Music's Role in Child Development About the importance of music to a growing child

Read more Last updated: October 2020
In collection Music
Reading duration: 6 minutes

If parents sing their little ones to sleep at all, it is more likely to be Rihanna than Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Does that matter? Marian Blaikley discovers the importance of music to a growing child.

Old-fashioned versus essential

In their introduction to their 'Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes', UK nursery rhyme gurus, Iona and Peter Opie, quote a Roman lullaby, more than 2,000 years old – Lalla, lalla, lalla, aut dormi aut lacte (literally ‘Lalla, lalla, lalla – either sleep or feed’) – whose sounds alone sum up the ageless frustration of parents trying to settle a fretful baby.

Back in the 1950s, when their dictionary was published, the Opies were confident in stating that ‘wherever the English word is spoken, children become joyful and wise listening to the same traditional verses’, such as 'Sing a Song of Sixpence' and 'Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake'.

If however the Opies were conducting their studies today, they would uncover a very different story. Research recently commissioned by toy firm John Crane Ltd, reveals that parents are rejecting traditional lullabies to sing their children to sleep, in favour of chart-topping pop songs. Half of the 2,000 parents interviewed admitted their children preferred singing along to contemporary hits, with songs by Bruno Mars, Adele, Rihanna and Robbie Williams heading the list.

While some might lament the decline of 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star' (rejected by some parents as ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘silly’), the survey also reveals that eight out of 10 parents still sing to their children. As Jonathan Thorpe, Managing Director of John Crane Ltd, puts it: “Whatever way parents engage with their children over music is a good thing, and it’s great that so many do sing to, or with, their children – whether that song is one or 100 years old.”

Parents like these have always known that singing to their children helps their offspring to relax, but they may not know that it is also a vital part of their youngsters’ cognitive development.

Music for Children

Spitalfields Music and Vital Arts

Listen to music created as part of the Lullabies and other projects – ­­ Vital Arts

MED-EL, the hearing implant company, has rehabilitation resources involving music for children with cochlear implants including:

  • Music and Young Children with Cochlear Implants – suggestions for parents. Available as a free download in nine languages – MED-EL
  • More information about natural sound quality provided by MED-ELs hearing impalnts at MED-EL
  • Further rehabilitation materials, accessed via the website at MED-EL

Music and the Deaf

The charity has produced two early years resources, accessed via the website of Music and the Deaf

Important tool for language learning

Joanna Shepherd, Head of Rehabilitation at the hearing implant company MED-EL, is an advocate of music as an important tool in helping very young children in general to gain language and other skills. It’s just that for children with hearing problems the need is even greater. She says: “Music is a wonderful way to build listening and language skills. It is engaging and fun, and really alerts children to sound and then to ways to communicate. Music also helps build auditory memory (the ability to remember a number of items). For example, as a child learns to sing – first a few words, and later some lines from a song or rhyme – they build their ability to remember longer strings of information. But one of the most important aspects of using music with children is the wonderful social connection this provides to the people around them. Bonds between parents and children, and later amongst cultural groups are built and strengthened through the shared experience of music.”

Shepherd emphasises the importance, for children using cochlear implants, of the way music exaggerates the rhythm and pitch of speech. She says: “It helps them to develop natural-sounding speech.”

Catherine Berry, a consultant advisory teacher of the deaf, who works with hearing-impaired children and their parents in Oxfordshire, UK, reinforces this point: “Even hearing people find sentences rather than single words easier to follow, because they have a natural shape – up and down. Music has even more shape and that helps with the meaning. Music really helps children to listen carefully, because it engages their attention, and that is the first step towards learning to listen.”

Lullabies make children feel better.

Marian Blaikley

Fast and slow

In their work with the parents of children with a hearing impairment, Berry and her colleagues introduce songs and music to convey concepts such as fast and slow, high and low, sound and silence. Music can also be used to highlight routine activities, so that babies start making connections between events and songs – such as bath-time with a ‘rub a dub dub’ song. “It adds an extra dimension,” says Berry. “Parents make their own songs up, or we encourage them to tap into their own interests. Some parents sing Rihanna to their children, because that’s what they like.” For those reluctant to sing to their toddlers, scientists have come up with new proof that lullabies make children feel better. A study of children at Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) in London has produced scientific evidence that lullabies help to soothe those who are poorly and reduce their perception of pain. Results of the study published by the journal, Psychology of Music, show that a group of child patients experienced lower heart rates, less anxiety and reduced perception of pain after having lullabies sung to them.

GOSH music specialist, Dr Nick Pickett, who oversaw the study, said: “The findings show that it’s not simply attention from an adult that soothes children, because the children did not experience the same benefits when they had stories read to them. There is something inherently special about music and singing to a child.”

Spitalfields Music, in partnership with Vital Arts (a groundbreaking arts and health organisation), have undertaken a number of pioneering initiatives with babies and very young children at the Royal London Hospital. This work demonstrates music’s importance in advancing the cognitive and physical development of children in extreme situations – like serious illness.

Giving babies and toddlers a musical head start

In their Lullabies project, three musicians from different cultural backgrounds, visited postnatal wards and shared lullabies from all over the world with families. The sessions were welcomed – as one nurse put it: “The music was so soothing, while also being uplifting. I am sure the babies enjoyed it too, as there was a noticeable lack of beeps while musicians were in the nursery!”

A more recent project, Baby Bird’s Journey, aimed to help babies in long-term care meet their developmental milestones. Some of them had not been home for three years. Working with children in the ward alongside play specialists, paediatric physiotherapists and occupational therapists, musicians developed an extensive repertoire of songs that promoted language, literacy and numeracy, plus co-ordination of fine and gross motor control. The London Symphony Orchestra has also been involved in delivering Shake, Rattle and Roll music workshops to children in the Royal London Hospital.

So whether it is a lullaby or a Rihanna number – get singing! You’re probably doing your child good.

Dad, child and guitar
COOL JAZZ: Melody and rhythm is a good way of sharing
© Stephen Jay

Jazz for babies

Michael Janisch is an American bass player who has played with some of the world’s greatest jazz artists. When his wife was expecting a baby, he was curious to see what kind of music was produced with babies and toddlers in mind. Disappointed with what he found, he decided to create his own lullaby versions of the music he had been performing for 20 years.

• Jazz for Babies: Five albums featuring 75 dreamy tracks, played on acoustic instruments by world class musicians. For further information visit

Music notes

Music and young Children with CIs

Rehabilitation is a vital part of learning to hear with a cochlear implant and music plays a major role in it. "Music and young Children with CIs" is a brochure from MED-EL with information for parents of young children with hearing implants about the benefits of listening to music and introducing music in their children's lives.

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