Oliver’s birthday gift from Mommy and Daddy: a real xylophone!

Little known fact: I have a degree in music education. You’d probably guess, then, that I couldn’t wait for Oliver to reach three months old so that I could enrol him in baby music classes with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra or the Vancouver Academy of Music. After all, “music makes kids smarter,” and when it comes to stimulating our children’s intelligence, there’s no such thing as too much or too early, right?


There is no evidence** that enrolling your tiny tot in structured music classes will make him smarter, more musical, more cooperative or more linguistically capable. But at $150 for 10 classes of 30 to 45 minutes in duration, it will definitely make your wallet lighter!

For some babies, especially those who are particularly vulnerable to sensory over-stimulation, these classes could actually be harmful. Think: bright lights, dazzling colours, loud sounds, strange objects and crowded rooms. Classes for the youngest learners usually encompass babies from three months of age to as old as 18 months. What is fun and exciting to a toddler is likely to be completely overwhelming to an infant. And when babies get over-stimulated and overwhelmed, they shut down. They are not learning.

In my opinion, there is limited musical benefit to beginning any sort of formal music classes before preschool age. The benefits actually derive from the fact that a structured program forces parents to spend a half hour or more of focused, quality time with their children — free from the distractions of cell phones, computers, televisions and housework.

At the age of three or four, however, many children are capable of learning basic musical concepts that can form the foundation for later vocal or instrumental study. This is the age at which classes for the most established early childhood music education approaches — Orff Schulwerk, KodályDalcroze Eurhythmics and Suzuki — begin.

What’s important in the earlier years is exposure, and this can be easily provided by even the most non-musical of parents. Here’s how:

Sing to your baby. Your baby doesn’t care if you’re tone-deaf or have a horrible voice. He thinks your voice is the most beautiful sound in the world. Babies love the repetitive, predictable nature of nursery and folk songs, but you can also make up songs about your activities, members of your family, or other topics relevant to your baby’s daily life. Using singsong (“parentese“) is a great way to get baby’s attention when emphasizing new words and concepts.

Read to your baby. The rhythmic language of children’s books and verses helps to develop your child’s sense of musical meter.

Play recorded music. This need not be limited to Classical music. Expose your baby to music from different eras, different cultures and different styles. Sing, hum or tap along. Point out interesting sounds or patterns. Children like what is familiar, so the more frequently they hear something, the more they will enjoy it. Research on infants has demonstrated that babies elicit strong positive responses to music that was regularly played to them in utero. Share your favourite music with your baby, and it may become his, too.

Dance. Children are kinaesthetic learners, and movement helps to internalize music. It also makes music fun and enjoyable! Sway around the room with your baby in your arms or a sling. Sit him in your lap and move his arms and legs to the music. Have a dance party with your toddler. You don’t have to be a good dancer. Just move however the music inspires you, and encourage your child to do the same.

Take away the musical toys. By musical toys, I mean those that play electronic songs or tones in response to your child’s actions and touches. In addition to driving parents crazy, these toys serve no function in the development of music appreciation, musical skills or creativity. Also remove toy “instruments” that are out of tune (the notorious Fisher-Price xylophone comes to mind).

Let your baby play with real instruments. I’m not suggesting that you give your two-year-old a violin, but percussion instruments — those that are played by being shaken, struck or rubbed — are the perfect tools to pique your little one’s interest in music. Help your newborn hold and shake a rattle. Let your older baby bang on a drum. Sit your toddler on your lap and allow him to press the keys of a piano. Remo (a manufacturer of professional instruments) makes a great line of kids percussion. If those are not within your budget, B Toys makes an inexpensive set of carousel bells that are beautifully in tune, and are even fun for adults to play! Jingle bells and plastic egg shakers can be purchased from most music stores for only a few dollars. Melissa and Doug makes a “band in a box” set that contains several percussion instruments for a very low price. Remember that children under the age of three will need to be supervised when playing with instruments.

Make your own instruments. Make shakers out of rice and empty plastic water bottles. Fashion a hand drum from a discarded tin. Use sticks to drum on cardboard boxes or pieces of scrap wood. Make a rainstick from a cardboard tube, aluminum foil and lentils. Fill large jars with varying amounts of water and help your child to gently tap them with a spoon.

Take advantage of community programs. Many libraries and community centres offer free drop-in story and song times. These are a fun way to connect with other parents in the neighbourhood, and to learn nursery songs and rhymes that you can sing at home with your baby. Some of the facilitators even bring folk instruments and props!

If you and your baby enjoy music classes and they’re not breaking the bank, by all means, keep attending. But if you’ve agonized over the possibility that not enrolling your baby in expensive lessons is somehow putting him at a musical disadvantage, fear not: YOU can be your child’s best early music educator.

**Note: I realize that research abounds in support of the “music makes babies smarter” theory, but there have been no studies (that I can find) that prove the benefit of expensive baby music classes over simple musical exposure in the home by parents and caregivers.

How do you expose your children to music? Have you attended baby music classes and found them beneficial?


