The children’s story continued evolving with moving, sound and word play, all vital for strengthening and developing language. The grass and daffodils were fabulous, it was fun and sparked off a galloping storyline.

The following recording emerged from a fish in a piece of blue lycra:

Motivational vocalising

Motivational vocalising is the second stage on from an internalised experience. The freedom to move becomes a silent child’s melody and voice. A recent music project involving multi-cultural children with language delay included V, aged 4. She had an anxiety disorder called selective mutism and cried throughout the weekly sessions. Over time V stopped her tears, but remained silent and watchful and within the circle of activity.

One day during a song about bees, flowers and honey, V shrugged her shoulders, raised and lowered her hands, inclined her head and smiled as we sang. The other children agreed with everything she ‘sang’ with affirmative nods. V’s physical response made sense, and was powerful.

If we open our eyes to how all our children ‘speak’ including those with language delay we can begin to converse in response. This next clip from our weekly sessions with young deaf children illustrates this point.


By offering a range of thoughtful musical offerings we can provide focused, reciprocal support.  The ingredients of being visual, physically animated and vocally inviting was a recipe for success time and again. I must stress that we do not entertain. As early years educators we are extending our own sensory mechanisms (seeing, hearing, moving, vocalising) in musical ways to reach those who are a little further away.

Emma Hutchinson is the Director and Founder of The Music House for Children

The Music House for Children is a not for profit organisation providing musical experiences to babies and young children, and those with additional needs including language delay, deafness and autism.

Our training programmes support educators in delivering music without the need for instrumental learning. Our music programme is due out in 2016 with an emphasis on child-initiated musical play and language.



Buckley, B. (2009) Children’s communication skills from birth to five years. UK: Routledge

Hutchinson, E. (2014) Can music improve vocalising in young children with language delay? A collaboration between a speech and language therapist and early years music specialist.

Malloch, S and Trevarthen, C. (2009). Communicative musicality exploring the basis of human companionship. Oxford: Oxford University Press

MacDonald, R, Kreutz, G and Mitchell, L. (2012). Music, health and wellbeing: Oxford

Powers, N and Trevarthen, C. Voices of shared emotion and meaning: young infants and their mothers in Scotland and Japan. In Malloch, S. and Trevarthen, C. (eds.) (2009). Communicative Musicality: exploring the basis of human companionship: Oxford University Press

Devereux P. and Wozencroft, J. (2013). Stone age eyes and ears: a visual and acoustic pilot study of Carn Menyn and Environs, Preseli, Wales. The Royal college of art.

The Communication Trust.