Using music and singing to build early communication skills

Music provides an immensely powerful way to connect human beings, overcoming age, linguistic, and cultural barriers. Nowhere is this more powerful than in the interaction between an adult and a very young child. At first this is generally in a one-to one relationship, but increasingly young children can be invited to be part of a wider group, sharing a common beat, or mood.

Over recent years, research by Malloch and Trevarthen* has led to the coining of a new phrase, ‘Communicative Musicality’, which is being used to describe this kind of interaction. (See Mary Fawcett’s excellent article :Innate musicality and very young children: indications for practice from Research, for an overview.)

We are learning that making music together has an enormously stimulating effect on our brains, not least in the area of communication, whether verbal or non-verbal.

Taking a joyous, jingley lead with Lindsay Ibbotson
Taking a joyous, jingley lead with Lindsay Ibbotson

The Early Years Profile Results published by the Department for Education this October has a strong emphasis on three prime areas which are considered most essential for children’s healthy development. The first of these is Communication and Language. (Let’s put Physical Development, and Personal, Social and Emotional development to one side for now!)

The research would certainly indicate that music, including the use of our first instrument, the voice, is a hugely important tool to include in the building of communication skills in young children. We all pick up the musical cues within spoken language. Its pitch and rhythm and structure are full of meaning. They help to develop a context for verbal understanding too, but are subtle, flexible and universally recognisable.

However, you do not need to be a highly trained music specialist to use this tool, anymore than you need to be a highly trained linguist to speak successfully and understand others. All of us have musicality in us, certainly to the point that we can share communicative musicality with children.

Singing Stories with Lindsay Ibbotson
Singing Stories with Lindsay Ibbotson

Whilst it is important to tease out some of the essentials in the ingredient list for music making, (beat, rhythm, timbre, etc), it is also important to assemble them and enjoy the results – how could you get the full effect of a carrot cake merely by tasting a little raw egg, or a lick of butter? Learning about the basics comes through enjoying ‘the whole’ whether you’re a baby or an adult!!

Working with children in various settings, both formal and non-formal, it is always a privilege to witness how this happens, in different ways, depending on the age of the children.

For the very young, a sense of steady beat develops as much by being carried through a joyous dance to the music of Olly Murs, as it does through playful knee bounce rhymes. Feeling Mum take gentle breaths at regular points through a lullaby, (while nestling into her neck and shoulder), is as important to understanding phrasing as is clapping hands to a four-beat nursery rhyme. Hearing a voice rise just before a tickle happens teaches something deeply communicative about pitch, just as hearing, and eventually singing, lots of accessibly pitched familiar songs.

When parents attend music sessions, it is a great opportunity to let them discover how simple things like these have a profound effect on a child’s development. It’s such a lovely way to bond, and so rewarding for everyone. Responding to a child’s creative ideas in vocalising, moving and dancing, can do so much for their all-round confidence, especially when the adult is genuinely enjoying themselves too. The benefits are reciprocal, so don’t expect to do all the giving! We once neared the end of a ‘Music for Two’ session smooching to ‘Beam Me Up’ by P!nk, and the emotional poignancy was palpable – every child and adult utterly tuned in to each other! Magical.

Don’t be afraid of sharing music beyond the nursery action song either – just trust your own sense of what is meaningful and true. It was interesting to read in Nicola Burke’s dissertation on The Use of Recorded Music in Early Childhood Settings (2013) that though the staff  in Children’s Centres she investigated were likely to use recordings to control routines, such as lining up for playtime, or settling a class down, they seemed much less likely to use recordings of music to develop listening skills, explore moods, and absorb things about cultures. There is indeed enormous scope in using music to develop the communication of quite sophisticated ideas and feelings, as I certainly felt on that ‘Beam Me Up’ occasion. Music should not be a one-way spoon-feeding process. It is truly interactive communication at its best.

Rhymes and cuddles - Lindsay Ibbotson
Rhymes and cuddles - Lindsay Ibbotson

I saw another example of this deeper connection, though in a very different mood, during a Little Voices session, when an early years class teacher danced with real, honest exhuberance to ‘Up Town Funk’ by Mark Ronson, (featuring Bruno Mars), while her class accompanied her on their rhythm sticks and joined in with increasing enthusiasm! They then tuned in immediately to the following lullaby, lay down, and finished the class tired, relaxed and beautifully behaved. Smiles all round!

This image takes us nicely into the looking at how we can develop the use of music with slightly older children.

As the child grows, active music making can effortlessly enhance and support social awareness and communication skills within the group setting. Have fun playing ‘stop' 'start’ games with simple instruments, (sticks, shakers, even spoons or pebbles will do!). Try taking turns to play with a new instrument, (a rain drum or a triangle for example). There are plenty of songs with actions, games, and call and response, (e.g. If you’re happy and you know it’).

Co-operating with a group dynamic to make music that is fast or slow, happy or sad, loud or quiet is something that children do instinctively. The call of a musical beat is very strong in all of us, who can resist clapping along to a favourite song? Some excellent resources for practical material and further food for thought are listed below. These give very accessible ideas for sound musical progression for non-specialists, and would be ideal as an ‘as standard’ part of Initial Teacher Training.

As parents, teachers, as human beings we can share music with children fully, with all our joy and sensitivity. It will give them a richness that will stay with them forever, and everyone’s hearts and brains will be lighting up, yours and theirs!

Lindsay Ibbotson, Music Leader on NYMAZ Early Years Steering Group, runs Music for Two –Mother and young child music sessions with NYMAZ and the Army Welfare Service at Catterick Garrison, funded by the National Foundation for Youth Music. Part of the Opera North Little Voices outreach programme in Leeds, she is interested in research into the cognitive benefits of early years musical activity, is a member of the BKA, and runs a Community Choir in the Yorkshire Dales.



*Malloch, S. and C. Trevarthen eds. 2009. Communicative Musicality: Exploring the basis of human companionship. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Link to Mary Fawcett’s paper on Early Arts site Innate musicality and very young children: indications for practice from Research

The Use of Recorded Music in Early Childhood Settings - Nichola Burke, Dissertation submitted in part fulfilment of the award of MA Education at the University of Central England  - appears on ‘Academia Edu’ site


Further reading and Resources:

Image Credits: The Army Welfare Service, Catterick