Toddler Music – Make Some Noise For Cognitive Development!

by Melanie on September 25, 2013

Our move has been going great and we will finally be back to the old tot school routine next week. In the meantime, Rocket has been vastly engaged in helping me around the house, reading lots of books, and making MUSIC.

I have a confession to make… our living room looks like a cluttered concert stage most of the time!

I’ve been meaning to write an in-depth post about toddler music, since melodies and beats are a constant in our lives. I’ve mentioned Rocket’s love for songs and instruments here and there throughout the blog, but it really deserves a post of its own. It’s my personal belief that music should be a major part of every young child’s life. And since we still haven’t gotten back into the grind of tot school in the new house quite yet, this week is the perfect time to write about why I think so!

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Music is incredibly beneficial for children of all ages, and the itty-bitty wee ones are no exception.

When it comes to playing music for babies and young toddlers, it’s important to recognize the similarities between music and language. In many ways, music is received as a language in the processing regions of our brains. We use language to communicate. We use music to communicate. Often, we combine music and language together to communicate, but they work in delivering a powerful message separate from one another just as well.

A classical composition, wordless as it may be, can make us cry, smile, contemplate our very existence, and question our own nature. How powerful that makes music! Just like language, music has a unique way of shaping our thoughts and attitudes.

As different as all the people on this planet are, from culture to culture, we seem to relate to one another in a shared appreciation for music. Music speaks to us on a deep, emotional level that sometimes words can’t even express.

Perhaps it’s for this reason that babies are naturally soothed by music. And it’s a good thing that they love it so much; research indicates that music does wonders for their growing brains!

I’ve divided this post up into 4 sections and will list the main topics here on the top for your convenience in navigating the article.

10 Tips For Toddler Music Success

5 Steps For Building Specific Music Skills

7 Ways Music For Toddlers Builds The Brain

A Photo Compilation Of Rocket’s First 2 Years In Music


10 Tips For Toddler Music Success


1) Get started early!

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You don’t have to wait until they’re toddlers to introduce them to music, that’s for sure.

My husband was singing to my pregnant belly when Rocket was still in his cozy womb cocoon. The music only grew louder and more frequent once he made his big debut!

Music for babies helps to calm them when they’re fussy and it gives them an overwhelming feeling of comfort. There are some amazing videos on YouTube of how fast this can work- seemingly inconsolable babies stop the tears in mid-cry when their favorite tune comes on. There’s a reason moms have a reputation for singing to their babies. It genuinely works wonders in lulling them to sleep!

While you may get a series of fun head nods or some giggles out of them when a song is played, don’t expect them to be able to “jam” hardcore as very young babes. The limited response does NOT mean that the music isn’t affecting them on a much deeper developmental level. By playing music for them when they are still tiny, you are imprinting in them a love of sound from a very early age.

They may not have the motor skills to express themselves better, but they are listening to the music. And as for that silly baby head bobbing- that’s level 1 in learning rhythm!

2) SING, SING, SING! Make it a family thing!

My house is a musical pretty much 24/7. To the onlooker, I’m sure it gets straight up weird in here sometimes with how much we sing. Fortunately, there are no onlookers. It’s just our family’s little thing that we all absolutely LOVE!

Even when I’m sick, I sing through a scratchy voice box. This son of mine won’t let a day go by without music! Since he was born, my lung capacity must have doubled in size and I definitely have improved my own pitch, just by virtue of so much practice.

My husband is the true musician of the household and I love our evenings together when he gets off work and leads our entire family in making music together. We have favorite songs that we sing over and over again. They include:

  • The Wheels On The Bus
  • Five Little Monkeys Jumping On The Bed
  • Michael Row Your Boat Ashore
  • Amazing Grace
  • The Hokey Pokey
  • Row, Row, Row Your Boat
  • Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star
  • Old MacDonald Had A Farm
  • Are You Sleeping?
  • If You’re Happy And You Know It
  • Head, Shoulders, Knees, & Toes

Discover YOUR child’s favorites and form a family music group to add great joy to your days! It doesn’t have to last long… we usually stick to 30 minutes to an hour at night, after dinner and right before our bedtime routine. Everyone sings. Some times we even get the dog howling! Everyone dances. Everyone plays instruments. For some reason, Rocket loves to put me on the cymbals. He even made up a song about my role called “Cymbals, Mama!”

Rocket loves our home choir/band and I have to admit, so do I! In those moments when we are making noise together and I’m surrounded by my singing family, I couldn’t be happier.

