First Steps in Music for Infants and Toddlers

Music and Movement for Infants and Toddlers: Naturally Wonder-full

By John M. Feierabend, Ph.D.

The Thirty Year Plan

Musical behavior is basic to all cultures, both primitive and sophisticated. And yet, in our enlightened late twentieth century there appears to be plenty of evidence that many are losing this basic dimension of expressing themselves. It should not be unreasonable to expect all adults to be able to clap their hands in time to the cheering at a sporting event. Dad should be able to sing “Happy Birthday” to his son or daughter without hearing, “Don’t sing, Dad.” A couple should be able to dance in time to the music at their wedding. A person should be able to sing at a worship service without persons in the row in front turning around. An audience member should possess sufficient sensitivities to be moved by a nuance in an orchestral performance. A mother or father should be able to soothe their infant with a lullaby and rock to the beat of that lullaby.

Still many persons have not developed basic sensitivities which would allow them to function musically in society. Most adults should be able to demonstrate basic musical behaviors including

  1. comfortable and accurate singing;
  2. comfortable and accurate moving;
  3. expressive sensitivity when listening and/or responding to music.

While elusive of definition, the third behavior-expressive sensitivity when listening and/or responding to music-is critical in coming to understand the communication of music. In The Republic, Plato speaks about music as an art form, in that music has the potential to deliver a message “below the surface.” When a fine composer creates compositions, he/she uses the tools of music to communicate something below the surface. It is hoped that such compositions will, then fall into the hands of insightful performers who will realize the composer’s communicative intent in the music. Still, if the audience lacks the expressive sensitivity necessary to hear the message below the surface, that message has fallen on deaf ears. Necessary sensitivities to the expressive qualities in music must be nurtured during the earliest months of life.

If we believe adults should be able to sing to their children and dance with their spouses and appreciate good quality music literature, then we must sing to our babies, and dance with our babies, and do both with quality children’s music literature. Then when those babies become 30 years old, they will be musically sensitive and be able to provide an appropriate nurturing musical environment for their children.

One hundred years ago many families instinctively engaged their very young children in activities that were ideal for developing musicality. No one studied early childhood music education, and there was very little need for classes to be offered to infants and toddlers with their parents.

Today we are discovering that during the past hundred years the musical sensitivities of each generation have been gradually devastated by the side effects of an increasingly sophisticated technological environment. Instead of making music, most only consume it-and the nutritional value of much of that musical consumption has become increasingly empty. While research is piquing our interest and is supporting a variety of reasons why music and movement experiences are important in the earliest years, it is interesting to note what previous generations did. Long before research advised us about what might be appropriate musical stimulation in the early years parents were naturally sharing musical activities with their infants and toddlers. These activities provided ideal experiences for nurturing a healthy neural network which is so necessary to fostering musical comprehension, coordination, and expressive sensitivity.

I have conducted interviews with many senior citizens who were asked to recall a song, rhyme, or game that could be played with a baby on their lap.[1] Those citizens over 80 were able to offer a remarkably diverse repertoire. When other in the 60- to 80-year-old bracket were asked the same question, only some repertoire could be delivered. A third group between 40 and 60 recalled very little, and parents who were 40 years old and younger essentially “didn’t know nothin’.” What happened to this genre of literature that so perfectly fostered musical growth in infants and toddlers?

During the past 100 years families have been redefined. Where once there were large families living in close proximity, now the nuclear family is smaller and more geographically dispersed. This shift in family community has strained the continuation of aural traditions. The playful songs and rhymes, once shared by generations of adults with children, are gradually being forgotten. Those songs and rhymes that demonstrated community affection and endorsement-and were orally transmitted from one generation to the next-are being replaced by commercially imposed “ear candy,” literature that provides a temporary rush but lacks long-term nutritional value.

Quality Literature

  • If children are to develop a sophisticated spoken vocabulary, they must hear a sophisticated vocabulary.
  • If children experience good grammar, enunciation, and expressive speaking they will assimilate those skills.
  • If children hear a limited vocabulary, incorrect grammar, and poor enunciation, they likewise will assimilate those language patterns.
  • If children are read to in an expressive voice, they will later read aloud and to themselves with appropriate expression.
  • If children are to grow into adults that have a thirst for good books, they must be nurtured with exemplary children’s literature.
  • If children are to develop healthy bodies, they must be nurtured with healthy food and exercise.
  • If children are to grow to appreciate good music, they must be nurtured with excellent examples of children’s music literature sung with sensitive expression.