  1. I took her to a Music Together class from 6mo to 1yr. It was awesome to witness her learn various facets of music and rhythym, not to mention social skills of hanging out with 9 other kids and their parents. She quickly went from tears at the first song (bawling!) in the first class, to being the star of the circle: dancing (to the beat!) and clapping like she was an on-stage 🙂
    I’ve always sung to her, since birth, on the change table, in the kitchen, etc there are songs for almost every daily task I do with her haha, but she seems to love it. Our faves are Mr. Sun; Baby Beluga; ABC; Wheels on the Bus; Old Macdonald; BINGO; and the Itsy Bitsy Spider 🙂 My only regret is showing her the youtube videos of Raffi and many other of the above songs. She has become addicted. Before bed she always asks for “One video??” Sigh. How ’bout “one book” love.

  2. I use the YouTube videos of those songs for keeping Oliver still while I’m trying to clip his nails. So far, I don’t think he’s even aware that they exist outside of that context, hahaha 🙂

  3. Hi Carli! Wow you have such an awesome and informative blog! I’m already learning so so so much, and came across your site because I was wanting to see what diff. people had to say about weight lifting! And I’m glad you said that it’s all depending on the indivdual and common sense…:D Keep it up and have a great day!

  4. Not being very musically inclined (and frequently wishing that I had taken up something *before* having children), I subscribed to the “X Music Program” for babies/young children” might help get the brain wired in a good way for future music learning. Well, that idea backfired in a very big way. D. was traumatized by the whole experience and I kept trying to make it work for her. She never wanted to sit anywhere, besides in my lap or in my arms (during dance parts). She freaked out the instant the instruments were brought out and crawled for the door in tears with the two words she knew at the time, “Shoes” “Bye-bye!” It was very sad. The teachers were very much encouraging me to stick with it, but it was heartbreaking how over-stimulating it was for her. We tried a later session when she was a bit older and she flatly refused to enter the room, so finally getting the clue, we didn’t do it.

    Huzzah though, we do sing a lot, and we do have a good selection of quality instruments to play with courtesy of Craig’s List mostly and wish list gifts :-). It is a relief to read that the scientific studies that support “music is good for the brain” do not specifically mention the *very* expensive mommy-and-me music classes! Phew! There is hope for us yet! D. is very interested in ballet and other forms of dance right now. I suspect rhythmic movement will help wire that brain in a way that is conducive to music learning later.

    Z. seems like she would love the mommy-and-me class, but after reading this, I am feeling less guilty that I am not toting her to yet another “thing.” The big sister “thing” schedule keeps us busy enough. Babies can go free with their big siblings and when I asked D. if she would be interested in going again, she flatly said, “No.” Really, reading your post made my day! 🙂

    • Glad I could make you feel less guilty 🙂

      And good for you for listening to your mommy instincts with D’s music classes! It’s so difficult to walk away from something that you’ve spent a lot of money on and that everyone keeps telling you is beneficial for your child. Some kids really do love these classes, but for others it is altogether too much stimulation. If D is interested in dance, you may want to investigate Dalcroze Eurhythmics. It’s a promarily movement based music education program (and it is a ton of fun!) but it can be difficult to find classes.

  5. Hi Carli,
    You forgot to mention clapping one’s hands as a musical instrument. My husband and I create a simple melody by clapping our hands and it greatly entertains Julie both visually and audioly (is that a real word?). She even tries to get involved by clapping her hands!

  6. Just a follow up – I also attended a friend’s class, with his 1year old, while we were in Sydney, AU last fall. In a word, it was WEIRD. They supposedly employ the “Suzuki Method” (have you heard of it?) which apparently comes from a professor in Canada! Anyways, WEIRD. You had to sit very still in a circle (no bouncing to the beat), no allowing your child to roam, had to stay in your lap, and they took turns letting the kids use various instruments like a xylophone, while repeatedly singing the same song over and over again. It was HIGHLY structured, compared to the classes J and I had previously attended in Vancouver. It is supposed to help prepare the kid for structured environments like school in the future…but at 1 year old, are they really going to absorb and remember that lesson 3 or 4 years from now? Anyway, I thought it was WEIRD. Have I mentioned WEIRD? 😉

    • I’m familiar with the Suzuki Method, but from what I know of it, typically it’s not something you’d want to use for such young children. As you’ve noted, it’s quite highly structured in many ways. There is a lot of rote learning, and a lot of discipline – not necessarily bad skills to have but I’ve always thought the level of structure and technical learning goes beyond what is age-appropriate, so you end up with young kids who have a lot of technical proficiency, but lack musical/artistic maturity. Also, Suzuki relies heavily on parental involvement throughout. When kids are learning an instrument, parents are expected to attend the lessons with them, take notes, and coach the kids through their practicing. There’s no real point where responsibility gets turned over to the student.

  7. Hi, I came across your blog while searching baby-led weaning, but enjoyed reading this post too! May I ask where you bought the xylophone? We’d been thinking about getting one for our daughter. Currently, she loves banging on grandma’s piano and on the piano app my husband has on his tablet.

    • Hi Joanna,

      We bought the xylophone from Guitar Centre (online). It is the “Lyons” brand soprano. They are made in China and sell for less than half the price of most similar xylophones. The sound quality of the lower notes is gorgeous. It loses some resonance with the higher notes, but on the whole, the quality is exceptional for the price.

  8. Pingback: Graham Learns to Play the Bongos | Little Blue Nursery·

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