AT FIVE by Peter James Irwin

Early childhood educators value music education as a major segment of children’s social, emotional, physical, intellectual and psychological life. In the recent National Review of School Music Education the main issues were outlined in the introduction (p 11) and confirm this:

The perennial challenge of music education lies in developing, implementing and sustaining a music curriculum that effectively engages students with the full range of benefits which could be derived from being involved in music.

Ideally early childhood music programs in our centres should provide opportunities for children to experience a number of varying musical experiences. These opportunities should help foster an awareness and understanding of music and to help children to value and find meaning in their own lives and those of others.

Although music and the arts hold their own unique values and procedures there are specific points that are common to both music and the general education of children. For example social interaction, development and physical co-ordination, concentration, memory, psychological and intellectual perception are developments which are as deeply involved in music learning as they are in the general curriculum although no general education subject develops the whole gamut of these skills in the way music education does.

The culturally diverse and international nature of music has ensured the development of a wide range of curriculum implementation methods. Some of these approaches include Kodaly, Dalcroze and Orff-Schulwerk.

Kodaly [ko-die] is a vocally based approach with an emphasis on singing while Dalcroze uses more creative movement and Orff focuses on tuned percussion and folk dances. These approaches work well in early childhood contexts and link successfully to parent and child programs. Other approaches include musical play and experimental music which learn by exploration and discovery and a whole language approach linking directly to songs, stories and words.

The musical development and behavioral development in early childhood is recognized to occur in these five developmental stages:

  • babies
  • toddlers
  • three year olds
  • four year olds
  • five year olds

Musical development of the singing voice is also as crucial in teacher development as it is with young children. Since a different part of the cortex is used to sing with than is used to generate speech the development of the singing voice helps improve brain development at all ages and informs the learning process with a different modality and therefore improves learning itself. The singing voice is nurtured because it is a valuable tool in a child’s early learning experiences. Early childhood educators face a number of psychological and physiological challenges when learning to use their voices especially if its development has lain fallow for an extended period. Singing is a major part of a young child’s musical life so some skill in vocal training is essential for educators involved in this area.

With the importance of voice also comes movement and a wide variety of musical modes to help develop children musically. Edwin Gordon posited that the first five years of a child’s musical life were of crucial importance and his work has been an important influence in music learning theory. Gordon saw a wide variety of musical experiences as essential. These should include therefore singing, moving, playing and creating as interconnected components in a developmental view that includes input from teachers, carers and parents.

Children entering an early childhood program always come with some musical background or understanding. The early childhood teacher needs to expose children to a wide variety of music to extend their innate musical ability. Music creation, expression and exploration takes place through a variety of modalities as a matter of course so the educator needs to utilize as many methods and technologies as they can to further the musical development of the child as early as possible in life.

Children can then be exposed to varying melodies, rhythms, harmonies, textures and timbres. Wright emphasizes:

Children’s introduction to music usually occurs in a social context, singing with family and friends. The social context widens as the early childhood teacher enters their young lives. Consequently young children should be introduced to an eclectic range of music styles and periods and to the music of other cultures.

The influence of culture, family and early childhood educators is of extreme importance. Children who undergo regular musical stimulation (from 4 day olds to 5 year olds) have greater attention spans and superior language vocalization skills than children deprived of this input.

The Early Childhood Music Program should be more learning based than teacher based. A balance of teaching styles between group sessions and child initiated experiences is always recommended as is a spontaneous exploration of musical ideas on a one to one basis. Group sessions encourage a valuable singing sound and should share a wide variety of musical games and repertoire from an eclectic mix of cultures.

These activities provide time for sharing emotional, intellectual and physical enjoyment. Group time in music can also aid children socially to encourage spontaneous and creative sessions. Through singing and music games children learn how to move sing and play. Singing enhances the following skills:

  • beat, pace , tempo, meter
  • rhythm and rhythmic patterns
  • relative pitch higher/lower, pitch skips, steps, unison, leaps, melodic contour, tonality, harmony
  • tone quality, head voice versus speaking voice
  • structure, phrase, repetition
  • expressive elements
  • comparatives softer/louder, dynamics, timbre

Playing instruments in particular percussion instruments gives another dimension to music making in the early childhood context. Initially using body percussion is the most natural percussion instrument i.e. clapping, stamping, vocalization, slapping thighs etc. Other simple percussion instruments can be made from recycled objects around the home.

Early childhood educators who are not music specialists have a real challenge in implementing a full range of musical outcomes in their centres. Lack of skill development, confidence, expression dimensions, various curricula, resources and in-service in music education pose a real threat to music education implementation in early childhood settings.

