The musical stages of brain development in early childhood

Musicbuds’ material has been designed to shadow and enhance the stages of brain development in Early Learners. The music-learning objectives of Musicbuds’ material are aligned with the musical stages of child development as outlined in the British EYFS Early Learning Outcomes published in 2014. In keeping with the holistic approach encouraged in the document, our musical development follows an integrated approach to learning. It also takes into account emerging research into discoveries concerning both music-cognition and brain development from birth to six years of age.


From birth – 24 months

Even in the womb, babies respond to music: research has shown that playing music to unborn and newborn babies helps brain-development. Music really needs to be a shared activity throughout a young child’s life. When gentle, it can calm the baby, by providing a regular rhythm which can soothe a tired infant or reassure them in new situations. Lively music encourages movement which helps to develops motor skills and spatial awareness. There is a great deal of evidence relating to the beneficial effects of sharing music with younger children.


Musicbuds’ songs and activities are designed to provide a variety of sensations and responses for this particular age-group. Brain development is happening very quickly at this stage. Music is used to stimulate, and to calm, and to suggest particular routines (such as the song ‘What’s coming next?’ as the baby is being dressed, or our ‘Wiggly Fingers’ song for counting and response). 


16 – 20 months

Children may respond to music with either movement or stillness. They will begin to listen to, anticipate, and join in with rhymes and songs, with their own actions or vocalisations. They will develop favourite rhymes and songs and be able to distinguish familiar sounds through recognising different timbres, such as the quality the voices around them.


This means that the children will begin to show preferences for some of the songs and music that you have shared with them. You will come to recognise which music is particularly helpful to relax your child when they are upset or tired, or which can entertain them and make them laugh when you need to distract them. Many of the Musicbuds’ participants have found ‘Floating so Gently’ to be a soothing song for their children, while they all enjoy the squeals of laughter that our ‘Hidey-Peep’ scarf song elicits. Brain development requires the repetition of actions and sounds to reinforce the neural connections it is making. Therefore, repeating the songs over and over again is of huge value at this stage, and onwards for several years to come!


22 – 36 months

In addition to the skills learnt in the previous stage, children begin to fill in missing words or phrases in songs. They show an interest in the way instruments sound, and will want to create sounds themselves by banging, shaking or tapping. They will experiment with their voices and be able to hold sounds and manipulate them – making them louder and quieter. They enjoy rhyming activities, even possibly tapping out simple repeated rhythms, or making up their own. Physically, they will begin to move rhythmically and provide their own movements in response to music. They may join in with repeated refrains, and anticipate key events in songs, rhymes and stories. They will experiment with the sounds of musical instruments.


By now, ‘Musicbudders’ soon come to recognise the rhythm and overall structure of the sessions. Their brain development is sufficiently increasing to allow them not only to anticipate the content and actions of many of the songs, but they will also begin to know the ‘running order’ of the session itself. They have particular favourites that they then look forward to, such as the ‘Bubbles’ song, where they have to practise self-discipline as they wait for the instruction in the song to catch the bubbles, or the ‘Let’s build a house’ song, where they have to wait for the count of 5 before being allowed to knock it down very noisily!


30 – 50 months

Children begin to use intonation, rhythm and phrasing in their vocalisations, and are developing their sense of accurate pitch. As a result, they will begin to sing many songs confidently and ‘in tune’ and will also begin to enjoy making up their own simple songs. They will join in with dancing and ring games, and with rhyming and rhythmical activities, recognising and joining in with repetitive sections and tapping out simple repeated rhythms. Physically, they can imitate movement in response to music, whilst instrumentally, they explore and learn about how sounds are made and changed.


Musicbuds’ rhythmical, improvisatory songs become very popular at this stage, as the children begin to want to express themselves individually and creatively with sound. Their rapid brain development is enhancing the speed and level of their language acquisition. They have learnt that turn-taking is a very important social skill within the sessions, and the anticipation of their ‘slot’ is lovely to watch in ‘It’s my turn to tap’ song. Movement songs also become more sophisticated, as the aim becomes to develop the children’s writing skills through physical movements that cross body’s ‘midline’: ‘Colours in a rainbow’ has been specifically written to address developing this skill.


40 – 60 months

By now, children’s 2-channelled attention will begin to develop: they can simultaneously listen to and ‘do’ for a short span. Their exploration of sound-making through instruments, voice and movement will become more sophisticated. They begin to recognise representations of sound through visual means. They will also not only anticipate the structure of songs and music, but they may begin to play around and experiment for themselves – in other words – they will start to improvise. Their repertoire of songs and dances will start to become extensive.


Narrative songs are always very popular at this stage – where the children have to remember a sequence of actions, which they perform whilst singing the song. It is often the case that they soon become more expert at the songs than the adult leading them – so that they feel empowered as they take the lead in demonstrating the correct sequence to follow! ‘Ren is a dog’ has been a huge success, along with ‘What’s the weather like today?’ This is such an exciting stage of brain development!


60+ months (KS1)

At KS1 level, Musicbuds’ songs and musical games contribute to many of the National Curriculum Music-Objectives. By this stage, ‘Musicbudders’ have developed the confidence to perform many of the songs to a high level, incorporating aspects of creativity and improvisation into several of them, within musically-structured boundaries. They can also work independently, or in pairs or as a whole group, to create their own, original compositions. Their musical-instrument-playing will have improved in accuracy, technique, discipline and expression, and they will be able to recognise a wide variety of instrumental timbres and genres. Many Musicbuds’ songs at this stage require the children to use their aural memory and attentive listening skills in order to analyse the inter-related elements that make up a piece of music. The versatile song ‘If you want to be a …’ incorporates many of these attributes, as it requires the children to act in different roles, creating various timbres and rhythms whilst also giving them the opportunity to improvise movement and sounds in places.