Child Development

The Development of the Child from Pre-natal to 5 years

Understanding how infants and children perceive and interact with the world is key to understanding how they learn and why they react in certain ways.  I would like to explore the more recent literature on the physical and psychological development of infants and children – paying particular attention to studies of the auditory sense, memory and music – and discuss how it might be relevant to teachers.

The origins of music are obscure, but it appears that they are closely linked to the origins of language itself (1). This is a crucial point; music is not simply an add-on to life, pretty but non-essential – it is a basic and fundamental part of our humanity. As I will detail later in this essay, music and singing have also been shown to be integral to the development of children’s language and literacy skills. I will begin by looking at the development of the auditory sense in foetuses and infants, and consider how this information may be of use to us as music teachers.

Foetal development

Current research indicates that newborns have an extremely advanced auditory sense, and it is now also clear that infant memory is more enduring and specific than was once thought. Anne Fernald (2) writes that even 50 years ago, medical textbooks assumed that infants were effectively deaf and blind at birth. Current research agrees that it is likely that at 6 months gestation, a foetus’ ear is functional. A study on foetal responses to music found that foetuses between 28-32 weeks responded at a basic level to the loudest recording of Brahms’ Lullaby. Foetuses older than 33 weeks responded to the piece in a way that showed attention to changes and detail in the music (varying heart rate and body movement) (3). Another study demonstrated that foetuses at 36-39 weeks could distinguish between different notes on the piano (4).

Not only to foetuses respond to music, but they also have the capacity to remember it. Granier-Deferre et al (5) demonstrated that auditory memories can last at least six weeks in third trimester foetuses. Foetuses were exposed to a descending piano melody twice a day during the 35th, 36th, and 37th weeks of gestation. Six weeks later researchers played the descending melody to the exposed infants (who were now 1 month old), and to a group of infants who had not been exposed whilst in the womb. They also played a control melody that was very similar to the original melody, but ascending. The heart rate of all the infants slowed significantly when listening to the descending and ascending melodies, but the cardiac deceleration was twice as large in exposed infants when they listened to the descending melody, indicating that they remembered it from previous exposure. There are also many studies that demonstrate that infants prefer their mother’s voice, and also their native language (6).

This research appears to strongly support what Dr Suzuki always believed; that infants and children are primed to respond to sound (and, thus, music) and have greater potential for memory and recall than we previously ever considered. Various studies have shown that in music, infants prefer consonant intervals rather than dissonant ones, perceive the similarities between notes an octave apart, and better remember melodies with prominent perfect 5ths (7). Predictable rhythm and tempo are also preferred by infants. The consequences of this understanding for music-learning are significant. As one academic in this field puts it, ‘Children’s intense interest in music and their sensitivity to its emotional connotations, even in the context of social, cognitive, or sensory disabilities, lend credence to the centrality of music in childhood’ (Trehub et al, 2010:647). This is not so surprising, when we remember how closely linked the origins of music and language appear to be.

Infant-directed speech

Sandra Trehub, a psychologist with a special interest in how music affects infants and young children, has written a great deal on how speech directed at babies (infant-directed, or ID speech) differs from adult-directed (AD) speech. She writes that,  ‘Prototypical ID speech is distinguished by its elevated pitch, increased pitch range, distinctive pitch contours, slow tempo, with rhythmicity, and repetitiveness, which have been documented in numerous languages and cultures.’ (ibid)

ID speech often occurs in imitation ‘conversations’ between mothers and their babies. Mothers often use questions with rising pitch contours, a form which attracts infants’ attention and increases their excitement (8). This does not occur in the same way across different cultures. American mothers tend to promote excitement and liveliness in infants, but Japanese mothers spoke with more falling pitch contours in their desire to have quiet, docile babies (9). It seems that from very early on in life, descending tones provoke calm, and ascending tones lead to excitement. Could this help explain the enjoyment young children have in the simple book 1 melodies, which often have very clear rising and falling sequences (Song of the Wind, or Perpetual Motion for example)?

Infants respond more positively to infant-directed speech than adult directed speech. They understand it better, and experience increased memory skills when it is used. The babies of depressed mothers who use less infant-directed speech learn more slowly in infancy (10). Enhanced learning with infant-directed speech may occur because it improves infants’ mood and captures their attention. Even more interestingly, ID singing is not as expressive as ID speech in dynamic or pitch range (ID speech is around 4-5 semitones higher than AD speech, but ID singing is only 1-2 semitones higher than non-ID singing). One might expect, then, that infants would prefer ID speech, but in fact it has been shown that they are more attentive to ID singing.

Singing trains the internal voice

When we look at slightly older children’s language development, the reason for preference for ID singing may be clearer. Between the ages of 3 and 4, most children engage in ‘private speech’, where they talk to themselves, imagining whole conversations between people in their private world. If they have enough practice speaking out loud, then eventually this external voice can become internalised. Having a good internal voice is recognised as being crucial in learning how to read and write fluently. It turns out that an excellent way to train this internal voice is to sing. Songs often elongate vowel sounds of words, and this makes them much easier for young children to understand and process (11). So, the slower word sounds found in singing may be more preferable to infants because they find it easier to process the sounds that way.