In addition to our nightly jam sessions, we sing our way through the day- when we’re eating, when we’re cooking, when we’re cleaning, when we’re driving, when we’re walking, when we’re reading, when we’re changing diapers, when we’re getting a bath.

It’s impossible not to be cheerful with so many songs in our lives!

3) Play instruments.

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We have an arsenal of toddler-friendly instruments. We’ve been building our collection since he was born. Many were gifts. A few, we bought. Some, we made ourselves.

We also have less toddler-friendly instruments, mostly my husband’s. Even those, we allow him to play, with close supervision. The guitar is one of them. If you or someone you know is a musician, play live music for your child when you can!

But you don’t have to have an existing musician in your family to find the thrill in playing instruments with your children. For toddlers, I highly recommend a variety of percussion instruments. Clappers, maracas, tambourines, drums, xylophones, shakers, hand cymbals, triangles, etc. These are easy for them to use and are so much fun for the whole family!

While they can’t tackle professional wind instruments like flutes and clarinets quite yet, simple recorders or harmonicas may be nice additions to the music collection as well.

And I HIGHLY recommend some type of piano or keyboard, even if it’s a child’s toy. With a keyboard, they can hear a range of notes and become familiar with basic music fundamentals.

4) Play passive music often.

When you’re not feeling like singing of playing instruments, turn something on in the background instead.

Classical music, jazz, and toddler songs are always a safe bet for young children. Really, you can introduce your tots to any type of music you want, but please be aware that many radio songs have inappropriate words and messages for little ones. Use your own discretion to decide what you think is child-friendly.

There are also lots of electronic children’s toys that allow them to play different songs on their own. One of my personal favorites is the Munchkin Mozart Magic Cube.

5) MOVE!

Music is about more than just sound. It’s about rhythm, and to help build your child’s rhythm, dance together!

There are many children’s songs that involve movement and you can always make up dances for the ones that don’t come with their own moves. Not only does this help your child develop musically, but it’s great exercise and fun for the whole family! Clap, spin in circles, touch your heads, fall to the ground, put your hands up in the air, sway your hips, and do anything you can think of to get your toddler’s body moving during music time.

6) Get creative with toddler music.

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We make up a lot of songs. We sing our “orders” for Rocket (i.e. let’s clean up the house). We sing what we’re doing to help build his vocabulary. We sing books that aren’t necessarily written to be sung. We sing how he’s feeling to help him sort through his emotions better.

It didn’t take Rocket long to mimic this behavior. Now one of my favorite things is to listen to the wonderful lyrics his precious mind comes up with!

He often sings to the tunes of his favorite songs, replacing the original lyrics with his own. For example, one time, instead of telling me that he needed to be changed, he sang, “Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see? I see a wet diaper looking at me.”

It was hilarious!

I love that we’re able to use music to fuel the creative mind, as creativity is not something that is as easily taught as schoolroom academics.

7) Lead by example.

This means that YOU need to get into the music! Don’t just put an egg shaker in your toddler’s hand and walk out of the room, expecting him/her to entertain himself/herself. Model for them what to do with music. YOU are their example and only by loving music yourself can you give them the musical head start that they so crave.

Make it a fun activity that involves quality time with mom & dad and they will undoubtedly fall in love.

Dance and sing and wave your arms like you would never do in public. Break out of your shell and your young one will follow suit. Show your child how much you love music and they will naturally love music too!

8) Engage the child.

Invite them to sing with you. If they don’t want to sing, interact with them in any way they are willing.

Some children are more shy than others and may need a little encouragement to participate. Don’t be pushy, but shower them with positive reinforcement when they dance, clap their hands, or nod their heads.

While listening to music certainly helps us in many ways, most of the cognitive research on early childhood development regarding music involves active participation. Don’t ever push them if they feel uncomfortable, but do everything you can to make music a warm, inviting activity so that they will want to be involved.

9) Read books.

There are so many great books about music for toddlers!

Two of our favorites are:

  • Music (English-Vietnamese Edition). This book has been responsible for Rocket’s recognition of multiple musical instruments.
  • Drum City by Thea Guidone. We play the drums as we read this book. It’s one of his favorite books of all time!

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Lounging on a chair after reading Music.

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Banging on a pot with a metal spoon, just like they do in Drum City!

In addition to books about music, you can always read nursery rhymes and books that are meant to be sung such as Five Little Monkeys Jumping On The Bed.

10) Go to classes.

