Turn up the music!

Your child loves singing, dancing, and drumming out a beat. But did you know that, in addition to being a fun activity, music can help enrich your child’s development?


Music: no one-hit wonder

Music lifts people’s spirits, brings people together, and enriches quality time with family. It can also be a learning tool for your child. Read on to discover the many benefits of music.

By Nathalie Vallerand

Music lifts people’s spirits, brings people together, and enriches quality time with family. It can also be a learning tool for your child. Read on to discover the many benefits of music.

One of Fanny and Benoît’s favourite things to do with their kids, fouryearold Xavier and twoyearold Chloé, is to put on some music in the living room and have a family dance party. “It’s just plain fun!” Fanny explains. Meanwhile, Mélanie often sang to her now twoyearold son, Matias, when he was a baby. “It was mostly songs from my own childhood, like Frère Jacques and La chanson du petit voilier,” Mélanie says. “Matias had heard them so often by the time he was about 10 months old that he started humming them at bedtime.”

Music is a great way for parents to communicate with their children. “Singing to your little one conveys your love and affection,” explains Guylaine Vaillancourt, an associate professor of music therapy at Concordia University. “Your child can sense how much he means to you, and that strengthens your bond.” This is because singing and listening to or making music stimulates the production of hormones associated with pleasure, contentment, and trust.

Music’s soothing effect may also help babies control their emotions. In a study conducted by the University of Montreal, healthy babies were found to stay calm for twice as long when listening to someone singing compared to when they were listening to someone speaking. Matias’s mom made the same observation with her son. “He had bouts of colic when he was a baby,” she says. “It calmed him down almost immediately when his dad held him close while making sounds from his throat—a little like Inuit throat singing.”

By the same token, if your child has an ache or pain, singing her favourite song is an effective remedy. “Drawing a child’s attention toward something positive will take her mind off the pain and make her feel better,” says musician Monique Désy Proulx. Music can also have a beneficial effect on premature babies. “Singing lullabies or mimicking the sound of heartbeats with a musical instrument steadies their heart rate,” explains Vaillancourt. “They nurse more easily and gain weight more quickly.”

Music and pregnancy
Babies begin to hear sounds from the outside world at the 20th week of pregnancy. By the time they are born, infants can recognize the songs they often heard while in the womb. This is why it’s a good idea to sing during pregnancy. “The sound of Mom or Dad singing is comforting for a child,” says Désy Proulx. “It helps forge that initial bond.” However, placing headphones directly on a pregnant woman’s belly is not recommended, as doing so risks damaging the baby’s hearing.

Can music boost learning?

In the 1990s, a small American study drew a positive link between listening to a Mozart sonata and a person’s reasoning skills. Its publication led to an influx of classical music CDs for children. However, there is little scientific evidence for any such correlation. Contrary to popular belief, listening to classical music won’t make your child smarter! That said, musical training and music in general do improve a child’s learning capacity.

Musical activities facilitate learning because they stimulate different parts of the brain,” says Jonathan Bolduc, a professor of musical education at Université Laval and Canada Research Chair in Music and Learning. “Musical activities help improve listening skills, memory, attention span, organization of thought, and the ability control one’s behaviour and emotions, among other things.”

“When young children sing or play musical games together, they also learn to cooperate, share, follow rules, and wait their turn,” adds Désy Proulx. In other words, music can help children learn how to get along.

What’s more, songs and nursery rhymes can help children learn to talk by enriching their vocabulary. Hearing and singing these tunes gets them used to making sounds, saying words, and forming sentences. Songs and nursery rhymes also teach children that words are made up of syllables and sounds. “With music, children improve their ability to distinguish between and count sounds,” says Bolduc. “This makes it easier for them to recognize syllables.” For example, a child with a good sense of rhythm will have an easier time identifying the three syllables in the word umbrella. Understanding syllables, in turn, is helpful when learning to read and write.

Mixing it up

According to Bolduc, exposure to diverse musical genres is the key to developing a child’s ear and taste for music. There’s nothing wrong with children’s songs, but it’s important to add other styles to the mix, such as pop, rock, blues, gospel, country, jazz, and classical—to name but a few!

Music gets your little one dancing, jumping, or tapping his fingers and toes—movements that help build his coordination and motor skills.

That doesn’t mean you should play music nonstop at home, however. “Constant music ends up as background noise that can be tiring for a child,” explains Vaillancourt. “Too much noise tends to make babies irritable; sounds become intrusive rather than enjoyable. The wise thing to do is to make listening to music a special occasion.”