As well as pitch and melody, children have an interesting and important relationship with rhythm. At 6 months old, infants respond to rhythm without any cultural bias. Western babies are able to recognise and remember non-Western as well as Western rhythms accurately. At 12 months, infants act more like adults, and are less able to respond accurately to non-Western rhythms. However, brief exposure to foreign music enables 12 month olds to recognise the rhythmic distinctions in foreign music. This brief exposure does not appear to help adults improve their perception, which leads to a possible conclusion that infants (and young children) are more sensitive to subtle differences in rhythm, and are better able to learn new forms. They have not yet fully acculturated and are thus more open to new experiences (12). This suggests to us as music teachers that it is in a child’s best interests to expose them to a wide variety of musical styles from across the globe as early as possible, in order for them to be able to identify complex non-Western rhythms.

Ages 1-3 years

Unfortunately, there is a lack of studies of children in general, and of children and music in particular, between the ages of 1 and 3. This is because children between these ages are more difficult to study and access (1 year olds and toddlers are not as amenable to laboratory studies as babies, and pre-schoolers are harder to access than children at school) (13).

Hemispheric development and emotion

Children go through many physical and psychological changes between the ages of 2 and 5. Current research of 2 to 5 year olds shows that that children between these ages are able to think logically, consider things from others’ points of view, and interpret their surroundings (14). This contradicts earlier theories of child development that assumed that preschool children are only literally minded (put forward by Swiss clinical psychologist, Jean Piaget). Looking at the brain, the two cerebral hemispheres develop at different rates; the left hemisphere develops significantly in early childhood (ages 2 to 6), whilst the right hemisphere only develops fully in middle childhood (ages 7 to 11). This early development of the left hemisphere predominates may explain why children acquire language so early and quickly (15), but leaves us to wonder how young children understand and experience the emotional content of music (emotion being seen as more of a right hemisphere function).

It has been found that children aged 8 and above associate major modes with positive emotions and minor modes with negative emotions. 6 to 8 year olds judge music to be happy or sad on the basis of mode or tempo, five year olds judge it only on tempo, and four-year-olds do not judge at all (16). As music teachers, we often talk about and ask children to interpret the ‘emotion’ of a piece (“What does this sound like? How does it make you feel?”) and we should consider how the labelling of music with emotions is far from objective, and that what we say to children actually creates the link between, say, minor and sad.

The observational learning model

Moving on to more general theories of learning, and how they might be of interest to us as music teachers, we should look at the social cognitive psychologist Albert Bandura. Bandura’s theory of observational learning (17) could be of great use to us as Suzuki teachers as it relates to how young children between the ages of 1 and 5 learn gross and fine motor skills. Bandura observes that once children are biologically capable of learning certain actions, children must follow a certain set of steps in order to develop new skills:

1. Observe the behaviour in others.

2. Form a mental image of the behaviour.

3. Imitate the behaviour.

4. Practice the behaviour.

5. Be motivated to repeat the behaviour.

Again, this seems to fit almost exactly with what Dr Suzuki himself observed and held to be important and it includes all the areas covered by the method; observation, listening (to form a mental map), repetition and review.

How does music-learning affect the brain?

The effects of music learning on brain structure are well documented (Hodges & Gruhn, 2012). Musicians have increased grey matter in the auditory cortex, motor and visuospacial systems, more fibres in the corpus callosum (the pathway connecting the two hemispheres), a greater volume of white matter fibres, identifiably different sensorimotor cortices and convergence zones whether primary sensory data is collated and decoded. These brain changes are more likely to occur in people who began serious music studies before the age of seven. The effect of these brain changes on activities and skills beyond music (such as maths, literacy and empathy) have been much debated, and are still not necessarily clear. Nevertheless, it is clear that learning to play a musical instrument before the age of 7 is much more likely to result in brain changes that will improve a child’s ability to play, lending credence to Dr Suzuki’s assertion that talent can be created in every child, as long as one creates the right leaning environment at an early enough stage.

The current literature on the physical and psychological development of infants and children appear to support many of our ideas in the Suzuki Method relating to learning and talent. Acknowledgement and great publicity of this fact may well be helpful in promoting the method and helping the wider musical community accept its importance and success.


Copyright EC Butterworth. Do not reproduce without prior consent.



(1) Mithen (2005), Wray (1998, 2002)

(2) Blackwell Handbook of Infant Development (2004)

(3) Kisilevsky, Hains, Jacquet, Granier-Deferre, Lecanuet (2004)

(4) Lecanuet, Granier-Deferre, Jacquet, DeCasper (2000)

(5) Granier-Deferre, Bassereau, Ribeiro, Jacquet, DeCasper (2011)

(6) Moon CM, Cooper R, Fifer WP (1993), DeCasper AJ, Fifer WP (1980)

(7) Trainor & Heinmiller (1998)

(8) Fernald & Mazzie, (1991)

(9) Morikawa, Shand, & Kosawa (1988)

(10) Kaplan, Bachorowski, Smoski & Hundenko (2002)

(11) Goddard Blythe (2008:204)

(12) Hannon & Trehub (2005)

(13) Young (2012)

(14) Flavell, J.H. et al (1980)

(15) Keenan, Evans, Crowley (2016)

(16) Dalla Bella, Peretz, Rousseau, & Gosselin (2001)

(17) Bandura et al (1966)



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Wray, A (2002) Formulaic Language and the lexicon. Cambridge University Press

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