Responding to children's musical play with instruments

  • by Anonymous (not verified)

    Wednesday, 16 September, 2015 - 16:02

This section aims to give practical suggestions for responding to children’s musical play for the musician or early years practitioner. 

Click on the dots for more information

Waypointwaypoint/arrange-instrumentsArrange the instruments147.0144.0""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/listen-carefullyListen carefully722.0197.0""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/copy-childCopy the child757.0433.0""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/taking-turnsTaking turns737.0603.0""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/creating-variationsCreating variations646.0750.0""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/other-ideasOther ideas381.0904.0""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/parallel-playParallel play192.0992.0""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/some-pitfallsSome pitfalls41.0751.0""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/go-back-9Go back3.03.0""#0000002

This section aims to give practical suggestions for responding to children’s musical play for the musician or early years practitioner. 

Click on the dots for more information

Click here for a text version of this visualisation

Arrange the instruments

Arrange the instruments so that it is easy for you and a child to sit opposite one another with the instruments between you. A large xylophone is an excellent instrument to start or you might have a set of instruments each: a bell, an egg shaker and some chime bars.

Listen carefully

Allow the child to take the lead. The children’s ideas will often be gestural rather than clear melodies or rhythms. At different ages children will do different things. Though the child will not be making distinct musical ideas, there will be variations and transformations. As you watch the videos notice the different ways the child: explores the possibilities of the xylo-bars, uses the beaters, experiments with dynamics and speed and adds movement.

Copy the child

Copy the child’s musical ideas, noticing even the slightest change.  As well as imitating the children’s musical ideas also imitate, movements, vocalising and even facial expressions. This can be called ‘tuning in’. Sometimes exaggerate what you hear the children doing to show that you have heard. Don’t worry about playing the exact notes it is more about getting the right energy, movement and gesture.

In the video below observe and listen to how 'R’s' sequences of sounds change and develop. How does Nancy respond?


Taking turns

Usually the child will pause naturally and this is your opportunity to take your turn. Soon the child will understand the game. Letting you know it is your turn might be as subtle as the child looking up or putting the beaters behind them. Sometimes the children’s idea will be short, sometimes even just one note, other times they will be much longer and more complex – this is also dependant on the age of the child. It is a magical moment when the child realises that they are in control.

In this film observe; Who is leading? Who is following? Notice the mix of turning taking and synchronizing. Observe how movement is also part of the play. How does the adult extend the musical play?


Creating variations

When you feel you have established a relationship you can start to reply by sometimes creating a variation of the child’s idea. You could do this by: Adding extra sounds on the same instrument or a different one; copying just part of it of the idea; playing the sequence backwards or in a different order; laying it louder or quieter; playing it slower or faster; playing the same idea but on another instrument.


Some children will play continuously often playing a regular beat without giving you the opportunity to take a turn.  Join in by synchronising with the child’s musical play; playing with the same energy and starting and stopping with them. Or you could elaborate a melody to fit with their beat.

Other ideas

You could also bring back an idea from earlier in the session or from previous sessions or reply with a completely contrasting idea.  These ideas give the child permission to be inventive too. All the time you are trying to sustain the ‘musical conversation’. As well as responding musically you might also verbalise what you hear/observe the child doing. This helps the child build up their own vocabulary to talk about their music and the music of others.

Parallel play

There will also be times when the direct approach does not work with children. Taken from play practice, parallel play is the technique of playing alongside children. Sit down next to the child and instead of trying to involve yourself in the child’s musical play, play on your own with a few instruments, maybe talking to yourself. If the child feels comfortable, they will either involve you in their play or involve themselves in your play.

Some pitfalls

These include:

  • going too far away from the child’s idea resulting in them losing interest;
  • jumping in too early and not giving enough space to the child’s idea;
  • being too eager to move the conversation along before a strong relationship has been formed;
  • getting too absorbed in your own inventiveness and forgetting to listen to the child’s idea.
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