“Children get the most out of music when it involves action—when it gets them moving, dancing, or singing, or when they’re actively listening and paying attention to the rhythm and sounds,” says Désy Proulx. “Music is a fullbody experience!”

Make way for music!

Looking to bring out your child’s musical side? There’s nothing to it! Here are a few ideas for teaching kids about rhythm and sparking their love for music.

Looking to bring out your child’s musical side? There’s nothing to it! Here are a few ideas for teaching kids about rhythm and sparking their love for music.

You don’t have to be a musician to raise a musical child! “If you want to awaken your child’s appreciation for music, start by singing, dancing, and moving together,” says musician Monique Désy Proulx. If you can’t carry a tune or have two left feet, don’t worry: “All that matters to your child is having fun with his parents.”

Another fun activity is crafting homemade instruments for your little one to play. For example, tightly sealed plastic bottles filled with some dried rice, pebbles, or beads make for great DIY maracas, while a pair of wooden spoons is all you need to turn an empty ice cream container into a drum. You can also teach your child to drum a beat on pots and pans, tables, or the couch.

According to Jonathan Bolduc, a professor of musical education at Université Laval, nursery rhymes can also foster an interest in music. “They instil a sense of rhythm and are a big hit with kids,” Bolduc explains. He recommends putting your own spin on nursery rhymes, as you might with bedtime stories. Try making your child laugh by altering your voice—recite the rhyme in a whisper, in a steady crescendo, or with an accent, for example.

What’s the right age for a child to begin music lessons?

From the age of nine months, children can begin taking introductory music classes that explore song, movement, and percussion (i.e., instruments such as the maracas, tambourine, triangle, and xylophone). They will learn to recognize sounds, listen to different types of music, and move in time to a melody. As music therapist Guylaine Vaillancourt notes, “Developing these skills makes it easier to keep a beat, concentrate, follow instructions, and appreciate music.”

It’s best to spend no more than a few minutes at a time on an activity when introducing toddlers to music.

Xavier, 4, and Chloé, 2, take music classes at their childcare centre. “They have a great time doing activities like playing drums, dancing, and learning songs with actions,” says their mom, Fanny. “In some classes, the instructor will tell a story while the kids play different instruments in the background.”

As far as taking lessons for a specific instrument, toddlers don’t yet have the necessary motor skills or concentration, says Vaillancourt. It’s better to wait until they’re ready, at the age of five to seven. “Music lessons require practice and discipline,” Vaillancourt adds. “If children find them too hard, they can get discouraged, even to the point of not wanting to try again when they’re older. Learning to play an instrument should be fun!”

Musical activity ideas

Ages one and under

  • Sing to your baby as you take care of her, such as while changing her diaper, feeding her, or giving her a bath.
  • Roll a ball along to some music over your baby’s stomach, arms, and legs.
  • Pat your baby’s back in a gentle rhythm while you hold him.
  • Play make believe with stuffed animals by using a deep singing or speaking voice for bigger toys and a highpitched voice for smaller toys.

Ages one to three

  • Teach your child to play musical statues by encouraging her to dance along when you turn on the music and then freeze when you press pause.
  • Show your child how he can transform his voice by speaking into a cardboard tube or cupping his mouth with both hands. Encourage him to sing or make different sounds, such as drawnout vowels, while holding the tube to his mouth.
  • Play singing games such as “Ring Around the Rosie” while holding hands with your toddler and skipping in a circle.
  • Compare sounds. Tap your fingers on a pair of different objects, such as a tin can and a plastic container, and ask your child whether they sound the same or different. Repeat this exercise with various objects, and encourage your little one to try it for herself.

Ages three to five

  • Produce different rhythms by clapping your hands, slapping your thighs, or tapping on different surfaces. Begin by asking your child to follow along, and then have him make up his own patterns.
  • Ask your little one questions about a nursery rhyme she knows and see if she can tell you which of the words rhyme.
  • Have your toddler listen to music with his eyes closed and ask what it makes him think of.
  • Ask your child to make up a dance to a bit of music or to come up with actions for a song or nursery rhyme.


Naître et grandir

Source: Naître et grandir magazine, December 2017
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: Nicole Malenfant, teacher in early childhood education techniques, CEGEP Édouard-Montpetit

Photos: Maxim Morin, GettyImages/Ryanjlane and Selectstock