So what is good literature? There are several criteria which can be used to determine if a song is an excellent example of music literature for this young age. Of primary importance is the use of songs and rhymes in which the text relates to the make-believe world of the young child. The words should invite the child into the fantasy of riding a horse or encountering a bunch of pigs. Good children’s books are full of wonder, are interesting to adults and children, and are still delicious after 30 readings. Good children’s songs demonstrate those same qualities. They are wonder-full, are appealing to adults and children, and are still pleasurable to sing after many, many repetitions. If a song loses its appeal after repeated singing, then, like chewing gum losing its flavor, it is not worthy of nurturing a child’s musicality.

After determining if the words are sufficiently child-like (not childish), observe the relationship between the words and the melody. The marriage of words and melody in a children’s song should embody all the subtleties of natural spoken inflection. The melody should serve as an extension of the natural expressiveness of the spoken line. The rhythm should be close to the rhythm that would naturally occur if speaking the words. The melody should reflect the ups and downs, dramatic moments, intensifications, and repose of spoken inflection.

Many songs seem to neglect this relationship between words and melody, Read the words of a song as if speaking the poetry of the words. Listen to where the spoken rhythm and pitch inflections occur. Does the melody enhance those natural inflections or undermine, the expressive potential? During the second phrase of “Frère Jacques” the question is asked, “Dormez vous?” Here, the melody goes up like a natural inflection in the voice when asking a question. This is no accident. It is an example of how in folksongs melody emerges naturally from language. Yet, when we sing the same song with the English words we put the question with the first phrase of the melody and ask the musical question with a statement rather than a question. This careless marriage of words and melody undermines an opportunity to influence the development of expressive sensitivity.

If the text is sufficiently wonder-full, and the melody is natural to the spoken rhythmic and melodic inflection, the printed score is still no more than a skeleton of the music. Notation in its printed form is not music. To sing songs as printed on the page is analogous to reading a story with no inflection. There is nothing in the words of the story to indicate where or how to speak expressively, and yet a good reader brings the words to life with expression. Likewise, music notation gives no guidance as to appropriate expressiveness. Yet, the artistic singer has an intuition for the nuances necessary to bring the skeleton of a song to life. Musical expressive sensitivity can only be developed by listening to other singers who exemplify expressive singing. If children are read to often and with expression, they will assimilate that concept and when later reading aloud, will bring those words to life. Similarly, children must be sung to with appropriate expression in order to nurture their instinct for musical expressive sensitivity. The songs and rhymes of our grandparents have demonstrated community endorsement. They are excellent examples of wonder, are an excellent marriage of words and music, and are still delicious after many singings. We should nurture our children with such musical expressions that emerged naturally out of an expressive need and not out of commercial expression. Zoltan Kodály, the Hungarian who completed his studies first in linguistics and later in musicology, understood the importance of music that was birthed out of inspiration rather than financial gain.

So by communicating only inferior music, the schools cut off the way to a higher development of the musical sense. In the name of good taste and of the Hungarian spirit alike, school literature generally used today must be protested against. I include in this the greater part of unison songs, too. Some writers of textbooks consider Hungarian children idiotic by tutoring them with such little verses and songs as could be improvised much better by any sound child given the chance.[2]

In another presentation he added:

It is not advisable to peruse (these) collections. At first one laughs, then one becomes annoyed, and finally one despairs and cannot imagine that in a country where such things are printed and even sung aloud, there may still be room for anything better. And what about the masses for whom this remains their only music? Can we be surprised if, by the time they grow up, they cannot get any further than the music of the trashiest hit? [3]

But What Can We Teach a One-Year-Old To Do?

The infant’s job is to make sense out of the world. While infants’ neurological networks are maturing, they encounter many sounds to decode-including language and, if fortunate, music. Even though infants cannot comprehend words, they are trying to make sense out of the sounds. Gradually infants begin to make sense out of words-even before they have developed the ability to speak any of those words. This effort causes the linguistic synapses to be stimulated which, in turn, signals the brain to maintain these pathways for future use.

