Dr Ryan Humphrey, Blue Cabin trustee

Music-making in the early years

Programmes like Blue Cabin’s This is the Place, which provide opportunities for care-experienced children and young people to experience music-making, can play a vital role in supporting attachment-building between care-experienced children and their carers, as well as bringing a host of other benefits.

Blue Cabin Trustee, Ryan Humphrey, draws on his research and experience of community music programmes to explain the impactful and essential role music-making may have for children in the early years.

Research has highlighted the profound role that music may play in the first few years of a child’s life. For instance, Colwyn Trevarthen and Stephen Malloch (2009) explore how parent-child music-making from birth may act as a form of communication between parent and child that may aid phonic and vocabulary development in the future. Likewise, Daniel Levitin (2008) writes how music-making may act as a form of attachment-building between children and their parents in the early years due to its ability to aid synchronicity in breathing and emotional attunement that can manifest through parent and child music-making and that is seen as being essential to developing relationships. These two examples are just scraping the surface of the widespread scholarly research that has been undertaken on the multifaceted impactful role of music-making.

However, although music-making may often be a regular feature in children’s lives from birth, this may not be the case for children in the care system. Statistics from the NCPCC (2021) highlight how the most common reason for children entering the care system is due to neglect from their primary caregiver. Given this research, one can assume that for many of the children in the early years who are entering the care system, these early opportunities for music-making may have been quite limited, and therefore, the early opportunities for impactful music-making may have been quite limited. It is, therefore, essential that organisations such as Blue Cabin take a leading role in overcoming this lack of opportunity for children to engage in music-making programmes such as This is the Place, a music-making programme working with care-experienced children between the ages of 0-4 and their key adult in Darlington, to support an impactful and creative experience that the children may have missed.

In the next few paragraphs, I will highlight some of the impacts music-making programmes such as This is the Place may offer care-experienced children. As part of my MA, I examined another North East programme working with care-experienced children in the early years, titled Loud and Clear (Mooney & Young 2012), which will be the primary basis of my exploration.

Music-making programmes were highlighted as having a profound role in supporting care-experienced children to develop a sense of structure and routine and facilitating attachments. These are two areas children often struggle to develop whilst in the care system (Forrester, Goodman, Cocker, Binnie and Jensch 2009; Simkiss 2012). Music-making programmes, such as Loud and Clear or This is the Place, facilitate opportunities for joint interaction between children and their carer through singing, dancing and instrument playing, which are the building blocks for developing attachments.

For instance, in one of my case studies on Loud and Clear, one carer described how when they first began singing to the children, they looked uneasy. However, through attending a music project for several months and having a familiar figure who engaged in singing, the children were seen to be far more engaged and often asked for carers to sing to them daily. This became part of the regular interaction between the carer and children, an activity they could do at home together, which supported their engagement with one another and, over time, was believed to have supported the formation of attachment to form.

Music-making outside of the sessions was a vital component in supporting the formation of structure and routine for the children. Williams and Colleagues (2015) highlight how music can structure children’s daily activities, a prime example being using lullabies in the evening to signal bedtime or a tidy-up song at the end of a play session. Within the delivery of programmes such as Loud and Clear, facilitators are often aware of this fact and therefore make decisions to repeat repertoire, not only because in early years repetition is often key for learning, but also because in repeating the repertoire and changing the lyrics to fit different activities demonstrate to carers how the song could be used at home to build structure and routine for the children.

Such impacts appeared to be happening with carers describing how they would use songs from the sessions, such as the ‘tidy-up’ song, at home to support and encourage the children to engage in different activities at home. In one instance, one carer described how their child would only eat if they sang the song ‘Kangaroos like to Hop’. Finding this inroad to engagement supported the children’s sense of safety and security whilst in a care placement. Blatchford and colleagues (2012) propose that developing a sense of structure and routine is critical for supporting children’s learning and development in the early years. One reason for this is that it supports children in feeling more in control of their environment and enables them to feel safe and secure (Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Centre, undated).

