We explored...

· Children’s associations of styles of music and gender.

· Children’s opinions of nursery rhymes.

We found...

· Children had strong ideas about gender - styles of music for girls and styles of music for boys.

· Some children thought that nursery rhymes were ‘for babies’.

· There is peer pressure amongst children regarding musical taste.

In both Hillfields and Allens Croft we found that children had strong associations of gender with styles of music. When we played an extract of The Captain by Biffy Clyro we asked – “What can you hear” and we had the following responses from three to four year olds:
“A boy’s song.”
“A man with a big hammer”
“A man’s song.”
I want girls music” Lianne then says “what is girls music?” the girl responds “ I don’t know”. Lianne moves onto another track - Mapale - an African song with a female vocalist, Lianne asks “is this girls music?” – the girl responds “yes.”

We discussed whether the gender association was related to the vocalist within a song, i.e. if a female vocalist was heard perhaps it was considered “girly” and if it was a male vocalist if it was considered “boy’s music”. However, when we played instrumental music we still had gender related responses. When we played an extract of Air on a G String we asked – “What can you hear?”
“This is girly”.
"I can hear a Let it go song”
“It’s not Let it go, whenever she comes to the music area she says: Let it go. Maybe she loves it as much as I don’t.” (Child aged four).
“Boys don’t listen to Frozen”

It’s perhaps not entirely surprising that classical instrumental music was perceived as “girly” as music not too dissimilar to this is often used in Disney films and other films aimed at children which portray princesses alongside this style of music.

Research regarding stylistic discrimination with children again aged three to four was conducted by Marshall & Shibazaki in 2011. The findings suggest that young children are not only able to make accurate discriminations between musical styles but an unexpected result was that they also associated ‘categories of people’ with styles of music. This included children associating bikers with grunge and blues music and associating teachers with classical music. Marshall and Shibazaki suggest that children may often experience classical music within the school environment and therefore associate teachers with classical styles. In Burke’s research, 2013 the findings were that classical music was the second most popular style of music played in Early Years settings with Nursery Rhymes being the first.

The influence of media, adults and education may play a major role in young children’s musical development, preferences and identity and perhaps this is why we found that children had strong ideas about styles of music for girls and styles of music for boys.

We also found that there was peer pressure amongst boys aged three to four. As stated above, one particular boy said that: “Boys don’t listen to Frozen”. We observed one boy not joining in within a group session which involved the Frozen soundtrack. When the same music was played outside of a group time we observed the same boy dancing and singing. This is not to say that he definitely felt that he could not join in the group session because of his peers – it could have simply been that he didn’t want to participate at that particular time. It is hard to know for certain but peer pressure may have been an influence.

Children may also feel pressure from parents. Some parents may have strong views about music for girls and music for boys which they may cascade onto their children. If we enable children to listen to a range of music in Early Years education, encourage them to freely express themselves and allow children to be completely at ease to be themselves, perhaps we can take away some of the pressure that children may feel.

Why do we play Nursery Rhymes and ‘Children’s’ music for children?

This is not to suggest that we should not play nursery rhymes or ‘children’s music’ to children but it is worth asking ourselves why, when and what for?

Throughout this research we have clearly seen children totally engaged whilst listening to nursery rhymes and children’s music but we have also heard children say “this is for babies” whilst listening to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. This response could be due to peer pressure as discussed above, it could also be due to children genuinely feeling that the music is inappropriate for them or that they simply do not like it. It was no surprise that Nursery Rhymes ranked first in the style of music that was played in Early Years settings in Burke’s research in 2013. Nursery Rhymes are considered safe as they have been produced for children– can we widen the breadth of music we are playing in Early Years education?

Hargreaves, Marshall and North (2003) suggest that listening to pop music is such a central part of teenagers’ lives that it becomes a ‘badge of identity’ for many of them. It could be argued that ‘children’s music’ is a part of young children’s lives and that it becomes a badge of identity for them but one however that they have not chosen themselves. Perhaps it is also possible that adults construct children’s musical worlds for them; whether this is within a home environment or an Early Childhood educational environment.

Young (2007) discusses identity with reference to a six year old girl and her use of a karaoke in her bedroom. Young describes her bedroom as an ‘imagined musical world’ and suggests that the girl acts out the characteristics of a musical identity which in turn supports her in defining her own identity as a young girl. This suggests that music plays an important role in the development of identity.

Further questions

· Are children’s musical identities created for them without them having a choice?

· Are children conditioned to respond to certain styles of music?

· How do you choose the music that you play in your setting?

· Do adults choose music for children to listen to based purely upon children being children?


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.

Marshall, N.A., & Shibazaki, K., (2011). Two studies of musical style sensitivity with children in early years. Music Education Research, 13, (2), pp.227-240.

Young, S. (2007). Digital Technologies, Young Children, and Music Education Practice. In K. Smithrim & R. Upitis, eds. Listen to their voices. Waterloo, Ontario: Canadian Music Educators’ Association, pp. 330–343.