In Tune (Do Babies Need Music Class?)

As my Ford cruised through the canyon, it started to rain. My six-year-old son and I were returning home from a birthday party for one of his friends. It had been a sunny afternoon, and then suddenly dark clouds converged. A bold radiance dramatically backlit the clouds. Rain is a rare occurrence in Southern California.

I had a CD by Coldplay on and the song “Swallowed in the Sea” began. After a minute, my son exclaimed wistfully, “This is such a good song!” I reached my hand back to hold onto his. The romance of the moment trumped my usually stringent hands-on-the-wheel focus on safety. My boy and I listened, and time stood still as we shared transcendent bliss. It is a good song.

Just as music can have a powerful effect on adults, children, ultra-sensitive beings that they are, can be influenced profoundly by music, too. Parents wonder, “How should I expose my child to music? Do I need to teach my baby to love music?”

Music classes have become a popular type of  ‘mommy and me’ group.  Now, please don’t get me wrong…I’m all for parents finding groups where they can socialize with their babies or just get out of the house. Those are good enough reasons to join any group. But I also don’t think babies need music instruction, or that they will learn rhythm better and earlier when their tiny feet are held, legs bicycled to the music.

I spoke to a woman who has administrated an infant music program for many years. She truly believes that the children whose legs she “moves to the beat” have a head start in music education. I find this extremely hard to swallow. Did Elvis’s mom bicycle his baby legs? Did she swivel his hips?

Katherine and her wonderful ten-month-old boy, Leo, are adjusting to the mellow environment of one of the RIE parent/infant classes. Leo is easily overwhelmed by the presence of the adults and the other infants; he will suddenly look around and cry, especially if the adults talk too much, or if a child approaches too closely. Katherine believes he was disturbed by the baby music class she had taken him to a few times, and that his experience in the class has made him wary of a group situation.

Katherine said that a musical instrument, for example: a tambourine or a set of maracas would be placed in Leo’s hands and he was expected to play it along with a song. Then a few minutes later, when he was just beginning to take interest in the instrument, it was snatched away. A new instrument would then be placed in Leo’s hands for the next song.

There are problems with this kind of instruction for babies. First, the child is not allowed to make choices. The adults decide what the baby should find interest in and then he is expected to perform. Secondly, the child’s innate desire to explore is curtailed.  By interrupting the child while he is still demonstrating interest in an instrument (or any object), we discourage focus and long attention span. Thirdly, and I think most disruptive for Leo, was overstimulation and the unpredictability of his surroundings. Babies find comfort in knowing what will happen next in a situation, and can be sensitive to surprises or sudden changes.

We can trust a child’s relationship with music to evolve naturally. Babies are tuned into the sounds of birds, the hum of insects, or the howling of dogs. They make rhythmic noises in the parent/infant classes by touching stainless steel bowls together or tapping a wooden block onto a large water bottle. They also make a variety of vocal sounds and enjoy imitating and echoing each other.  Infants and toddlers discover these sounds on their own and then quickly figure out how they are made.  Then they might experiment with changes of tone, beat and volume.  These are the kinds of active, participatory, self-initiated learning experiences that are most beneficial to babies.

Slightly less participatory is an instrument like a tambourine. A child only has to shake a tambourine to hear a tinkly clang, but he or she is still able to touch and understand the source of the sound– the mini cymbals. Older toddlers, age two and up, may be ready to explore more ‘mysterious’ instruments like kazoos, harmonicas, rain sticks, table harps and keyboards, all of which have the adult benefit of being easy on the ear.

A child cannot participate in creating the sounds emitted from a music box or CD player, but because music activates the imagination, transports us, relaxes us and elevates our mood, the child’s experience is not passive. Parents often use music as part of a bedtime ritual. (I chose to impose my singing voice on my poor children instead.)

Music can make a difficult day more tolerable for a parent. And parents need only play the music they like to hear; they should never feel pressured to play music because an baby ‘needs’ it.

Babies are sensitive to rhythm and beat and are often inspired to dance. Many of us have stories of our infants and toddlers grooving to music.   But no, they don’t need baby dance class!  There is plenty of time for instrumental, voice or dance lessons when a child is older and may be compelled toward a particular music form or instrument.  And the best way to gauge readiness for lessons is when a child repeatedly initiates a request for them.

We risk hindering our children’s musical development and appreciation of music when we push it.  But when allowed to orchestrate their own musical education by exploring sounds they can create and enjoying sounds that surround them, our babies stay in harmony with the music of their heart.

Here’s some music that has created magical moments for my children and me:

Please share yours!


