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Teaching Children How to Listen

Image of young girl with long brown hair and a red sweater leaning in as if listening with title above Teaching Children How to Listen.

Listening is essential! In our highly visual world where both adults and children spend hours focusing our eyes on televisions, computers, video games, and electronic devices, we distinctly overlook how important it is to listen

Listening is the cornerstone of development. A baby first orders its world through sound, since one is unable to see in the womb and since a baby’s sight is unfocused at birth.  Yet a baby is able to hear and distinguish his or her mother’s voice in the womb. 

Image of an ear close up with fingers held behind the ear as if listening.

Next, in order to communicate and develop language skills, a child must learn to listen.  And to make sense out of the world around, it is important to learn to discriminate between meaningful sound and noise.  Through listening, children also develop attention span, concentration, impulse control, and social skills such as learning to listen to others for effective communication, sensitivity, and compassion.

Since music is sound, listening to music is an excellent way to develop listening skills. There are lots of things to listen to in music – meter, rhythm, pitch, voices, timbre, melody, harmony. This kind of active listening (not just having music on as background noise) causes the brain to grow because listening forms neural pathways. Going to early childhood music classes and including music appreciation throughout the school years is an important choice for developing listening skills. Also, music can be enjoyed at all ages and skill levels through listening. 

So how do we teach children to listen?

This partly depends on your child’s age and experience. Young children (babies, toddlers and preschoolers) are in the prime time of developing their listening skills, but their attention spans are short. Older children may not have developed long attention spans for listening either, especially if they have spent a lot of time using visual technology, but you will want to approach learning to listen slightly differently with older children.

Teaching toddlers and preschool children how to listen

Start with short recordings of sounds of the environment (like barnyard animals – a cow mooing, ducks quacking, pigs snorting, etc.). These kinds of sounds can be found here.

Set up a focused listening time, teaching children to sit a certain way and preparing their ears to listen and mouths to be quiet.  

1. Choose four sounds in a particular genre, like barnyard animals or car and traffic noises or bird calls or seashore sounds or musical instrument clips, etc. to listen to.

Image of children in red sweaters sitting in a circle facing a teacher who is a young woman with long blond hair.

2. Designate a special listening area. You can listen using your phone, ipad, computer, stereo, etc., but don’t let the children see the visual part. They are supposed to focus on listening, not looking. Children can sit on the floor by the listening area or each have their own chair (like at the kitchen table) but they should not be touching other children so they can focus on the listening.

3. Set up the listening time with the children. Tell the children, “We are going to have a listening time. Come over here to the listening area. We are going to sit here on our bottoms with our legs crossed criss-cross applesauce. When we listen, we are going to use our ears. Tug on your ears to get them ready to listen. And when we listen, we are not going to make any noises ourselves. We are going to listen to sounds of a farmyard, so listen to the whole recording, and then we can talk about what we heard. Are you ready to listen? Let’s start by zipping our lips.” Model taking your thumb and index finger as if holding a zipper and pretend to zip your lips. Then keep one finger on your lips to indicate “quiet” throughout the whole recording.

Image of an Asian woman with a young girl on her lap and both have a finger to their lips to indicate to be quiet and listen.

4. Play a 10 to 30 second clip of the first sound. When first starting to learn to listen, a child will probably be excited at hearing the sound and yell out what he or she is hearing, “It’s a cow.” That’s okay, but remind him or her to listen only and motion how to zip the lips again.

5. When the recording is over, ask the children what they heard. If you have more than one child, you may want them to raise hands to get to tell what they heard.

6. Have the children imitate the sound they heard (moo like the cow) then listen to the recording again and moo along.

7. Tell the children we are going to listen one last time without making the noise. You may need to set it up again with pulling ears to listen and zipping lips.

8. Listen to the recording again.

9. Move on to another sound and repeat the above steps with each new sound. Four sounds is a good place to start.

10. This works especially well in the context of a music class or music learning time at home where you also sing, move to short music pieces and play rhythm instruments.

Teaching young elementary children how to listen

Young elementary children will also probably respond well to short listening times of sounds of the environment, but they can also handle longer recordings of musical pieces that are two or three minutes long and eventually learn to listen to longer pieces. Starter pieces can be short excerpts of longer pieces or shorter works of different genres: classical, folk, children’s pieces, your favorite type of music (taking into consideration if the lyrics are appropriate for children to hear), etc.

Young children will also get excited about different kinds of instruments, so learning about and listening to recordings of a variety of orchestral or band instruments will help them develop listening skills.