By 6 months of age, Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington reports, infants in English-speaking homes already have different auditory maps (as shown by electrical measurements that identify which neurons respond to different sounds) from those in Swedish-speaking homes. Children are functionally deaf to sounds absent from their native tongue. The map is completed by the first birthday. “By 12 months,” says Kuhl, “infants have lost their ability to discriminate sounds that are not significant in their language, and their babbling has acquired the sound of their language.”[4]

Similarly, infants need to hear and feel music early on if they are to begin to make sense of it. If, however, certain neurological pathways are not built early, they will become increasingly difficult to build later. The time to build and maintain those information highways is during the first months of life.

In an earlier article,[5] I compared the child’s developing mind to growing vegetables. For example, growing a brain might be compared to nurturing a tomato crop. Initially we plant more seeds than we expect to use. After the seeds have begun to grow, we thin out those which show the least promise. This allows the more promising plants sufficient space and nutrients to prosper. Seeds which are neglected in the early stages of germination are not ever likely to recover fully. While the plants should never be neglected, it is more detrimental to neglect them for two weeks in the beginning stages of development than to neglect them for two weeks in mid-summer.

The young child’s mind is, in many ways, like that tomato crop. Initially the brain produces an abundance of neural pathways. Those pathways that show the most promise are maintained and intensified. Those that are neglected, atrophy. It is during the first two years of life that the brain will begin to determine which seeds to nurture-according to the available experiences. In his landmark book, Frames of Mind, Howard Gardner reports

Éin human beings the density of synapses increases sharply during the first months of life, reaches a maximum at the ages of 1 to 2 (roughly 50% above the adult mean density), declines between the ages of 2 and 16, and remains relatively constant until the age of 72. [6]

In Endangered Minds, Jane Healy adds:

The strength and efficiency of synaptic connections determine the speed and power with which your brain functions. The most important news about synapses is that they are formed, strengthened, and maintained by interaction with experience.

It is much more difficult to reorganize a brain than to organize it in the first place. Organization inhibits reorganization. Carving out neuronal tracks for certain types of learning is best accomplished when the synapses for that particular skill are most malleable, before they “firm-up” around certain types of responses.[7]

In the same book Healy presents the concept of “two directional” thinking and provides a considerable amount of support for the need to evoke responses from children. Information that only travels “in” (as in most television viewing) does not promote the necessary brain activity to nurture synaptic development. Learning which evokes responses from the child promotes the appropriate brain activity that stimulates synaptic growth. Healy quotes Phyllis Weikart as follows:

Feeling (the beat) has to be independent for the child; you can’t make it loud and you can’t make it visual as in videos; it has to be felt. Unless the child is rocked, patted, stroked, danced with at the same time, unless adults are creating the feel of the beat for the child who is hearing it, that feel of beat does not develop.[8]

When these fascinating concepts are applied to music learning it is easy to realize the importance of appropriate musical experiences during the first two years. During these years, when the mind is making sense of the world, musical syntax is developing. Beat, meter, rhythm, tonality, and expressive sensitivity should be presented. Would you not talk to a baby simply because he/she cannot talk? Then why should we wait to introduce music until the child can sing and move? And while 100 years ago it was more common for infants and toddlers to receive precisely the correct kind of nurturing, today’s parents of infants and toddlers need to be re-introduced to the wonder-full songs and rhymes that can develop their children’s musicality. Classes for infants and toddlers with their parents can provide an opportunity to share songs and rhymes that are both excellent examples of music literature and are appropriate for developing the musical mind.

What Might an Infant/Toddler Music and Movement Class Look Like?

Repertoire used in classes for infants and toddlers with their parents can be the same. The response we expect from infants, however, will differ from that of toddlers. During the first 12-18 months, infants are mostly passive during the activities. Between the ages of 18-24 months, toddlers take a more active role. The goal is to present appropriate experiences often enough during the infant months so that when infants become toddlers they will respond naturally. If children are to acquire a sense of beat, they have to experience the feeling of beat while the mind is still organizing. If children are to acquire an accurate singing voice, they must hear much accurate singing. If children are later to respond in an expressive manner to music through singing and movement, they must have music and movement presented to them in an expressive manner during their early years.