If you just aren’t a very musical person and you still aren’t sure how to lead your child down a musical path, don’t worry. There are classes designed for young children just to help you with this!

Classes like Kindermusik and Music Together can be very beneficial for your family. Please don’t push toddlers into formal music classes too young. At this age, the primary focus should be on training them to love music, not to memorize scales. Classes like the ones I mentioned here are designed especially for toddlers and children. There is not so much pressure to learn. The learning happens passively as they are having fun!


5 Steps For Building Specific Music Skills


1) Let It Flow Naturally.

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Toddlers are born with a natural drive to play music. I am baffled by how well my not-even-two-year-old can keep good rhythm and sing in tune. In many ways, I truly think that music is innate, because it speaks to us right in the gut.

So as a first step in building music skills, it is important to do a certain amount of stepping back and allowing toddlers to learn on their own. Let it flow naturally and they will discover so much about music just from the experience.

For toddlers, this is probably the most important thing you can do. Don’t get formal on them. Allow them to make mistakes, self-correct, and in that, learning will take place.

2) Teach Harmony.

Sing and play instruments together to help your child learn how to harmonize with others. This is very beneficial in terms of learning how to play with others and work as a team.

You can also teach harmony through clapping games such a pat-a-cake, which force you to pay attention to your partner. If you’re not in tune with your partner, the whole game is off.

Games and activities that involve cooperation with others serve to teach children how to harmonize (both in the grander scheme of life and in music).

3) Teach Rhythm.

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 Drumming is one of the most natural instruments for children to play.

 In the realm of music, dancing, drumming, playing instruments, and singing will all help with your child’s rhythm development. But there is even more you can do to encourage better rhythm in your tot.

There are many non-musical activities that children can do to help them master rhythm. Synchronized actions which involve motor movements and balance will assist in the development of rhythm.

This includes bouncing a ball, stomping feet, clapping hands, marching, tapping, pushing a swing, and even bouncing on a parent’s knee. Model for your child how to do these movements in patterns, such as 1-2-3 bursts. By repeating these patterns themselves, your child gains great practice in rhythm development.

4) Teach Basic Concepts.

Show your child how to change his/her voice from high to low, how to go from loud to quiet, how to start singing quickly and then slow it down, etc. By “show you child how”, I just mean to do it. Children are imitators by nature.

Concepts like these seem very self-explanatory to us, but for toddlers, they are new and exciting to learn!

5) Don’t Lose Sight Of The Goal. HAVE FUN.

The most important thing in teaching toddlers music (or in teaching toddlers anything) is that they are having fun. Like I mentioned before, it’s NOT the time to practice scales yet… your job as a music teacher of a toddler is to foster a love of music, help them to develop basic rhythm, and encourage creative self-expression. Never lose sight of those goals! If you’re not having fun, put the instruments away and return to them another time.


7 Ways Music For Toddlers Builds The Brain


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1) Music improves memory.

Have you ever noticed how hard it is to get lyrics out of your head sometimes? There’s a reason for that. There’s a reason that advertising companies get paid ridiculous amounts of money for catchy little jingles that seem so simple, a toddler could have written them.

It’s because music and memorization go hand in hand. The morality of this practical application in advertising is questionable, but it can certainly be a useful tool in educating children.

The Hokey Pokey teaches left and right.

Five Little Monkeys Jumping On The Bed teaches how to count to five. I think his love for this song greatly contributed to my own son’s ability to count to five so early.

In the article “Music and Your Toddler or Preschooler,” author S. Jhoanna Robledo discussed a couple of interesting studies involving music and memory for older children. From page 2 of the article:

“Scientists at the Chinese University in Hong Kong, whose research was published in the journal Nature in 1998, say kids who have at least six years of music lessons before the age of 12 learn more words than those who go without. Researchers read 16-word lists three times to 60 girls. Those who had studied music for six years remembered more words than those who hadn’t. Martin Gardiner of the Music School in Providence, Rhode Island, examined the effect of music and art lessons on a group of 5- to 7-year-olds who were considered ‘underperformers.’ According to the magazine The Economist, after seven months of lessons, they were tested on reading, writing, and math and found to have caught up with their peers in reading and writing, and surpassed them in math.”

2) Music stimulates the brain.

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Children introduced to music at a young age develop a higher number of neuro pathways in the brain.

This increases their learning processes in general, even outside of the music world! In other words, participating in music NOW can help them with learning math later down the road.

3) Music improves speech.

