Learning and Development

Music in EYFS – How to make it meaningful

  • Music in EYFS – How to make it meaningful

Susan Young explores music in EYFS, with a focus on the value of instruments and other sound-makers…

In a daycare group caring for one- to two-year-olds, staff have strung up a rope across a corner of their outdoor play space. From this line they’ve suspended a number of interesting sound-makers. These include:

  • plastic drinking bottles filled with fine grained materials for shaking
  • two twists of heavy-duty sleigh bells
  • two sets of thick bamboo chimes

The children explore different ways of playing the instruments and sound makers. The suspended instruments seem to encourage larger body movements. Children swing and jump to play them or run back and forth to strike them on the move.

In another part of the outdoor area staff have laid out a blanket and placed some wooden instruments on it – mostly for tapping with small-handled wooden beaters.

On the carpet one child is concentrating on playing two-tone woodblocks with the beaters and listening very carefully to the different sounds they produce.

Seeing his interest, one of the practitioners finds a larger woodblock. The child becomes interested in this new sound, going back and forth between the different instruments and setting them out on the carpet in a row to tap along in sequence.

Avoiding low-level activities

Music in the Early Years should be a form of self-initiated play that we integrate into everyday and ongoing activity. The idea of setting out instruments for children to explore and play with, like above, is a familiar one in most Early Years provision.

So familiar, you may think, that I can just mention it and move on to other ways of using instruments in more structured activities.

But all too often, we set out a few instruments for children to explore on their own and leave it at that. The activity usually remains at a low level, with little or no adult intervention to extend and enrich it.

Notice how the practitioner in the small daycare scenario above noticed the child’s interest in wooden sounds and introduced another woodblock to extend that play.

We need to give thought to what kinds of instruments we provide, where and how we set them out and how adults might extend the children’s play with them.

Music in EYFS

The EYFS gives little helpful guidance since it mainly refers to children ‘exploring sounds’ or making simple rhythm patterns. It gives little suggestion for how we might extend these first-stage activities, making them more demanding and interesting.

Introducing babies to instruments

Being able to grip an object and tap or shake it is one of the first object-focused experiences for babies. Once they discover the sound they can make, they repeat the action – often again and again and with a regular pulse.

Babies will be fascinated by sounds that you make for them to listen to. Introduce them to a wide variety of instruments and different things that make interesting sounds such as crinkly paper, tinkling cutlery, metal kitchenware and so on.

Developing it further

As they develop more coordination, very young children will be able to manage simple educational percussion instruments that make sounds through shaking, tapping, plucking and scraping.

They can manage beaters and enjoy playing larger barred educational instruments such as xylophones. The quality of sound remains important. They can take part in turn-taking play with instruments with an adult partner.

After this you can introduce children to technological sound sources such as sound mats and keyboards. They will make their own spontaneous music.

Spontaneous music with instruments

Early childhood educators know to value children’s own made visual artwork. They know that the blobs, swirls of paint and pencil squiggles are early forms of visual creativity.

However, we rarely give the same attention and value to children’s own made music. It too is made up of sound blobs, swirls and squiggles – patterns that often arise from body movements, or the shape of the instrument, or rhythm patterns. However, we rarely consider it to be a valuable form of early musical creativity.

I think this is the reason the EYFS talks of ‘exploring sounds ‘instead of ‘exploring music’. Believing that children can do very little musically without lots of support, adults refer to their own spontaneous music as merely ‘sounds’.

We try to structure children’s first efforts at making music with instruments and introduce simple activities such as making up short rhythms or repeating ideas.

In the video example that accompanies the EYFS, rather than illustrating children’s vibrant musical creativity, it shows them engaged in finding very simple rhythms and repeating them.

Two things are important. First is good equipment that you’ve set out well. No one is inspired to make interesting music with poor instruments, so go for quality over quantity.

Two sets of good quality bongos set out on the carpet area for two days of the week will engender much more interesting music play than a scruffy box of instruments that permanently sits in a corner of the room.

The second important thing is the interest and attention of adults. All too often we ignore children’s play with instruments because we have low expectations of it. As a result, children quickly learn that it’s not a valued activity, and low-level activity is all that results.

Adult partner play

One way to develop good quality play with children with instruments, then, is to pay attention to it and listen – and then to respond and join in as a play partner.

I developed this approach in a research project I carried out ten years ago. My first plan had been simply to watch and observe how children played with instruments in a music area.

But I soon found that when I sat by and listened with obvious interest to what children were doing, they seemed to want me to join in too.

And so I developed an adult-child partnered approach to music play which is now becoming familiar in Early Years music practice.

A simple rule of copying and repeating back to children what they have just played can develop into conversational play where children’s musical ideas form the basis.

In just the same way that adults reflect back to babies to interact with them, musical ideas can develop in turn-taking exchanges.

Once the exchange becomes established, you can introduce some variety and interest, but never deviating too far from the ideas introduced by the children.

When people see practitioners working in this way a frequent comment is that it’s impractical for one adult to work with one child at a time.

But in my experience, if one adult spends some time ‘ready to play’ with some instruments, children come and go and many children can take a turn.

Approaches to practice

Trish is working with a two-and-a-half-year-old boy at a drop-in session. She has brought two sets of heavy-quality Indian bells.

She waits until the boy is looking at her, and then ‘tings’ one set of bells, just once. They produce a clear, beautiful ringing sound. The boy just looks – and listens – his eyes intent on Trish and the bells.

When the sound has faded he stretches out his hand to take the bells. Trish models for him how to hold them so that he can produce the same clear ringing. They both wait for the sound to fade.

Trish picks up her second set of bells. She waits, he looks, she plays them. The sound is a slightly different pitch to the first set. You can almost see the concentrated listening and thinking as the boy realises the sound is very similar, but just a bit different.

This short example of more structured practice shows Trish modelling how to hold, strike and listen to the sound of the Indian bells.

The whole sequence proceeded without her saying a word. All too often we feel the need to talk, name and tell, when silent modelling and listening best creates an atmosphere of focused listening.

Trish develops this small activity by introducing the second set of bells which she knows has just a slightly different pitch – and so sets him this small challenge.

Encouraging and supporting children to play instruments so that they sound well by using the correct hold, playing them cleanly and then listening carefully to the sound is one important aspect of working with instruments.

(Thanks to Trish Keelan, St Thomas Children’s Centre, Birmingham.)

Essential instruments and sound-makers for music in EYFS

  • Wooden xylophone and four sets of beaters (eight in total) – some soft, felt and some harder rubber
  • Tongue drum or ‘top slit’ drum
  • Set of bongos
  • Two sets of Indian bells
  • Two-tone woodblocks, swirl-xylo, two large wood blocks
  • Collection of small egg shakers or egg shaker maracas

And for younger children add:

  • Attractive basket filled with small, baby-safe shakers – egg shakers, small maracas, etc.
  • Gathering drum
  • Wave or ocean drum

Nb. Order instruments individually from a music education supplier rather than a general supplier of early years equipment; the choice will be far greater and the quality better.

Susan Young is senior lecturer at the University of Exeter and also a freelance consultant, evaluator and researcher specialising in early years arts and education projects. Read more from Susan on using recorded music.