One hundred years ago these needs were addressed in the home. Through interviews with the elderly it has become apparent that adult/baby games were much more prevalent in our grandparents’ generation than they are today. Today’s parents need classes which present an appropriate repertoire to use with their infants and toddlers. Beat, meter, melody, tonality, wonder, and expressive sensitivity can still be easily assimilated through the same kind of songs, rhymes, and games that nurtured musicality in our grandparents and great?grandparents.


Bouncing an infant or toddler on one’s knee is the adult-child activity most often recalled by the elderly. Bounces provide an ideal experience of the beat for young, children. These wonder-full rhymes and songs embody make-believe, provide an opportunity to learn beat and meter, and often consist of delightful melodies.

To market, to market,
To buy a fat pig.
Home again, home again,

Newborn babies can experience bounces as well as mature toddlers. With adults sitting on the floor, legs outstretched, young infants can be laid on one’s lap while the adult lifts the knees on the beat and recites the rhyme.[9] Slightly older babies that can support their head can sit upright on an adult’s knee. During the bounce it is best if the toddlers’ feet can touch the floor since that will encourage toddlers to initiate the beat motion by pushing off from the floor. Be sure to adjust the tempo of the rhyme to complement the tempo of the baby’s movement.


While there are not as many, wiggles recalled by the elderly as bounces, there are many more recalled than “This little piggy went to market.” Wiggling each finger or toe from largest to smallest has inspired dozens of rhymes that embody all the desired music nutrition, including wonder.

This little pig danced a merry merry jig,
This little pig ate candy.
This little pig wore a blue and yellow wig,
This little pig was a dandy.
But this little pig never grew to be big,
So they called him tiny little Andy.

Most young infants will not allow you to wiggIe their fingers. Instead, wiggIe their toes. As they grow they will allow their fingers to be wiggled with the beat. Later, the toddlers’ musical response can be evoked by having them wiggle your fingers while you chant the rhyme, but be careful to follow each child’s demonstrated tempo.


Tickles were traditionally performed by an adult tracing a circle in the palm of a young child. The primary object of the rhyme would be for the adult’s fingers to walk up the baby’s arm on the beat, usually ending with a gentle tickle.

Round and round the cornfield
Looking for a hare.
Where can we find one?
Right up there.

Young infants will not open their hand to allow you to trace a circle in their palm. Instead, set the infant in your lap and gently tap on the infant’s stomach in a circular pattern as if to tap on the different numbers on a clock dial (See Figure 1). Older infants and toddlers can be encouraged to take a more active role by tracing the circle in the adult’s palm and walking the beat up the adult’s arm.







Tapping the beat onto the infant or toddler was a game often shared by adults and babies. Here, the adult accompanies songs and rhymes with tapping on the baby’s face or on other parts of the body; most tapping was done on the bottom of baby’s foot.

Shoe a little horse,
Shoe a little mare.
But let the little colt
Go bare, bare, bare.

Initially the adult will tap onto the infant, but gradually the toddler can be encouraged to tap onto him/herself or onto the bottom of the adult’s foot.


There are only a few songs or rhymes for clapping with baby. “Pat-a-Cake” is a favorite one that has endured.

Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man.
Bake me a cake as fast as you can.
Roll it and pat it and mark it with a “B.”
And put it in the oven for baby and me.

While these games are most commonly performed with the adult’s holding onto the child’s hands, it would be better to evoke a movement response from infants or toddlers by placing their hands palms down while the adult taps up onto the baby’s palms (See Figure 2). It makes no difference if the hands of an infant younger than 6 months are held during clapping games. It is best to tap up onto the palms of a baby older than 6 months. Soon the child will begin tapping down onto the palms of the adult. Be sure to sing or speak the rhyme, following the tempo of the baby’s movements; remember, holding the baby’s hands to “help” him/her feel the beat is like holding the baby’s lips and moving them up and down to say “mama.”






