How Music Influences Early Childhood

By Michelle Montgomery Muth, MT-BC February 28, 2014
The song "On the Day You Were Born," by Red and Kathy Grammar, is a song filled with joy and celebration of birth. The simple words are:

On the day that ________ was born, On the day that ________ was born,
On the day that ________ was born,
The angels sang and they blew on their horns and they danced, they danced.
They smiled and raised up their hands on the day, on the day, that ______ was born.

Take a moment and fill-in the blank with your name or simply with “I.” Read, or if you know the tune, sing the song with your name. What a beautiful image this creates and powerful affirmation for you on how creation celebrated your moment of birth. Now, add your child's name (or child-to-be’s name if selected) and notice how much joy you feel in the beauty of this image — the concept of angels singing and dancing and making music all because of one unique and individual birth.

Why Music is Important for Baby Bonding
Music is an innate part of who we are as humans. It is within and around all of us. We are rhythmic creatures by the simple presence of a heartbeat and the rhythm of breathing. Did you know that hearing is one of the first senses to develop and the last to leave us? In the womb, what will your child hear most? It’s your heartbeat — a steady and consistent presence throughout gestation. What might the second most prevalent sound be? The mother’s voice, pure and simple. It is no wonder the baby is often comforted most by mom, not simply because she is the main food source, but because she was the most heard for the nine months of pregnancy. Your child heard your voice through fluid. The sounds were not clear speech but blurred speech, rhythmic, with highs and lows, loud sounds and soft sounds, much like music.

Imagine life out of the womb. No longer heard is the mother’s heartbeat (at least not constantly) or the continued presence of her voice. There are many more sounds, some pleasant, some not, and absolutely everything is new. As you learn to bond with your infant, think of how their world changed. They need your voice and heartbeat amidst all this newness.

Your Voice Is Your Instrument
How do I use my voice to bond with my little one? How does my partner do the same when he did not carry the baby for nine months?

Sing, hum, sway, rock, speak rhythmically with your baby. Remember they were with you rhythmically and musically for nine months. For your partner, have them begin singing or reading to you or your baby while in the womb. My brother-in-law read to my sister every night throughout pregnancy (and still does). When my niece was born, my brother-in-law exclaimed something that caused her to turn her head towards the sound of his voice. What a gift for the partner that does not carry the baby!

During pregnancy you can do something to facilitate the bonding process. For both the mother and partner, no one else needs to hear you sing, just your baby. It doesn’t matter what you sound like, it matters that you use singing (not just recorded music) to bond and connect with your baby. You want them to hear your voice as comfort. I discourage having your baby listen solely to recorded music. What you lose is the time for bonding, unless you are singing along with the music. Do you want your baby turning their head to the sound of Taylor Swift’s voice or to yours? Find children’s books that have great rhythm and rhyme. You sense it when you read them aloud. As you get comfortable reading aloud and feeling the rhythm, you just might find yourself starting to sing.

Take a few minutes to think about your relationship with music. How was music used in your household growing up? Was it in the background, or very present with earbuds/headphones? Did people sing along or listen in their own space? How do you use it now?

Music and Early Childhood Development
In addition to bonding, why is music important to my child’s early development?

“The period of early childhood is unlike any other in a person’s life. The foundation of all later development is compressed in a time of rapid change in all areas of functioning.” (Music Therapy, and Early Childhood: A Developmental Approach by Elizabeth Schwartz)

Music is a whole-brain activity. It crosses the hemispheres and helps create neural networks that are expanding at an exponential rate in early childhood. It stimulates the senses and creates a multi-modal approach to development. It is fun and enjoyable and creates opportunities for spontaneous play, which is so important in a child’s development.

According to the organization Zero To Three, “Recent research shows that music also contributes to the healthy development of young children. It creates a rich environment that fosters self-esteem and promotes social, emotional and intellectual development.” (Getting in Tune)

Engaging musically with your child creates moments of spontaneous joy for the two of you and engages the whole brain. That way, your child learns about social interaction, even as a newborn, and cognitive functions are stimulated.

If you are reading this and thinking, “I can’t sing, I don’t know what to sing,” remember this is not about being a “singer.” It’s about using your voice to bond with your child early in life. First, I believe that all people can sing, even those with limited vocal abilities—I’ve heard it with my clients who can’t speak but vocalize, in their own way, and sing. Over the years, when adults tell me “I can’t sing,” it’s because this belief is rooted somewhere in their childhood when they were told, typically by a music teacher, not to sing in a concert or to simply mouth the words. (It makes my blood boil when I hear these stories, but that’s a topic for another day.) At the end of this article is a list of resources to get you started, particularly if you are a shy singer.

Take a chance, sing to your baby, rock and sway to the music. Hold your little one close, let them hear your heartbeat and feel the up and down rhythm of your breathing, then hum — it’s a great start!

What would you like to know about music and early childhood development? Share your comments.

Resources for you:
  • Sing to Your Baby by Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer: Singers Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer designed a program for all parents, grandparents and others in a new baby's circle of loved ones. With Sing to Your Baby, you can hold your baby and sing away by singing along with the CD or the new iPad App.
  • Zero To Three is a national nonprofit organization devoted to promoting the health and development of infants and toddlers.

Great children’s books with rhythm to read aloud:

Virtually anything by Sandra Boynton: Barnyard Dance; Moo, Baa, La La La!; Pajama Time; soothing books with a different type of rhythm: On the Day You were Born, by Debra Fraiser; On the Night You Were Born by Nancy Tillman; Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise

Music recommendations: There are so many I can't  list them all here. This is just a selection in which the music is child-like but not child-ish.
  • Putumayo CDs: You don’t have to look at just the kids' CDs. Look at their entire collection and listen to the samples. Find something you enjoy and want to share with your child.
  • Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer CD recommendations at All Wound Up, Scat Like That, Pillow of Wishes, Pocket Full of Stardust, When the Rain Comes Down
Michelle Montgomery Muth is a board-certified music therapist (MT-BC) and music educator with advanced certification in Neurologic Music Therapy. She is owner of M3 Music Therapy ( and provider of Sprouting Melodies®, an early childhood music and movement program. Michelle has experience working with a wide variety of populations including seniors in longterm care; adults and children diagnosed with developmental delays; people living with traumatic brain injuries; adults living with mental health challenges; and school-aged children and teenagers with autism.