What’s next for early years music? Dr Jessica Pitt Jump to main content

What’s next for early years music? Dr Jessica Pitt

Lecturer, author and researcher Dr Jessica Pitt delivered this speech during the 'What’s next for early years music?' panel session at the ISM Trust's Where to next for music education? conference in November 2021.

A brief overview of early childhood music education

Many think of early years as children aged three to five. Early childhood music (ECM) education in UK considers the birth to five life phase. In many European countries and, also, I believe, in Scotland, early childhood is considered as birth to eight years.

The skills required of ECM educators to work across this most formative life phase are sophisticated and myriad, yet to work in this sector there is no required formal qualification. There are informal networks, but the work can be insular, often covering for teachers' planning, preparation and assessment time, and there is little opportunity for sharing practice or joint working.

Because there is no core funding, music provision is patchy. Some young children and families have no access to music participation as they cannot afford to pay to attend private music classes and the recently funded project in their town or rural community has come to an end. This is a rights issue. All young children should have access to arts and cultural experiences – this is one of the articles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). I am afraid we are failing our young children and families in this regard in many places in UK.

The ECE world is also difficult to navigate and understand. There is:

  • Statutory provision: Nursery settings in schools
  • Private voluntary and independent nurseries: These proliferate providing full day care from as young as around six months.
  • High quality education from nursery schools staffed by qualified teachers: Under threat because government funding for two- and three-year olds does not cover the true cost of operation.
  • Children’s centres: These have been declining in recent years – offer a range of interdisciplinary services: health, social care, education and activities for families with children under five.
  • Childminders: Ofsted-inspected. All working with the same statutory curriculum and care frameworks (depending on nation in UK).

Practitioners work extremely hard for very low pay and their low status in society can lead to low confidence, which music educators often encounter. Sensitivity is needed to empower and equip practitioners to work with music in their setting. Some training practices can inadvertently de-skill and disempower those who work in settings.

Models of practice

If I say ECM education, I wonder what image you have in mind? All the children sitting in a circle – looking at the adult? This is exactly what I was bought in to deliver as an ECM ‘expert’ for years, and this model is still very prevalent. It is based on particular ideas about what music teaching and learning 'should' look and sound like – according to whom?

In this image, the children could be seen as having little or no knowledge about music and they look to the adult expert to transfer this knowledge to them. The nursery practitioners can assess and measure the learning of each child according to visible and audible signs of imitation. A model of music education as ‘training’.

In my experience, this model suits some of the children, some of the time. It can exclude children early on, and it perpetuates ideas that music requires an expert to lead and facilitate learning, but it does teach children to pitch-match, keep a steady beat and to listen carefully.

Another model of practice or image is of children sitting together with their keyworkers singing songs together that they all know and enjoy. These songs might mark transitions across the day: snack time, hello and goodbye moments. This is music education as community-cultural-activity. A model of music education as cultural practice/guided participation. It can be dependent on practitioners’ willingness to sing and their knowledge of repertoire and invitation for songs from home to be integrated. Sensitive working from a trusted music educator can enable this practitioner's understanding to grow from this safe place of known music and open opportunities for more musicking.

Finally, an image of a child outdoors playing with a stick on a tree – vocalising to themselves as they tap rhythmically and dance with their bodies. A music educator, seeing this activity, comes over and joins the tapping in a call and response game. The child leads the game by moving to tap on various other places in the outdoors, jumping and stopping, laughing and showing their enjoyment. The music facilitator follows their lead – both of them shaping the 'piece' in the temporal sphere, with reciprocity. A model of music education as being in the world. This subtle, one-to-one practice may not be seen as worthwhile by settings who may be buying in the services of the music specialist, and want the whole group of children to be prepared and able to sing and perform nursery rhymes to meet the early learning goals, and yet this model most fits with the play-based curriculum that is recommended in the early years foundation stage (EYFS).

I am left wondering whether what children might most benefit from as creative beings might not always be what they get. And how models of music education can include or exclude children from feeling like musicians before they even arrive at school.


Paediatricians tell us that our lifelong success depends on our abilities to be creative and to be able to apply what we’ve learned in play to our lives.

Play is often intrinsically motivated. It develops all the skills needed for 21st century citizens: complex thinking skills, curiosity, risk taking, wellbeing, creative problem solving, communication and collaboration. It enables us to see children as richly able, strong and competent.

To be able to offer this for children requires improvisation skills, flexibility, observation skills and the ability to wait and listen before responding.

So, what can you do to help the youngest in society and those who work with them? Develop relationships built on equality. You build up confidence by seeking practitioners’ expertise, first. Learn from them about the children they work with. Observe children in their play to become aware of their innate musicality, listen to them and then make music together.

Jessica Pitt is Lecturer in Music Education at the Royal College of Music with a particular interest in early childhood music education (0-5 years). Her research focuses on early childhood music education in informal contexts; socio-cultural theoretical frameworks; thinking and understanding in relation to music; music and communication; parent-child interaction; and learner-centred music pedagogical approaches. Jessica is a trustee of MERYC-England (Music Educators and Researchers of Young Children). She is Course Leader of the MA in Early Years Music at the Centre for Research in Early Childhood, and Director of Magic Acorns, an early years arts development organisation.