Carla Tanguay, MA, MT-BC
Music in Early Childhood: Social and Emotional Benefits
Somewhere right now, a mother is singing to her newborn daughter. A little boy is humming softly to himself as he plays with his toys. A grandmother is sharing the sounds of her native language with her grandchild through songs her mother taught to her. Two children are playing a clapping game on the playground and several others are chanting schoolyard rhymes.
This soundtrack of early childhood could be happening in any country, any neighborhood. Music is a universal part of childhood because it provides children the opportunity to practice things essential to the human experience: movement, communication, imagination, belonging, togetherness, and play.
Our previous blog post discussed the physical and cognitive benefits of music making and music therapy in early childhood. This time, we will explore social and emotional development and the role music plays in supporting healthy children and families.
Developing secure, trusting relationships with others is one of the primary tasks of early childhood. Caregivers in all cultures sing to their infants, and babies are impressively sophisticated listeners. Infants are able to detect rhythms and recognize melodies heard in the womb. Some studies even suggest that babies can detect various pitches and discriminate between melodies better than adults!
Lullabies are a special type of singing that supports bonding and social development. Scores of research studies demonstrate the measurable benefits of lullabies on both mother and baby, including improved bonding, decreased crying episodes, and decreased maternal stress. We think that lullabies evolved from simple vocalizations as the simplest way to signal to an infant that they are safe and cared for. When directed towards infants, our singing takes on a different sound quality than we use with adults, which lets them know we are attending to them.
Moving together to music creates a social connection.
A fascinating study conducted at the University of Toronto demonstrates the power of music to foster social connections. Fourteen-month-old babies were placed in front-facing carriers while being bounced to the Beatles hit, “Twist and Shout.” A stranger would stand in front of them and either bounce with the baby in time to the music, or would bounce in a way that was out of synch with the baby and music. After the song was over, these strangers would play with the babies. Babies who bounced in sync with their partners were more likely to help their partner (for example, hand them a ball that they were reaching for), than those who didn’t. Further studies demonstrated that this effect was not replicated when babies were bounced to nature sounds, concluding that it was the music that supported this prosocial behavior. (Read more about this study).
Music is, at its essence, structured sound. Rhythms, key, and the organization of verse and chorus are structures within which we apply rules and routines. Social development also involves learning the structures, rules and routines that facilitate positive engagement with others. It is the work of children to learn the social rules of playing together, such as taking turns, sharing, responding, leading and following, and role-playing. Parents, teachers, and therapists can help children practice these social norms through musical games and interventions.
Music Therapy and Social Skills
Music therapists use the playful and engaging nature of music to help young children practice social skills and develop techniques to improve social behavior. Children who struggle with social skills and need additional support learning and practicing these skills may benefit from music therapy. This includes children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, learning disabilities, developmental disorders, or a history of trauma.
Music therapy can help:
Improve caregiver/child bonding
Teach sharing and cooperative play
Increase expressions of empathy and awareness of others
Improve peer interaction
Early childhood is full of emotions (and parents know, these emotions can change in an instant!). Fear, surprise, delight, disgust, excitement, disappointment, and joy can all occur on a daily basis. Learning how to understand, express, and manage these emotions is a critical part of growing up. Self regulation is “the ability to manage one’s emotions and behaviors in accordance with the demands of a situation,” and is highly correlated with a child’s later mental health and educational success.
Infants do not yet have the ability to regulate their emotions. Instead they rely on caregivers to soothe them, keep them interested and alert, and transition between these states when it is time. Lullabies are one of the first ways parents teach infants to calm down. Gentle rocking paired with a familiar voice in a lilting intonation simulates rest and sleep. Transition songs can provide cues that it is time to change what they are doing, and help babies feel safe and that they know what is expected. Playful, interactive songs support early communication and the expression of joy.
Many early childhood songs provide opportunities to explore emotions and practice regulating those feelings. Expectation and release are key components in most music. Using both musical elements and lyrics, songs like “This Little Piggy,” “All the Little Fishies,” and “Pop Goes the Weasel” build up suspense and then practice releasing that tension (POP! Goes the weasel!).
These types of songs help children and parents explore the balance between what is exciting and fun, and what is scary or overwhelming. Other songs and musical games explore waiting, switching between fast and slow, or require careful listening. All of these are enjoyable opportunities for children to practice self regulation skills. Research shows that children who practice those skills in music and movement classes show better self regulation than those children who were not enrolled in the class.
Music is also a way to explore difficult emotions and make sense of the world. If you go back to the lyrics of some songs you learned as a child, they may seem strange at first.
“There was an old lady who swallowed a fly...perhaps she’ll die.”
“It’s raining, it’s pouring, the old man is snoring. Went to bed, bumped his head, didn’t get up in the morning.”
And of course, “Ring around the rosie...Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”
Children are drawn towards songs and games that help them act out, explore, and then manage their feelings. These often include things they are afraid of, or rules that they don’t fully understand. Musical games are a healthy way for children to explore concepts of fear and safety, right and wrong, and cause and effect.
Music Therapy and Emotional Development
When children are having emotional or behavioral challenges, music therapy can be a safe, effective, and creative way to help them explore feelings and develop healthy coping strategies. Music therapists work with children experiencing a variety of mental health challenges, a history of trauma or abuse, and those who are grieving or isolated. Music therapy provides an alternative to traditional talk therapies and provides young children a playful, non-threatening environment in which to develop healthy emotional skills.
Music therapy can help:
Improve the identification and expression of feelings
Increase flexibility and exploration
Develop healthy coping skills
Decrease stress and anxiety
Improve self-regulation skills
Bringing Music Home
The most important message we have to share about music in early childhood is to just do it. Whatever makes you most likely to bring music into your home and engage with your child through music, do that! For you, that might mean investing in some bluetooth speakers and streaming songs that you sing along with, keeping your guitar in the living room instead of in a case under your bed, or signing up for early childhood family music classes in your community.
However you bring music into your home, here are some important takeaways:
It is never too early. The famous music educator Kodaly once said that the time to start exposing children to music is “9 months prior to birth,” which he later revised to “9 months before the birth of the mother.” Infants can hear and respond to music even in the earliest days. Singing to infants increases their awareness, nurtures healthy bonds, and help develops trust with the world around them.
Music is for everyone. Music is not something to be left to the professionals. You do not need to be a “natural” musician or a gifted singer to make music with your children. They will love hearing you sing because it is you. Another important reason to be a part of the music making is that it will benefit you too! Adults also show decreased stress, improved mood, and improved social connections when they make music with others.
Do it together. Passively listening to music is okay. But much better is interacting with your child together in music. Change up the words or tempo of some familiar songs, let your child pick an instrument or household item to keep the beat on, let them be the “conductor,” or ask silly questions between each verse. Music made together is best when it is centered around meaningful interaction.
Incorporate all the senses. Music comes alive when it is paired with dancing, instruments, props, textures, and sights. Puppets, picture books, gestures, and movements will engage your whole child and increase the benefits.
Take music with you. When music is a core part of your family’s life, you have something you can take anywhere. A special song can be sung every day when dropping children off at school to encourage them to do their best and remember your love and support. Songs can provide comfort or engagement during long rides or when waiting for appointments or meetings to start.