Music and Language Development

Research tells us that music is an essential part of children’s lives. Our gut instincts have been telling us the same thing for ions, but we often feel blocked by not knowing where to start.

The truth is, we’ve probably already started. Intuition has us humming generations-old nursery rhymes while we rock the baby to sleep. A deep-seated memory has us singing the lines we can remember from Twinkle Twinkle Little Star when we notice our toddler pointing at the moon.

How do we know these songs and rhymes? They become a part of us from such a young age that they live within us our whole lives. Sometimes they just need waking up!

 Simple rhymes and songs are passed down through the decades orally, from grownup to child, and between children. For thousands of years humans have been pretty great at sharing rhymes from their culture. But nowadays? Not so much.

 Our modern world has many characteristics that our children are immersed in, that previous generations probably were not exposed to. Extended families are often widespread, instead of right down the street. The cost of living makes it nearly impossible for most families to survive on a single income resulting in less one on one time, while technology infiltrates our very existence. Many of the age-old rhymes are simply getting lost, as we hand down less and less organic music-making to the next generation.

Take a moment to think about how many nursery rhymes or simple songs you know. It’s not unusual for parents to recall less than a handful off the top of their heads.

 It’s my lifelong mission to change that! To provide adults and children with a once lost repertoire to hand down from these generations to the next, is why I am so passionate about music.

It’s magical to see parents learning new rhymes to share and pass down further to the child’s children and grandchildren. I love it when new parents come to my classes and we sing a nursery rhyme they haven’t heard for thirty years; it transports them back to being cradled in their own parents’ arms. A few weeks ago, I accidentally made a grandmother cry when I started singing a song that her father once sung to her. These moments of musical connection are truly powerful.

Nursery rhymes naturally connect adults and children throughout generations, but there’s actually a whole lot more to them than just oral tradition.

Language development in children

Nursery rhymes are ordered, sequenced, repetitive and predictable. Through exposure to nursery rhymes, children naturally learn how to put vowels, consonants, words and sentences together. This is because they provide opportunity for:

  • Repetition 

Children adore this repetition and predictability. Notice how they request the same loved favourites again and again?! Children find nursery rhymes particularly engaging when they are repeated several (let’s be honest, a hundred) times. This repetition leads to retention. Excerpts from nursery rhymes, therefore, often become a child’s first fully structured sentences.

  • Expression

When children do start to recite nursery rhymes by themselves, they are practicing so many things, including beat, tempo fluctuation, pitch, volume, inflection and rhythm of language, but best of all, they’re immersed in the “ART” part. It’s the art part that makes it silly, enticing, exaggerated, sensitive, delightful and worthy of all that splendid repetition. It’s our job as the grownups to ensure that these rhymes are still delicious after a million repeats. That’s the joy and the challenge.

Nursery rhymes allow this precise practice because they can be said or sung at a slower pace than conversational speech. For example, recite “Slowly, slowly, very slowly like a garden snail” as you would when playing with a child, then try to say, “Hello… would you like some water?” at the same pace. It does NOT work! Children are developing their language skills when they slowly perform a nursery rhyme again and again – which is made possible by the short simplicity of the rhymes.

  • Broadening vocabularies

Another special feature of nursery rhymes is that they expose children to new words that they might not otherwise hear – “merrily” in Row Your Boat, “master” and “dame” in Baa Baa Black Sheep and “sat on her tuffet” from Little Miss Muffet. Because these unfamiliar words are placed in a simple context and generally surrounded by familiar words, children are able to extrapolate their meaning with great accuracy. These new words can also form a gateway to incredible conversations with older children. I know rhymes have led me to big conversations about all sorts of weird and wonderful things with my own kids. It’s quite the rabbit-hole to fall down and oh, so educational!

The pattern links between language comprehension and music are easy to see when we play with rhymes. Through rhymes musical form, phrase length and balance are all discovered. The beat is steady and rhythm patterns are set by the lyrics.

 Rhymes really are wonderful! Sharing rhymes and songs has the power to influence your children’s cognitive, linguistic, intrapersonal and musical development. If sharing rhymes and songs becomes something that you just do, that’s parts of who you are, then your little ones will no doubt pass them on through play to their own children one day. Just imagine what the world would be if every generation thought of how their actions could better impact the next seven generations in the future. It could be mind-blowingly good!

Remember, you can always check out #juliesharesasong on Instagram for a quick fix of musical wonderful-ness but in the meantime, here are a couple of old favourites that may just get you singing along.

Fancy learning a new rhyme? Here’s a couple of our favourites…

Grandma’s Glasses

These are Grandma’s glasses
And this is Grandma’s hat
And this is the way she folds her hands
Just like that.
These are Grandpa’s glasses
And this is Grandpa’s hat
And this is the way he folds his arms
Just like that.

Miss Mary Mack

Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack
All dressed in black, black, black
With silver buttons, buttons, buttons
All done her back, back, back
She asked he mother, mother, mother
For fifty cents, cents, cents
To see the elephants, elephants, elephants
Jump over the fence, fence, fence
They jumped so high, high, high
They touched the sky, sky, sky
And they didn’t come back, back, back
’Til the forth of July, July, July.

Interested in the other skills that music can help build in children? Check out our blog post 5 Ways Your Preschooler Will Benefit .

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