Helping Your Child Tune In To Music

young boy playing the ukulele on the beach

by Beth Kanter

When 2-year-old Emily Lynn Phelps was sick and in the hospital, the only thing that would cheer her up was her mom, Sherri, singing “Itty Bitty Baby Girl.” “I sang this to Emily when she was an infant, and it totally helped calm her — and me! — down,” says Sherri, of Hawthorne, California.

Music can have a powerful effect on toddlers’ moods: It can distract them, amuse them, pacify them, and even get them to cooperate. How many times have you belted out the “Clean Up” song to encourage your 3-year-old to put away his trucks? Or how often did you sing a silly song to keep your 2-year-old still while you tried to wriggle her into a snowsuit?

What’s more, experts say that songs can build cognitive skills and enhance a child’s ability to learn. There’s no hard evidence that exposing your toddler to music will make him smarter and raise his IQ, but music certainly can make learning easier and more fun. A case in point: A 2-year-old can’t memorize the alphabet by reading it, but if he hears the ABC song repeatedly, he’ll quickly learn the letters.

The toddler years are the ideal time to get kids to tune in to songs. “If children are exposed to music before they’re 5, they’ll feel much more free to sing in an uninhibited way later on,” says Bonnie Ward Simon, co-creator of the Stories in Music CD series. “There’s a key window of opportunity at this age.”

Fortunately, it’s not too difficult to engage toddlers with tunes. Most instinctively love music, and singing songs together is a great bonding experience for you and your little one. “The most natural way to develop your child’s love of music is to expose her to the music you love,” says Lori Custodero, DMA, associate professor of music and music education at Columbia University Teachers College, in New York City. Here are some ways for both of you to enjoy the sounds — and benefits — of music.

Provide Easy Access

Keep a basket of props in your living room. Scarves, hats, tutus, and shakers all enhance your child’s musical experience by encouraging dramatic play. Get a stick, listen to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and pretend you’re the conductor. Take two paper plates, put some beans inside, and tape the plates’ edges together to make a shaker.

Music classes are also a good idea, but toddlers aren’t ready for formal lessons just yet. Instead, check out your local YMCA or look online for programs like Kindermusik or Music Together. “Two- and 3-year-olds can learn about different sounds and can even begin to create their own songs,” says Kimberly Hill, a teacher at Kids’ Music-Round, an early-childhood music school in Pennington, New Jersey.

Give Time to Explore

Your little one won’t clap to a steady beat or sing on key right away. But let her play in whatever way she wants and simply enjoy what she’s hearing. “If she’s been exposed to music activity, by the time she’s about 4 she’ll probably be able to tap out a proper beat,” says Kenneth K. Guilmartin, director and founder of Music Together, in Princeton, New Jersey.

Percussion instruments are easy for little hands to grasp, shake, and tap. You can use pots and pans, and encourage her to think about the sounds she makes. “Ask her which pan’s sound she likes best,” Dr. Custodero says. “Talk about the difference between loud and soft.”

young girl dancing to music
Listen to the music that resonates with your child, not what’s on the radio.

Use Music to Teach

Songs are a great way to help toddlers learn to experiment with words and sounds. They can learn rhyming patterns with songs like “I’m a Little Teapot” and “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” They can learn to spell (“B-I-N-G-O”), name the parts of their body (“Head, shoulders, knees, and toes”), count (5 Green Speckled Frogs”), and even speak new languages (“Frere Jacques”) through songs.

Be Spontaneous

Little kids have no problem breaking into song — and you shouldn’t either. Narrate your walk to the car in an operatic voice, or sing about the clothes you’re picking out to the tune of “Old MacDonald” (“I am going to wear this shirt, E-I-E-I-O”). Soon you’ll see your child do the same thing, as he begins to develop a love of music that can last a lifetime.

Musical Notes

These tips will help you make music a part of your family’s life.


  • Keep toy instruments for impromptu concerts. Maracas, rhythm sticks, and small drums are perfect for this age.
  • Take your child to outdoor concerts designed for 2- and 3-year-olds.
  • Let your child tinker on the piano while you play a song alongside.
  • Play music in the kitchen, play areas, car, and your child’s room.


  • Take your preschoolers to the symphony — or a rock concert. They likely can’t sit that long, and the volume might frighten her or hurt her ears.
  • Limit them listening to one kind of music.
  • Only buy toy instruments. A real tambourine makes a wonderful sound and often costs the same as a toy one.
young girl learning how to play the piano
Music can help your child develop a sense of exploration and discovery, which will lead to problem solving skills, creativity and collaboration.
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