While considering the critical decisions made regarding the delivery of such programmes such as Loud and Clear or This is the Place, it seems worthwhile mentioning that one of the key decisions made regarding the delivery of these programmes was the choice to have two musicians in the space – a unique feature of community music programmes in this current climate! Although on the outside, it may appear that having two musicians in the space is just adding another voice or instrument for the group to join in with, it has a much more critical role to play. Having that second musician in the space enables the musician to provide extra attention or support to children (and their grown-ups), while the other can continue working with the rest of the group. They can also act as a source of continuity for the group if, for whatever reason, a musician has to take time off for holidays or due to illness, the fact that the session can still go ahead with a familiar face which the child is used to seeing that can be vital for supporting their engagement in the session and that continuation of building structure and routine. The choice to have two musicians present has been a success for programmes such as Loud and Clear, which over its 11 years of delivery, has only had to cancel sessions twice due to having no musicians available to deliver the session.

Finally, though by no means least, music-making through programmes such as This is the Place and Loud and Clear also provide an opportunity for care-experienced children to develop their engagement in music-making and, from that, to develop a range of musical skills. My research on the Loud and Clear programme noted how children were seen to be developing key musical skill areas. For instance, whilst gathering data, one child was seen to be developing their pulse keeping and sense of rhythm. The carer of this child noted how the child had begun engaging more in music-making at home since attending the sessions, playing instruments and singing, which the child had never done prior. Likewise, another child who had previously attended the session told the facilitators how the child in their long-term care was known by their teachers in their school as being ‘musical’ as they sang and requested songs in the classroom. Such stories highlight how having the opportunity to engage in unique and new musical experiences through community music programmes may support the opportunity for musical skills development and foster a life-long love of music.

Although this blog post has dedicated its focus to the impact that music-making programmes may have for care-experienced children, my research has highlighted the impactful role that such programmes may have for the key adults in the children’s lives, providing the opportunity for building support networks, increasing their own musical engagement and skillset, and providing opportunities for them to build relationships with the child in their care. Given the multifaceted impacts that can derive from such work, it seems integral that such programmes remain to be advocated for and funded, particularly when both local authorities and the community arts field are at vulnerable points. I look forward to seeing and hearing about the impacts that Blue Cabin’s This is the Place programme over the next two years.

Find out more about This is the Place, Blue Cabin’s programme of music-making in Darlington, here.

About the author

Ryan Humphrey is an experienced community musician, PhD researcher and community arts lecturer. His PhD explores community music and its interrelation with cultural policy, through examining the practices and language used by community musicians, cultural institutions, and funding bodies.


BLATCHFORD, I., SYLVA, K., MUTTOCK, S., GILDEN, R. & BELL, D. (2012). Researching Effective Pedagogy in the Early Years. London: Department of Education.

EARLY CHILDHOOD LEARNING AND KNOWLEDGE CENTRE (undated). The Importance of Schedules and Routine. [Online] Available at: https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/about-us/article/importanc-schedules-routines. Accessed 14th September 2021.

Levitin, D (2008). The World in Six Songs. New York: Dutton.

Mooney, E & Young, J (2012). Loud and Clear Evaluation Pack. Gateshead: Sage Gateshead.

NATIONAL SOCIETY FOR PREVENTION OF CRUELTY TO CHILDREN (NSPCC) (2021). Looked after Children Statistics Briefing. [Online] Available at: https://learning.nspcc.org.uk/research-resources/statistics-briefings/looked-after-children. Accessed 30th of October 2021.

Trevarthen, C & Malloch, S (2009). Communicative Musicality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

WILLIAMS, K. E., BARRETT, M. S., WELCH, G. F., ABAD, V. & BROUGHTON, M. (2015). Associations between early shared music activities in the home and later child outcomes: Findings from the longitudinal study of Australian children. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 31(1), 113–24.