Simple Songs

Children should experience songs of all complexities. Most of the songs in the above categories (i.e. bounces, wiggles, tickles, tapping, clapping) either have no tunes, or the melodies are too complex for a 2-1/2 year-old to sing. Therefore a short portion of each lesson should be devoted to songs that will be simple enough for toddlers to acquire.

Rain, rain
Go away-
Come again
Some other day

While infants or toddlers may not sing during this time, planting these songs in the children’s memory will provide a warehouse of singable songs-once the children discover their singing voice.

Simple Circles

Simple circle games are reserved for those children who can toddle about with or without assistance of an adult. They provide a structure to songs that usually end with a surprise lift or “fall down.”

Three times around went our gallant ship,
And three times around went she.
Three times around went our gallant ship,
And she sank to the bottom of the sea.

Each toddler walks around a circle with an adult. Adults may walk side-by-side with the toddlers or walk just behind to provide additional balance. It is best if hands are not held to form this circle, as it is difficult for toddlers to twist their bodies while holding hands. It is best simply to walk in the direction the toes are pointing without holding hands.

Movement with Recorded Music

Each lesson should include a recording of great literature-classical, jazz, or folk-so that the adults can dance with their infants or toddlers. These recordings should not be more than 2-3 minutes in length and should provide a tempo of approximately 120-136 taps per minute (about 2 taps per second). Infants are held next to the adult’s shoulder, and the beat is lightly tapped onto the infant’s back while the adult paces around the room. Toddlers able to stand by themselves can observe and gradually imitate the simple motions performed by the adults. Motions that toddlers might demonstrate include bouncing from the knees, tapping on the legs, swinging arms, twisting from the waist, shaking hands, tapping on the floor, and rocking from side to side.


Among the most musical of all activities for infants and toddlers is the lullaby. There are so many excellent melodies that they could not all be shared, even in several years of lessons. These songs promote melodic perception, a sense of beat, and, most importantly, expressiveness.

Hush a-bye, don’t you cry,
Go to sleep, little baby.
When you wake, you shall have,
All the pretty little horses.
Blacks and bays, dapples and grays,
All the pretty little horses.
Hush a-bye, don’t you cry,
Go to sleep, little baby.

Each lesson might end with a lullaby. After singing the lullaby several times, it is then hummed once or twice. The magic spell cast by the ethereal humming is unparalleled in musical nurturing at this age.

Promoting musical development in infants and toddlers is necessary if the neural pathways are to develop for later musical sensitivities. If we expect audiences in the concert halls in 30 years, then we had better pay attention to the musical nurturing of our infants and toddlers. Songs and rhymes which were traditionally shared 80-plus years ago continue to be a most appropriate means of nurturing musicianship. Today’s infants and toddlers could greatly benefit from the natural play and the wonder-full music and rhyme literature that our grandparents intuitively shared with their children. Somehow, they just seemed to know what was right.


  1. For the past 15 years I have made a concerted effort to interview senior citizens about what they remembered about playing with infants. I would ask them the same question: “Do you remember any songs or games that you played with baby in your lap?” My graduate students have also interviewed seniors using this question. The results were the same: those over the age of 80 had the largest repertoire of songs and games to play with baby.
  2. Kodály, Zoltan. (1974). “Children’s Choirs.” The Selected Writings of Zoltan Kodály, p. 125. London: Boosey and Hawkes.
  3. Kodály, Zoltan. (1974). Music in the Kindergarten. The Selected Writings of Zoltan Kodály, p. 142. London: Boosey and Hawkes.
  4. Begley, Sharon. (1996, February 19). Your Child’s Brain. Newsweek, p. 57.
  5. Feierabend, John M. (1995). Music and Intelligence in the Early Years. Early Childhood Connections, 1, (2), 5-13.
  6. Gardner, Howard. (1983). Frames of Mind, p. 44-45. New York: Basic Books.
  7. Healy, Jane. (1990). Endangered Minds, pp. 53-54. New York: Touchstone Books.
  8. Healy, Jane. (1990). Endangered Minds, p. 172. New York: Touchstone Books.
  9. This may also be done with the adults sitting in a chair and lifting the heels to bounce baby on the beat.

Figures from: Feierabend, John M. (1986). Music for Very Little People. London: Boosey & Hawkes, pp. 24, 44.