Early Years Music Education Training: Do We Need It? Part 1

Ask a teenager what they do in their spare time, and they will often say, “listen to music”. Ask an adult what they do to relax, and they will often say, “listen to music”. Music is so pervasive that it is hard to think of any situation where you would not come across it.

From shops to operating theatres, offices to warehouses, businesses use music all the time to help with staff motivation and promote concentration.

At home, parents use music to calm babies. Football and other sports use music to unite crowds and fans. And in the health system, music has even been shown to reduce patient anxiety before operations and other challenging medical procedures. So, with so much music around, do teachers really need to learn how to teach music? Can’t they just sing to children? Do we really need to invest time and money for specialist training into music instruction for early years educators? Research says we do.

An international study by Bautista et al (2022) identified that music education helps to pass on cultural heritage, enhances learning skills and develops a number of personal socioemotional skills – check the study for all of the areas included. For this reason, many countries have included daily music in their national curricula, with the intention of it being used for more than the minimum standards that some settings use it for.

Educators often use music to teach aspects of other subjects or life skills, e.g. ABC-song, 1-2-3-4-5 once I caught a fish alive etc. The other way music is often used is in classroom management, e.g. introducing routines, used as between-activity fillers, and as activity transitions. While these activities are a start, and they are valid examples of using music holistically, the study found that preschool educators rarely knew the basic aspects of music education, like rhythm, pitch, timbre, and composition – nor did they know how to specifically teach them as skills.

Below is a list of sample songs that can be used to develop musical skills in the early years, with more information on developing the basic skills in music education, based on the free mini e-book Come And Sing 1 (Turnbull, 2015)https://books.apple.com/gb/book/musicaliti/id1057514353. This includes music notation, an audio recording of each song, a game suggestion, and begins with an introduction to musical concepts, and an introduction to learning the ukulele for group singing.

The book Learning with Music (Turnbull, 2017) – https://www.routledge.com/Learning-with-Music-Games-and-Activities-for-the-Early-Years/Turnbull/p/book/9781138192591 – includes substantially more detail on different approaches to music education, how they fit with current pedagogy, curriculum development, and sample lesson plans for the different preschool age groups (from birth) using 90 different preschool songs.

Level 1: Cobbler Cobbler

Cobbler, cobbler, mend my shoe
Get it done by half past two
Half past two is much too late
Get it done by half past eight

This song introduces historical language (cobbler / shoe repair) and uses two pitches (tune) and two rhythms (beat). This makes it easier to find the high note (so*) and the low note (mi*); the steady beat (crotchet/quarter note) and the note twice as fast (quaver/eighth note). This dichotomy is a particularly successful way to introduce music for both children and adults, because it is easy to understand, easy to copy, and easy to sing successfully.

Level 2: Pease Porridge

Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold
Pease porridge in the pot, nine days old
Some like it hot, some like it cold
Some like it in the pot, nine days old

Also called Pease Pudding, this is a savoury dish of stewed peas in the tin can aisle in your local supermarket, and can be mixed with bacon for flavour, then spread on bread, hot or cold (I’m not sure whether it still tastes good nine days old, or whether that is how long it took the peas to stew!). Musically, it introduces a third pitch (do*) to the previous notes, mi* and so*, and a third rhythm: the steady beat (crotchet/quarter note), twice as fast (quaver/eighth note) and twice as slow (minim/half note). We use these pitches because they are far enough apart for the brain to identify them as different, yet close enough that the undeveloped vocal cords/folds of the growing child can reach them without strain or damage.

Level 3: Let Us Chase The Squirrel

Let us chase the squirrel
Up the hickory, down the hickory
Let us chase the squirrel
Up the hickory tree

The American hickory tree usually produces pecan nuts, and musically, this song introduces a fourth pitch (re*) to do*, mi* and so*, from low to high, and the same three rhythms as before, the steady beat (crotchet/quarter note), twice as fast (quaver/eighth note) and twice as slow (minim/half note). By introducing music notes gradually, both children and adults are more likely to sing in tune and more accurately. Using games allows children to match the tune/pitch subconsciously and learn the knowledge consciously as they get older.

The authors of the study end their article with a warning that as we come out of lockdown, we run the danger of focusing on literacy and numeracy to the exclusion of the arts, as people become concerned about educational delays caused by lockdown. By reducing music in the development and growth of children, we run the risk of affecting their socio-emotional development and self-regulation. Next month, we will look at the way new pitches and rhythms are added, along with potential ways forward for early years music education.

* Kodály pitch: do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti.

(Rhythms in British and American terms.)


Bautista, A., Yeung, J., Mclaren, M. L., & Ilari, B. (2022). Music in early childhood teacher education: Raising awareness of a worrisome reality and proposing strategies to move forward. Arts Education Policy Review, 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1080/10632913.2022.2043969

Turnbull, F. (2015). Come and Sing 1 (1st ed.). Musicaliti Publishers.

Turnbull, F. (2017). Learning with Music: Games and Activities for the Early Years (1 edition). Routledge.


Benefits of Early Years Music Education

Research shows that early years music education can have a positive impact on a child's cognitive, emotional, and social development. Music engages both hemispheres of the brain, which can enhance learning and memory skills. Furthermore, it can help develop language, reading, and math skills. Music also plays a crucial role in emotional regulation, providing a healthy outlet for expression, reducing anxiety, and promoting relaxation. In a social context, music can promote cooperation, teamwork, and communication skills.

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