Tune Into Listening

Listening Skills

We explored...

Using music for focused listening activities, including:

  • Asking the children what they could hear.
  • What they thought about the music.
  • If they liked/disliked the music.
  • Inviting children to match pictures to music.
  • Asking children to listen for specific elements in music, e.g. listen out for the loud section, listen out for the slow section.

We found...

  • Children were able to identify specific instrumental sounds.
  • Children wanted to simply listen without the need to do anything else for sustained periods of time.
  • Children listened intently when they were asked questions about the music.
  • When we asked children “what can you hear” children either answered with logical answers specifying instruments or with a more imaginative answer. The children were aged three to four:

“What can you hear?”

Music played: The Blue Danube by Strauss


“It’s violins”
“Instruments, I can’t hear any people” Nicola asks – “Is this a song?” The girl replies “No, there’s no people singing.”

Does this music sound like any of the pictures?

To further explore children’s logical and imaginative answers we offered children pictures to match to music.

We asked this question to children aged three to four in pairs and in small groups.

Before any music was played one child points to the fairy picture and says “for girls”, then points to the dragon picture and says “for boys”

Music played: Nutcracker suite by Tchaikovsky
Children laughed. Two children point to the castle. One child points to fairies. Another child points to the castle and says: “this doesn’t have a noise” he then points to the instruments 1 by 1 and says – “these have a noise.”
Download additional responses below.

We found that some children consistently associated styles of music with certain things, for example one boy consistently associated any classical music we played to dinosaurs and when he heard Waltz Of The Flowers he said “It’s about dinosaurs running.” This concurs with some research carried out in 1992 by Trainor and Trehub. The research explored the development of children’s ability to relate musical forms to extramusical concepts. They argue that listeners, whether trained or untrained, seem to extract meaning from music and the purpose of their study was to explore children’s understanding of referential meaning in natural, complex music. Children aged three, four and six were asked to match animal pictures to musical excerpts. Children as young as aged three were able to assign extra musical meaning to music and performance became more accurate with increasing age.

The principle goal of the study was to determine whether children could associate an object such as an animal with a piece of music and the study demonstrated that children could do so. Another interesting aspect of the study was the verbal justifications that the children aged six were able to offer such as the music ‘sounded like summer’. Our research found that children as young as aged three were able to offer verbal justifications such as the music “sounds like dinosaurs” and “it sounds like floating on a boat”.

Offering pictures for children to match with music may not always work well. We found pictures to be useful for some children and not others, some children enjoyed this activity and had clear answers and strong associations of music with meaning. Other children did not and seemed to feel that they had to choose. Although we reassured them by saying that they did not have to choose, we felt that some children also felt peer pressure – when other children chose, some children followed their choices. We found this activity worked better in a one to one situation for some children. To listen to music and think can be challenging, children have different ways of listening as they do with learning, as we have identified children listen in all manners of ways. 

We found that some children enjoy listening and prefer not to be asked any questions and without the need to do anything else – they liked to just listen. Nicola sat with one boy for thirty five minutes and together they flicked through an Mp3 player and listened to a range of music. Sometimes he spoke about the music and sometimes he did not. He was quickly able to identify if he did or did not like the music.

Other children were more receptive to listen carefully once they had heard a familiar piece of music. For example, when one girl aged three was played a song by Dizzee Rascal, we asked “What can you hear” she replied “I don’t know - what’s that noise?” She said this several times when we played her new pieces of music. Amie suggested that we played her a familiar piece and ask her again “what can you hear?” She was able to identify instruments in the familiar music: 
“It’s a guitar in it. “Woo, woo,” (sings along). “A guitar.”

Once she had heard the familiar piece we then played her new pieces of music to see how she would respond. She was then able to identify instruments in several pieces instead of saying: “I don’t know - what’s that noise?” It appeared that listening to a familiar piece enabled her to tune into listening to music, almost like unlocking her ears. We experienced this on many occasions in all settings.

Guided Listening

It can be useful to guide children whilst they listen to music to help them refine and develop their listening skills. For example asking children to listen out for a fast section or a quiet section of music can encourage children to listen more intently than if music is just played to them without any guidance. 

You can watch the children in the clip below.

The children aged three to four were not offered any ideas but you will see them clapping – Nicola then follows their idea. Nicola then offers them the idea of putting their hands up when the music is suddenly louder.

The children are listening but also having lots of FUN!!

Here are a few examples of music which has obvious changes and can be a useful starting point to encourage children to actively listen:

· Dance at the Gym from West Side Story

· Strike Up The Band by George Gershwin

· March of the Kitchen Utensils by Vaughan Williams

Music from films and musicals can be very effective as the music often changes dramatically from one section to another.

We often revisit stories with young children and this helps children to learn a story. Can we compare listening to music to storytelling and the process we go through to encourage children to know a story well?

See the comparisons between storytelling and music listening in the downloadable table below:


Trainor, L.J. & Trehub, S.E., (1992). The Development of Referential Meaning in Music. Music Perception, 9, (4), pp.455-470.