As I said at the beginning of this list, music improves memory. For that same reason, music also helps children learn new vocabulary words.

Through the process of repetition, they fine-tune their speech and improve on their enunciation as well.

4) Music increases conceptual ability & activity in the right hemisphere of the brain.

It’s no secret in the world of cognitive science that music and the creative brain go right together.

The “creative brain” is more accurately the right hemisphere of the brain, an area that is often neglected in conventional school academics.

Children who are involved in music from a young age receive lots of “brain food” for that creative hemisphere and this serves to improve their overall conceptual ability. That is, it helps them to think outside the box and see things from more than one angle.

5) Music improves listening skills and emotional intelligence.

In order to repeat the music that we hear, we first have to listen to the music.

Therefore, music involves a great deal of listening skills. These listening skills, once developed, can then be applied to our interpersonal relationships, improving our overall ability to communicate.

6) Music improves motor skills.

Singing, playing instruments, and dancing involve the honing of our motor skills. In fact, playing music for hours on end can be quite physically exhausting. It’s a fun and creative workout!

7) Music supports a bonding experience between those participating.

With all the endorphins that run through our bodies when we are playing music, it is no wonder that our family music sessions are my favorite part of our daily routine. The bonding experience we share together by playing music is priceless.


A Photo Compilation Of Rocket’s First 2 Years In Music


Well, his first 23 months, anyway. We have a birthday coming up real soon! Here were some of our favorite moments in music so far.


This boy loves watching live music!

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When he was still crawling, we celebrated the Lunar New Year by taking him to see live Vietnamese music on a stage.


If you don’t have a keyboard at home, consider getting the Meowsic Keyboard. We had one ourselves and it was a big hit, but we decided to pass it on to another child Rocket’s age who had no instruments at all.

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Introduction to the piano.

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And why not play the piano with his toes?

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He got familiar with the keyboard before he could walk. It’s still one of his favorites today!

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This was the first keyboard we had. Since then, we’ve upgraded to a different one which plays some of his favorite songs like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore. 


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Propped up on a pillow, listening intently to Dad play the guitar before he could even sit up on his own.

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Early guitar strumming with Dad.

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Now, this big boy has developed a smooth hand and can help play the guitar by strumming the strings while Dad changes the chords.

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He was delighted when I brought home this lap harp, his first string instrument of his own. He practices using the pick on it and plays it even when we’re in the car.


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A peek at our nightly jam sessions.

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Sharing the keyboard with his cousin.

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Playing music with friends.

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Music Together class.


I saved this category for last because it’s his favorite group of instruments that he can play independently. I believe that children tend to gravitate towards drumming, as this repetitive act is a natural first step in learning rhythm and gaining hand control.

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Before he was walking, he was xylophonin’!

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Rocket had a drum cake for his music-themed first birthday party!

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Examining the parts of his bongo drum. He often asks about the anatomy of his instruments and if Dad is absent, I sometimes have to resort to the Internet to learn them myself!

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When my mom brought him his first set of drumsticks, a new door was opened in his musical little world.

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An organized musician: drumsticks, recorders, harmonicas, and maracas stored safely in an upside-down bongo drum.

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Creative drumming: using toy cars in place of drumsticks.

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It’s amazing watching how much more accurately he hits the keys as he gets more practice under his belt.

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Electronic drums are fun, but nothing beats acoustic.

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It got loud in our house when Rocket discovered his love for drums!

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Anything that makes a sound when turned upside-down and that can withstand a beating instantly became an instrument.

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A happy drummer.

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Large metal tins work great as drums for tots.

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His first drum set: A bunch of stuff to bang on!

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His life changed the day he got his hand cymbals! Still a favorite to this day.

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Moving on up in the professional life, Rocket got a snare drum from Grandpa! Now he keeps begging for a “big cymbal”. Hmmm… someone’s birthday IS coming up!

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Quinn H September 27, 2013 at 12:50 pm

We have done Music Together classes too and I can tell it helps. I love how you bring that same atmosphere into your home. Kids really do love music!


Nancy Xei September 27, 2013 at 1:02 pm

I like that you teach in many different ways.


sonya September 29, 2013 at 2:41 am

I really love for this blog. Its an informative subject. It helps me quite much to remedy some difficulties with my kid.


debbie November 20, 2013 at 4:18 am

Hello it’s me Debbie,Yet again you managed to bring tears to my eyes iimagne my surprise when I didn’t even know you were doing this blog and i came across it. All you guys do for your son are priceless and truly melted my heart.


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