Early Years: Tune Into Listening

Auditory Environment & Routines

We explored...

  • Background music - does background music enhance or distract learning?
  • Music inside and outside.
  • How we could play music in a space without disrupting play and learning in the area.
  • Music at lunchtime.
  • Music at group time.
  • If music could support routines throughout the day.

We found...

  • When music was played within free flow in both Hillfields and Allens Croft some of the children were clearly distracted and left what they had been doing to go to dance or sing, the music therefore disrupted their focus.
  • When upbeat music was played, energy levels in the nursery increased and children became louder. When slower music was played children appeared to become calmer.
  • Children in the library area at Allens Croft shut the door when music was being played; it was then regularly reopened by other children so eventually the children in the library left.
  • It appears that children can ‘tune out’ when music is in the background particularly when the music is unfamiliar.
  • When familiar music is played children can tune into it and this can therefore either be channelled productively or can be very distracting.
  • Some children associate styles of music with specific spaces within a setting.

    In the following clip you will see a four year old girl painting and you will hear Coldplay being played on an iPad.

    The girl totally tunes out of the music and sings her own songs - at this moment was the music in the environment productive? It may have been that the music was a catalyst for her singing. The fact that she is able to sing her own songs whilst there is music playing close by is also a skill in itself. Does the music however enhance her learning experience?

Background music

Throughout this research we have regularly discussed ‘background music’. Most people tend to categorise background music as music that is playing but is not the focus. When music is played within any environment it may be the focus for some people and not for others – it depends whether people are tuning into it and hearing it. This was clearly the case for children within the settings – it became the focus for some whilst it was not the focus for others.

We felt that it is important to consider –

- If music is played within the environment does this shift the children’s original focus and does the music become their new focus? 

- If it is not the focus for children is it distracting them (even very slightly) from what they are doing and impacting their ability to concentrate? Some children may thrive on having music played in the background whilst it may be detrimental to others.


Sims (1990) suggests that there is a real danger in today’s society that ‘children are learning not to listen’ and refers to ‘Audiothrombosis’. This is a term which was created by the Foundation for the Advancement of Education in Music, referring to a ‘disease’ whose primary symptom is numbness to music. Sims argues that music is so pervasive in people’s lives that it is often not noticed until it stops. If perhaps music is primarily used as background music, maybe we are teaching children ‘not to listen’?

Hargreaves, Marshall and North (2003) note that that one cannot control exposure to music in shops, restaurants, and other environments. They do however point out that music can actively be controlled within the home, the car, and other everyday situations. Hargreaves, Marshall and North also indicate that music in these everyday environments can influence many aspects of behaviour and attitudes towards and liking for different environments. If this is so then the audio environment could play a significant role in the attitude of children towards the early childhood setting.

We found that some children associate styles of music with specific spaces within a setting. In the tinies room at Allens Croft (children aged eight months to two years) the children have created specific musical spaces within the room. During singing sessions the children gather in the centre of the room and sit together on mats, if recorded music is played for the children, the children move to the other end of the room to dance. This is something that the children have decided to do independently.

This also became apparent at Hillfields when a conversation took place in the outdoor area between Shadow Musician Martha and a four year old child:
Martha – “Do you like music?”
Child A – “Which music? Tidy up music or other music?”
Martha – “What types of music are there here?”
Child A – “Tidy up music or small room music”.
Recorded music then came on (Rubber ball by Bobby Vee)
“That’s a different song, its outside music”.

Music played for a purpose

At Allens Croft, Lianne explored playing music at lunchtime for three to four year olds. Lianne played just one track (three-four minutes long) once within the lunchtime period whilst children sat and ate together. Music was not played throughout the whole of the lunchtime period. Lianne was very mindful that playing music throughout the lunchtime period could have had a detrimental effect on children’s communication and listening skills. Lunch time provides a prime opportunity for children to socialise and talk whilst they eat together, playing music throughout could have impacted the children’s ability to listen to and talk to each other.

Lianne played the same track for one week during each lunch time period in between lunch and pudding. She also typed up information about the music so that all staff had an understanding of the music to enable them to share this with the children. She placed this on each of the tables set for lunch.

By the end of the week some of the children were asking about the music they had heard and who had sung or composed the music. Some of the children had listened, heard and learnt about an artist and a style of music. Some children shared this with parents at home as parents had commented to staff that they had been talking about the music they had heard.

Music at group time

Becky explored playing music at different times of the day in the ‘tinies’ room (children aged eight months to two years) at Allens Croft and within different types of play. We found that playing music within group time provided a rich listening experience for the children. Singing sessions happen regularly throughout the week in the room and Becky introduced playing music within these more focused times. Becky felt that the children tuned in and listened as the music was part of a specific musical time.

Music for routines

Music is often used to support routines throughout a day in Early Years settings – from using music to signal tidy up time to playing music for sleep times or to encourage calmness. In Nicola Burke’s research (2013) the fifth most used style of music listed by participants was ‘relaxing’ music. ’Relaxing’ music is of course not a style and what one person finds relaxing may be vastly different to another person. When music is played to ‘calm’ children down or used to help children relax, do the children relax because the music helps them to, or is it because the children have been asked to? Are we conditioning children to respond to certain styles of music in a certain way? Most people may feel that using music with a slow tempo (speed) will encourage children to relax but it may not necessarily be the case.

We found...

That when we played a piece of very slow ambient music to a group of children they jumped around. The children were not asked to do anything but were invited to move if they wanted to. We found this on several occasions.

Children associated styles of music with routines. When classical music was used as a signal for tidy up time it had an effect on some children in that when they heard any classical music they would ask if it was tidy up time. This was discussed and a point raised was that perhaps this was creating a Pavlovian (respondent conditioning) response to music. Can we use recorded music as a signal for tidy up time without it being detrimental to the music?

At Allens Croft they have used one song as a signal for tidy up time which seems to work well and not be detrimental to the style of music – Cherry Oh Baby by UB40 is the track used and when other reggae music is played the children do not associate it with tidy up time.

At Hillfields they have explored playing music at the end of sessions as families arrive. They use a range of styles of music and the response from parents has been very positive – parents have been humming, listening to the music and making positive comments.


Burke, N. (2013). The Use of Recorded Music in Early Childhood Settings. MA, Birmingham City University.

Hargreaves, D.J., Marshall, N.A., & North, A.C., (2003). Music education in the twenty first century: a psychological perspective. British Journal of Music Education, 20, (2), pp.147-163.

Sims, W.L., (1990). Sound Approaches to Elementary Music Listening. Music Educators Journal, 77, (4), pp.38-42