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Early Years music making: practical tips

Last month toy distributor Marbel donated 100 vouchers for early years musical instruments to Youth Music Network members. All we asked in return was that you provided us with a top tip, piece of advice or link to a useful article on the web about music-making with early years children (under 5s). Here's some of the best practical advice for making music with very young children.


Here's some creative ways that Network members have been using instruments with young children:

"Working with the youngest children, it is really useful to work within one instrument family, so all the children are banging, scraping,shaking or blowing together. This avoids a cacophony of noise, which often happens in pre-school and after a short while, drives eveyone mad!" Mary, Hastings

"Remember that little people have little hands and take time to develop their fine motor skills. In view of this, choose instruments carefully. If using hand-held instruments such as tambourines or shakers, small is usually best. However, if using tuned instruments such as glockenspiels or xylophones, go for instruments with larger bars as this gives children a better chance of striking the note and producing a good sound. Encourage children to explore a range of instruments, to listen carefully to the sounds, and to find different ways of grouping them. For example, children might group sounds by the type of instrument (eg tuned or untuned), by the material used to make the sound (eg wooden or metal), or by the method of making the sound (eg by striking, shaking, scraping or blowing). And finally, don’t forget the most creative instrument of all - our voice!" Sue, Newport

"The life blood of music is its pulse: so always have plenty of opportunities to experience pulse (the beat) in your music making sessions.  Enjoy using body percussion (patting knees, tapping nose, touching thumbs, rubbing hands etc.) either to accompany a simple well known song, live or recorded music. Remember that keeping pulse in the feet is a lot harder so needs lots of practice through simple circle dances as well as marching and stepping to well known rhymes and songs. Get moving and have fun!" Brigid, Matlock


Singing tips were very popular with Youth Music Network members. One of the main themes which emerged was how important it is for the adults leading the session to sing confidently, as its often something people feel nervous about.

"Keep it simple, and use your voice!  Children are not judgmental – they won’t make value judgments about your skills, abilities or your voice in the way that we are trained to do as adults by society. They will love to hear you sing to them, and if you keep your repertoire simple and repetitive, they will respond in a really positive way." Vicky, York

"If the songs and activities you use in early years sessions are more adult-friendly, then more adults are likely to reciprocate the songs and activities with their children at home. Some parents are shy about using their singing voices, so start with simple rhymes and activities that can be done at home without musical instruments. Sometimes it's not just the children's first workshop experience!" Beth, Manchester

"Use a known song as a base, but include new words eg 'Incey Wincey Spider climbed up a tree'. Or add further verses, eg to 'Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport' you could add a variety of animal actions; slithery snakes like to hiss, hiss; squeaky mice like to eat cheese... - great for communication, language and literacy skills!" Rachel, Houghton-le-Spring


Some Network users noted that incorporating musical elements into well-known stories was a great way of getting children to explore different types of sound:

"Never spoon feed the children's creativity: let them explore, express, invent, change and grow by experimenting with sound and music. Choose a well known fairytale, eg Goldilocks, TheThree Billy Goats Gruff, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rumpelstiltskin and create a backing score to the story with your children using simple classroom percussion. This will provide creative opportunities to make up sound effects, melodic sequences for characters, eg the three bears, Goldilocks, three goats, troll, cow, giant, and events, eg climbing stairs/tower/beanstalk, Rumpelstiltskin jumping up and down with rage, rocket taking off and returning. Think about the pitch (high, low, in-between), the melodic direction (getting higher/lower, staying the same), the melodic movement (slide, step-by-step, leap), and the expressive elements (tempo, duration, dynamics). The main point here is that the children are composing, and learning by doing." Andrew, Stockport

"Take a story the children know and love, add sounds for the characters - you could use instruments, or body percussion. You could use bells for a princess or stamping feet  for a giant. Involve the children in choosing the sounds and the instruments. Act out the story with the children using the instruments and sounds. You could also add songs - there are some fantastic Julia Donaldson song books which tie in with her stories, and young children love them. Most of all, make it fun!" Sophie, Hertfordshire


Several people said that they like to use props to provide a focus point for the children, and to represent different aspects of music making.

"Make a song bag with toys or props linking to different well known songs and nursery rhymes.  Young children love to come up and pick out an item to choose the next song.  A bag might include things like a toy bus (The Wheels on the Bus), a star (Twinkle, Twinkle), a cuddly sheep (Baa Baa Black Sheep), a cotton reel (Wind the Bobbin’ Up), a plastic egg (Humpty Dumpty) and a cuddly rabbit (Sleeping Bunnies). A fabric drawstring bag works nicely or you could use an old pillowcase. You can encourage good behaviour and listening by choosing a child who is sitting nicely to come an pick the next item. I have used this with groups including little babies and toddlers up to preschool age and everyone seems to enjoy it." Bethan, Newcastle

"Use an oversized scrunchie to bring the group of toddlers together after an energetic activity. They will all want to hold it, you can raise it up high, bring it down low, get them to sit down with it and feel all the textures of different fabrics its made of, then they will be sitting in a circle on the floor focussing naturally on one thing and it’s easy to begin tapping a steady pulse for them to move their hands to (still holding the scrunchie)  and introduce a gentle, calming song or rhyme. Great for bringing together at the end of a session!" Sue, Whitby

"Place a tuned instrument or set of chime bars vertically with lower notes at the bottom and higher at the top. e.g. order them CDEFGABtopC but order them bottom to top – not left to right. This is a major scale of C (others are possible) and is now a pitch ‘ladder’. All kinds of soft toys, finger puppets etc. can be invited to climb up other ladders, furniture, walls etc. accompanied by an instrumentalist with a beater. The player or the puppet can lead. Sliding back down is very exciting! No jumping about (too difficult at the early stage). Move up and down by step. To make it harder change direction mid-ladder. Several children can move in a larger space to follow the change in pitch." Janet, Chorley


Making sure that you've got the adminstrative part of the project worked out can often be more of a challenge than the musical side. Here are some really useful tips:

"An Early Years classroom should be a singing classroom. Make sure that children get the opportunity to sing every single day." Paul, London

"Ensuring a mix of adult led and child initiated music making builds confidence in even the youngest of music makers." Willow, Frome

"A really valuable lesson I learnt was that when working with very young children on a youth music project, you need to forget your own predetermined ideas of what the outcome should or will be. Young children are very creative without any inhibitions and embrace new sounds and music fully. Be flexible and be open-minded and it will be a wonderful project." Elke, Wolverhampton

"Don't be afraid to repeat things if the children aren't getting it. Progression is good but don't get too caught up in having to stick rigidly to plans. Hopefully if they get stuck on something, once they've got it they will move quickly through the next topic. If they enjoy what they are doing and have a sense of achievement they hopefully won't mind either!" Colin, London

"Sit down with staff in the Early Years setting and negotiate a clear set of roles and responsibilities: identify one member of staff who will prepare for the weekly visits (space, timetabling), keep staff and parents informed, take photographs and films, monitor and document children's learning and development etc." Chris, Helston  

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