Monday, September 24, 2012

Music for Preschoolers Part 1

Dumpling showed some interest in music when she was younger (which we subsequently went for a trial with a music school but we did not sign up) and she brought up the topic again some months back.

I started researching and reading up a bit more in this area and reached out to a friend, Wan Juan, who has a Degree in Accountancy but decided on pursuing her interest in teaching music. Here's part 1 of our chat where she shares her thoughts on music for preschoolers and tips on what parents can do to support from the homefront.

Alicia: Wan Juan, firstly, can we have a short introduction for the readers here?

WJ: I started teaching piano full-time more than 10 years ago but converted to part time teaching since I had my boy, KJ who is turning 4 soon. A majority of my students consists of children, the youngest being 3.5 years old, although I have taught adults too. I have not taught my son the piano as yet and many people are surprised. :)

So why haven't I taught my own son piano? Let me start off by making a distinction about piano playing (in terms of technical ability- that I think KJ is not ready for) as compared to the musical concepts which come before that. It is this love for music that I believe is the most important and not the ability to play the piano or any other instrument.

Alicia: It is said that Music is good for the soul. :) How do you think it is good for preschoolers?

WJ: Music develops listening skills. This can be seen from a child's ability to pick up tunes and recognise the activities that is related to it e.g. hello and goodbye songs in school, lullabies etc. With constant exposure, the child grows accustomed to the musical cues formed and hence music can be used to establish a daily routine that leads to formation of habits. In addition, the sense of pitch and rhythm is enhanced and this can help in their language skills later on.

Through music, children experience the integration of their minds and bodies. When they hear a piece of music, their minds form an image and the body responds with a related movement. Hence it's not only the sense of hearing that is being developed. Stamping, skipping in time with the music, or creative movement (pretending to be a falling leaf, a tree, climbing up the stairs when hearing music with ascending notes) tap into their imagination and artistic side.

Feelings and emotions are also involved. This is when a same piece of music can mean different things to different children. E.g. One child may interpret a loud sound as thunder, whereas another thinks it's an elephant stomping. Or the same song can mean different things to the same child on different days! This shows that they are not simply hearing the music, but actively thinking about what he has heard. Music thus actively involves the mind and helps the child to link the various senses.

Music, being the universal language, enhances learning of language and other subjects. Imagine having to learn the 26 alphabets by reciting without singing? Wouldn't that be monotonous and much harder? By putting a tune to it, the alphabet (and many more topics, eg, days of the week, calendar, Chinese poetry etc) become more easily remembered. Even phonics is taught through songs, e.g. Letterland and Jollyphonics. Granted, memorisation does not equate to understandingbut it does make learning more enjoyable and repetition becomes fun. Eventually, the child's vocabulary expands. In fact, research suggests that the first three years are critical for combining music experiences with learning, as alphabets, numbers are all involved in musical concepts.

Alicia: How can a parent, with minimal music background, incorporate music into their children's daily lives?

1. Singing is really the best way as the voice is natural instrument. Use music to communicate and represent/accompany daily activities. E.g. Use a wake up song every morning, a washing up song, or I love you song when saying goodbye. In this way, music becomes fun and forms a natural part of the child's life. It also evokes positive feelings when the child associates the musical cues with tasks that he enjoys doing.

2. Even when the child is doing some other activities, play some music in the background. It does not have to be "serious" classical music, you can begin with playing nursery rhymes, say while he is playing with toys or drawing. It may not seem like he is actively listening, but subconsciously the music will be registered in his mind. Look for signs that he is attracted to a particular song. Then you can have fun by playing musical games or doing creative activities to attract his interest further. (Refer to the next section for suggested activities)

3. Because music is such an abstract subject, it may hard for a child to make sense of it. Parents should try to create interest and stimulate his imagination by relating the music to something he knows or likes e.g. does the music sound like a particular animal? Or his favourite toy? This also links back to the previous point so that when trying to plan activities, look for those of interest to your child.

4. Appeal to the various senses, since music involves more than listening. Visual activities (like viewing or painting pictures that go with the music), kinesthetic (e.g. bounce or hop along with bouncy music, stamp his feet for loud music, squat or bend down for soft music) help the child get involved in the music. Lastly, ask him about the mood of the music or how he feels about it.

Clockwise from top left: "Classics for Children"  - value for money because it contains several classical pieces suitable for children,  "Favourite Pre-K Songs" - nursery rhymes cd that I have been playing for KJ (but there are many others in the market), J'apprends le piano - compilations of various famous piano pieces by different composers

Alicia: Are percussions encouraged or needed?

WJ: Percussion instruments are highly recommended as they expose the child to the different musical timbre and heighten their sense of hearing and pitch. They also help to improve their motor skills. Where possible, have a variety of low and high-sounding instruments. Drums, triangles, wooden blocks are especially good as there are more than one way of producing the sounds e.g. drums can be banged, tapped, rolled upon, triangles can be tapped. Toy xylophone is also a good choice as simple tunes can be played on it.

Above: Common percussion instruments: xylophone, castanet, shaker and bells

Alicia:What type of music / composers do you recommend for preschoolers?