Parents, teachers, educators and the community in general are becoming more aware of the latest research concerning the strong relationship between music education in the early years and the improved educational outcomes throughout their lives. This research has demonstrated a powerful link between exposure to a good music education program with the following:

  • improved problem solving skills
  • the long term enhancement of spatial and temporal reasoning skills
  • improved language skills
  • improved outcomes in mathematical abilities
  • increases in short and long term memory
  • greater social skills and social awareness
  • enhanced creative intelligence and developed logical brain functions
  • enhanced ability to think, comprehend and understand

Early childhood teachers know the fundamental importance of music education in their centres but are faced with the greater challenge of how to implement music education. Many children in the early childhood years can be denied effective music education because of a lack of access to resources in distant and remote areas. To counter these problems music education has relied on the development of quality teaching techniques, support, guidance and assistance from the university and TAFE sector. This support area however is in decline as many universities have cancelled music education electives. One university has slashed music education content from three hours a week for one semester to three hours for the entire semester for a four year degree course in early childhood education.

This has led to a situation where early childhood teachers need greater assistance through curriculum support, materials, advisory services, networks, mentoring and professional development. On a positive note the Professional Support Coordinator Queensland (PSCQ), a project of the Health and Community Services Workforce Council which supports and develops the workforce within the health and community services industries, is working to help overcome some of these problems.

This is done in partnership with individual organisations, through networks and coalitions of industry organisations and involves working with industry, government, funding and research bodies to develop and formulate strategies that respond to the workforce issues faced by health and community services organisations. The Australian Government through the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA), funds the Professional Support Coordinator initiative as part of the Inclusion and Professional Support Program.

PSCQ initially surveyed child care services and developed an implementation plan that will guide professional support over the project funding period that concludes late 2010.

Child care services can also offer their professional support priorities by contacting their local professional support networks. These priorities will feed into the professional support plans that networks develop for each region. The plans are based on the collective priorities of the region to determine what professional support is offered.

This author has presented throughout Queensland regularly for the PSCQ and the feedback is overwhelmingly positive. Early childhood educators are requesting further workshops, conferences and resources in music education. The PSCQ is addressing not only music but other areas of the early childhood curriculum as well.

Effective music education begins with participation and enjoyment and moves through extension and expertise.1

If we are to value music education in the early years and to recognize and understand how to plan and implement and encourage participation a number of challenges are presented:

  • Adequate funding in Early Childhood Music education
  • An equal footing with other arts areas, equity and engagement
  • Adequate hours at tertiary and training level
  • Teacher knowledge, understanding and skills
  • An understanding of music learning outcomes
  • Curriculum and Resource development
  • Parental and community support
  • Support for teachers and caregivers
  • Partnerships with early childhood music organizations
  • Base planning, implementation and evaluation of music education through curriculum and policy.


  1. Abrahams, F [2005], Transforming Classroom Music Instruction with Ideas from Critical Pedagogy, Music Educator’s Journal, vol .92, pg 62.
  2. Andress, B., [1989], Today’s Challenge, Music Educator’s Journal.
  3. Arthur, L. et-al [2007] Programming and Planning in Early Childhood Settings. [4th Ed.] [Thomson].
  4. Choksy, L. [1974], The Kodaly Method, [USA: Prentice Hall].
  5. Davidson, R., Butler, C., Pagono, L. [1990] Queensland Music Program, [Brisbane: Queensland Department of Education].
  6. Garvey, C. [1990], Play [Revised Edition] [Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press]
  7. Gonzalez-Mena, J. and Eyer, D.W. [1993] Infants Toddlers and Caregivers, [3rd Ed], [Mountainview California: Mayfield].
  8. Helm, J., Katz, L.[ 2001], Young Investigators –The Project Approach [New York: Teachers College Press].
  9. Hendrick ,J. [1994], Total Learning Developmental Curriculum for the Young Child [4th Ed.], [New York: Merrill].
  10. Hitz, R. [1987], Creative Problem Solving Through Music Activities, Young Children Vol 42, No 2, pp 12-17.
  11. Pascoe, R. et al. [2005], National Review of School Music Education, Australian Government.
  12. Wright, S. [1991] The Arts in Early Childhood, [Sydney: Prentice Hall], p. 142.
  13. Wright, S. [2003] Creativity in the Arts, Young Children and Learning, [pp 1-17]. [Boston: Pearson]


Rhonda Davidson-Irwin

Last updated: 6 August 2008.


  1. National Review of School Music Education, p 80↩︎

Rhonda is a Brisbane-based musician, composer and educator specialising in early childhood music education. She has taught more than 10,000 children, composed more than 900 songs for children's TV show In the box, and with Peter Irwin is the founder of the orchestra Viva La Musica.

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