Suggested recordings for learning instruments:  narrated versions of Sergei Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf or Benjamin Britten: A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. You can check out my article on Jus’ Classical called Orchestra and Composer Resources: Our Favorite Resources for Learning about the Orchestra and Composers for more on this

Another way to improve listening habits in young children is to listen to stories, whether read aloud by an adult or an audio book, especially stories of composers and their music or stories with a musical accompaniment. Maestro Classics and Classical Kids have fun stories to engage young listeners!

Image of African-American woman holding a young girl on her lap and reading from a book with a brown cover while a white man looks over her shoulder at the book.

To further develop focused listening, choose a classical composer each month and listen to recordings each day from that composer so you and your child know a repertoire of works from a composer. An especially effective way to enjoy the listening and become familiar with a piece is to repeat the same recording five days in a row. Repetition is how children learn, and the more familiar we are with a song, the more we enjoy it. Also, combine this with history as you read about the composers and the era they lived in.

Here are some composers to study: Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Saint-Saens, Bernstein, Copland, Britten, etc.

As they get used to listening to short songs and develop attention span, they will be able to increase listening times for longer pieces as well.

While learning to sit still and listen is important, children do not have to sit still every time they listen. Movement to music while listening can be a fun variation. This may include dancing freely or with scarves or doing structured movements like galloping, marching, spinning, rocking, jumping, etc.

Image of spiral bound book with turquoise cover with picture of bassoonist and other instrumentalists of the orchestra from a painting by Edgar Degas and words in white Quick Start Guide to Teaching About the Orchestra.

Tips for Moving to Music

1. The parent can lead children in a movement for a short section of music, then demonstrate and call out the new movement.  

2. If more than one person is moving to the music, move around an imaginary circle on the floor in one direction to avoid running into each other.

3. For slow music, dance with scarves.

4. For fast music: walk, march, walk toe to heel, run, skip, jump, hop on one foot, crawl, gallop, rock side to side and front to back (alone or with a partner), swing arms side to side or up and down, make circles in the air with arms, twist, cross crawl (touch elbow to opposite knee and alternate sides), kick feet or legs (alternating sides), etc.

Another way to participate while listening is to play to a steady beat using sticks, shakers, drums, clapping or beating on table or floor. (This works best to fast songs with a strong beat.)

For longer listening times, children may want to color, draw or paint as they listen.

Teaching older children how to listen

While you may not want to tug on your ears or zip lips with older children, you can still set up focused listening times, starting with short pieces and gradually extending to longer pieces. Older children who are not familiar with instruments will also appreciate music more by learning about instruments. Depending on the age of the older children, stories with musical accompaniment may or may not still be appropriate, but focusing on a composer a month and incorporating composer study and listening to the composer’s works into history study is still effective and appropriate for older children.

Older children should have longer attention spans, so it is also possible to listen to longer works, like a movement of a symphony up to the full symphony.

Focused listening times with older children can also involve listening for elements in the music and becoming familiar with the form of a piece.

Image of letters in colored blocks spelling out "active listening."

Here are questions to ask before listening to a piece and to discuss after listening to a piece:

1. What is the meter? To find this out, as you listen, you and your child can count along to see if it feels best to count in threes or fours – this gives you a sense of the meter (triple or duple.) You will count 1 2 3, 1 2 3 for triple or 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4 for duple.
2. What instruments do you hear?
3. Is the song slow or fast?
4. What are the words (if there is a choir or solo vocalist)?
5. Do you hear repeated parts? Are they repeated exactly the same or by a different set of instruments or maybe even a few notes higher but a similar pattern?
6. Does there appear to be a form?
7. What does the music make you think of – like a story, a setting, or a feeling?

Do you want your children to have a music education but you’re not sure where to start?

Now you CAN help your child learn about classical music and great composers without hours of planning, even if your only experience with music is playing the radio!

INTRODUCING The Composer Detective: Helping homeschool moms and kids investigate the lives and music of some of the world’s great orchestral composers!

Learning how to listen is a skill that needs to be developed. It is worth the work though, as learning to listen translates to growth in other skills, like attention span, concentration, and effective communication. Listening can also help with emotional processing. And listening to music is something you can enjoy your whole life! It is important for children to learn how to listen, and listening to music is an engaging way.

Image of a toddler boy with brown hair and a red sweatwhirt wearing headphones and grabbing the right side of the headphone with his hand, smiling and looking to the left with the title above which says, "Teaching Children How to Listen Using Music."

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