Sing, Dance, and Play to Help Your Child Have Better Days: Music, Brain Development, and the 5 R’s of Early Literacy

By Clare Arezina, MT-BC
Music Therapist

Have you heard of the “Mozart Effect”–the idea that listening to classical music can make you “smarter”? Unfortunately, the Mozart Effect isn’t exactly true: listening to a recording of Mozart may improve how well you can perform certain kinds of tasks temporarily, but it doesn’t seem to make anyone “smarter” long-term. However, recent research in music and child development shows that learning to make music with others can help build social skills, communication, and ability to listen in children as young as 6 months through preschool (Gerry, Unrau, & Trainer, 2012; Strait, Parberry-Clark, Hittner, & Kraus, 2012)—these valuable skills do benefit children in the long run.

In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) identified the importance of early brain development as a measure for lifelong health. Children without strong relationships and with poor social-emotional-language skills in early childhood (under age 3) are more likely to have difficulty with relationships, education, and even their mental and physical health as they get older. On the other hand, positive relationships and strong social-emotional-language skills can have a positive impact on children’s health as they age. Music can be a great way to build strong social-emotional-language skills!

As part of their initiative for Early Childhood and Brain Development, the AAP encourages parents to work on the “5 R’s” of early literacy with their children to support healthy brain development. Here are some ideas to integrate music into the 5 R’s, adapted from the work of Dr. Rebecca Wellman, a fellow music therapist and specialist in child development:

  1. Read together every day—You can sing your favorite books, or read your favorite songs! There are wonderful books with illustrations of familiar children’s songs (Old MacDonald Had a Farm, Wheels on the Bus, just to name a few) OR books with easy music adaptations (Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you See to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”) OR songs as part of the book (Love You Forever). Singing can help children to learn words in sequence, so music books can help children to anticipate what comes next, and learn to match the letters on the page with their sound.
  2. Rhyme, play and cuddle with your child every day—Making music together can be a great way to spend time playing with your child, whether you’re making the Itsy Bitsy Spider crawl on them, singing along with the radio, or playing with pots and pans in the kitchen. Most songs have rhymes—whether they’re children’s songs, classic rock, pop music, or hip-hop. Play with the rhymes with your child & see if they can “guess” what rhyming word comes next in the song (“Down By The Bay” is a great children’s song for rhyming)!
  3. Develop Routines, particularly around meals, sleep, and family fun—Add music to your routine as a way to let your child know what’s coming next: a song for a car trip, a song for cleaning up toys, and a song for bedtime can help children anticipate what’s coming next: when you hear the song (or when the song ends), it’s time to clean up, get in the car, go to bed, etc. You can make up your own songs, or choose a favorite song and use the recording.
  4. Reward your child with praise for successes to build self-esteem and promote positive behavior—Making music can be a great way for children to feel good about themselves: singing silly songs and making noise with toys/instruments is easy and fun! Try playing along with a song (using toy instruments, clapping, or drumming on a table), then stop suddenly—praise your child when they stop with you (you can also gently help them stop the first few times, until they “get” the game!). As they get older, they can be the “leader”—which also helps to build self-esteem.
  5. Develop a strong and nurturing Relationship with your child as the foundation for their healthy development—Making music as a family can help build strong relationships: with everyone listening to each other and participating in the same activity, it’s a great way to bring people together (kids, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, the neighbors, whoever!). Making music feels good, it’s fun, and if you’re having fun, your kids will too. The more positive experiences you have as a family, the stronger your relationship.

For more information, look to:
American Academy of Pediatrics. Early childhood adversity, toxic stress, and the role of the pediatrician: Translating developmental science into lifelong health. Pediatrics 2012;129:e224. DOI: 10.1542/peds.2011-2662

American Academy of Pediatrics. (n.d.) Key tips: “Building Brains, Forging Futures through Relationships” Available at:

Gerry, D., Unrau, A., & Trainor, L.J. Active music classes in infancy enhance musical, communicative and social development. Dev Sci, 2012; 15 (3): 398-407. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2012.01142.x

Strait, D.L., Parbery-Clark, A., Hittner, E., & Kraus, N. Musical training during early childhood enhances the neural encoding of speech in noise. Brain & Language, 2012; 123: 191-201. DOI: 10.1016/j.bandl.2012.09.001

Wellman, R. Early Brain and Child Development: American Academy of Pediatrics and Music Therapy. Presentation at the Mid-Atlantic Region of the American Music Therapy Association Conference,Scranton,PA, 2013.


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