WJ: Firstly, I believe any type of music is good exposure for children, just like how it is beneficial to read to them books from different authors and genres. That being said, classical music may not appeal to children as it is hard for children to make sense of it, especially without lyrics. To begin with, choose short pieces or those based on stories. The following are suitable choices:

1. Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite - attractive music with an interesting storyline about a little girl who was given the Nutcracker toy for Christmas present and her dreams and adventures that come with it.

2. Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf - Another story based orchestral work, about a boy Peter and his adventures with a wolf as he wondered into a meadow, and other animals along the way.

3. Saint Saens' Carnival of the Animals - 14 short orchestral pieces that stimulate the child's imagination by depicting the movements of various animals like elephants, horses etc.

Alicia:What activities can a parent do with their child(ren) at home? 
1. Rhythm games
With any nursery rhyme, make accompaniment beats or rhythm using percussion instruments - toy drums, castanets, shakers, bells etc while the song is being played. Initially, they will just make random rhythms, but gradually, try to guide him to a more regular beat. Do join in asyou have to show that it is fun! (Even though you have to bear with the noise level). Depending on the age, variations can be made below:

a) Each one of you beat a line each

b) Vary the dynamic level - do a soft/loud version. Play game of opposites eg. One of you beat loudly and the other beat softly.

c) Choose one word from the lyrics and only beat/shake the percussion on hearing the word e.g. on the word "dell" for Farmer in the Dell. This is a fun activity to train listening skills, and more importantly, develops rhythmic feel, because he has to do it right on the beat and not before or after. For more fun, use the percussion on every word except the agreed one :p

d) Beat the rhythm from the beginning part of the song and see if the child can copy and beat the same rhythm back. Then ask him to guess the title of the song.

2. Action- based games
On hearing the selected word being sung, do the action as agreed. Eg for the song Three Blind Mice, squat when hearing the word "mice". Later on this can lead to creative movement by letting the child select objects to use according to what he hears from the song eg bounce a ball for a jumpy song, scarfs, feathers, ribbons for slower, lyrical songs

3. Creative games

a) Changing lyrics - I think all children can do this without being asked to. But try to make it more guided, e.g. For instance, for wheels on the bus, you can change to different vehicles or even different animals. Children enjoy being silly, so don't be afraid to give silly suggestions e.g. how about an apple on a bus??

b) Creating art pieces - drawing/painting/collage work using different materials based on how the child feels about the piece. This may not be as complicated as it sounds and can be done for young children as well. Abstract art is perfectly acceptable and in fact, better than a pictorial image, as it can actually stimulates his imagination and thinking. e.g. a loud sound can be depicted as a big messy blob of paint, and a soft chirp as a small dot.

Some questions to guide the child:
- Do you think it is dark at night or bright daylight?
- What kind of weather does this sound like? Rain? Thunder? - Do you think it sounds like a fast/small animal or a big and slow one?

c) Making a sound track for a story (this is more for older children above 5 yrs old) First prepare and lay out some objects and instruments, including some unconventional ones e.g. plastic bags, plastic bottles, chopsticks, abacus etc

Then, while you read a story, let the child create different sound effects. Or better still, if you have an audio story cd, so that you can participate in the sound-making! Challenge each other by trying to come up with different ways of creating sounds from the same instrument.

Note: This may seem like not music in the true sense, but it cultivates the musical sense of the child, because firstly he must imagine the sound for the particular story thereafter, conveys the sounds using various instruments. At a later stage, when he is more accustomed to "sound compostion" he can make up his own tunes using singing, or if he is learning an instrument, he can play on it.

Alicia: Can you share any resources with our readers which can be used at home?

WJ: Here are some resources which I have at home :)

A set of 4 books introducing various aspects of music to children (instruments, musical symbols etc). Note: These are not theory exercises, the entire series is all on colouring and visual recognition.

Above 2: Cover and inside pages of a book I found recently - "Sing Along and Learn" by Scholastic. It is for teachers to use in classroom, but it can also be used at home. CDs are included and topics range from parts of body to numbers and alphabets, plus it comes with accompaniment exercises. Good to engage the children and easy for music to be part of their learning process.

Here are some links to more musical activities

This is a site which provides free song sheets and lyrics, plus some activity sheets

This is a slightly more "advanced" site, which includes composers and theory exercises

Join us again for Part 2 of our chat where Wan Juan will share more on the technical part of music and what to look out for in selecting for a music school / music teacher.

Wan Chuen is a mum of a 4 year old boy, Kaijie (KJ), who has been teaching piano for more than 10 years. She has a DipABRSM from the Association Board, a LTCL (Licentiate) in Instrumental Teaching and a AmusTCL from Trinity College.

Wan Juan can be contacted at  


  1. Hi Alicia, thanks for this! I've been wondering what is the right way to introduce music to my child and there are very useful tips here. i am working on playing music in the background and introducing percussion instruments :)

  2. Hey Geraldine,

    Thanks for popping in! Yes, I really like the sharing in the post too as they are both practical and easy to implement. :) Hope you and your little one have loads of fun while you are at it! :)


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