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. I’m reading your articles after just spending all afternoon at a baby shower for a relative. The mother must have received 10 toys for the baby which created some kind of artificial noise: electric drumsticks, push button bell ringing game boards, a rubber cellphone with 5 different tones (just like mom’s!), socks with bells attached, colorful shapes that turn around and make sounds when put on a moving stroller…All I could think of is what this poor mother will have to endure and what an assault on tender baby’s ears. (not to mention, what a waste of money on these gadgets) When did people start “buying” into the belief that a baby needs a constant circus rather than the beautiful sounds of home and nature, or the “music” created by their own touching of simple objects as you pointed out? Hearing soothing natural sounds and pleasant music (especially a mother’s sweet song)are not only comforting but also create better listening. My kids and I still like to go on “listening” walks, where we take in each unique sound and try to describe it. Hearing something delightful makes you want to tune in, not tune out. Unfortunately now, when I tell them it’s time to clean their rooms, they definitely tune out. Thank you, Janet, for sharing your heartfelt insights in this blog.

  2. i really enjoy watching the reaction of the toddlers i work with to Fantasia they pick up the scarves and dance~

  3. we went to two Music and Me classes when eva was about 6 months old. She had the same experience as the baby you mentioned. the teacher would hand her a shaker or a stick. She’d try to grasp it w/ her little hands. finally she’d be about to understand and whoosh , the instrument was taken away. she did not smile in this class at all. I had asked the owners of the place if the class was age-appropriate and they said yes, but there were kids up to five in her class. that is such a broad range of abilities.

    We later on took her to a much more relaxed music class taught by a woman named Heidi Swedberg at a local toy store. if the kids wanted to participate fine… if they wanted to play with the toys that are out for playing as it was at a toy store, fine.. if they got really attached to a shaker or a stick, that was fine too…

    by then our daughter was a toddler who not only has thoughts about what she wants and doesn’t want, but can make sure her thoughts are understood. she had a much better time.

    Heidi does traditional music, world music and some kids songs..and is great fun for all ages. she’s playing a concert for families at mccabes in september.

  4. I agree with what Susan was getting at in her post… the teacher and structure of the music class determine whether it is good for babies and toddlers or not.

    I am a music teacher who primarly teaches stringed instruments to older children and adults. I do one baby/toddler group class in the spirit of the Suzuki method — I focus on teaching the parents words and gestures, working on rhythm, pitch, etc., and the kids either sing/clap/play percussion instruments along, or they just watch, or they play with something else in the room and appear not to be aware of what is going on (BUT those same kids will spontaneously sing all the words to a song they appeared not to be paying attention to when they are at home later).

    I don’t think a formal music class is required to create a musical child, but I do think early, frequent, and fun exposure to music is essential. The structure of a good class helps guide parents toward more singing, dancing, and music-making fun at home. This is a nice bonus for parents already musically inclined, but is really very important for those parents who lack confidence in their singing or musical skills and would otherwise spend less time making music with their kids. Singing a little off-key is so much better for your baby than not singing at all!

  5. I appreciate your point that singing at home is better than a structured class! But that assumes mothers and fathers already do fingerplays, knee bouncing, and singing to their children. As a music educator (Suzuki Piano) I have been increasingly surprised at the number of families who come to our Suzuki school having little melodic or rhythmic interactions with their children. In the modern world, much of our folk music past seems lost. Part of our job is to teach the parents how and what to sing and dance to, with their kids. A music-and-movement class does just that – it provides the repertoire and training for parents who don’t automatically sing with their children, and it can bring new fodder for families that already do. I can tell a difference between students who come to me having had 1) either a singing parent or 2) been in a music-and-movement class, and those who have not!

  6. Right now my 3yo daughter is loving “Whaddya Think of a That” by Laurie Berkner and the soundtracks to favorite movies like “Frozen” and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”

  7. Its really important to be diligent and research any activities and opportunities that you involve yourself and your children in to ensure you are getting a quality program. Not all programs are a high caliber.

    Programs with a long standing history, that are research-based with whole-child learning objectives and are part of a progressive learning over the preschool years are what you should be looking for if you want a quality program.

    Baby classes can have a lot of meaning. The parent information that Kindermusik provides its parents show the investment in providing a program that is geared towards child growth.

    The number 1 Kindermusik philosophy is to follow the child – to adapt the activities, games and play to suit the child’s developmental level, personality and even their mood.

    Activities in class are designed to be portable – a wonderful resource of meaningful ways to interact with babies. Parents learn about sign language, early childhood development, and get to be in a class with parents experiencing the same struggles and successes they are

    If you haven’t tried a Kindermusik class, I would highly recommend you do. You can go to the main website – and search for a studio near your home and request a free, no-obligation trial class.

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