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Valuing Diversity in Early Years Music

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a baby wears a striped long sleeve top and holds a tambourine up to their face
Photo from Babigloo - Music for Babies | Credit: Jayne Jackson Photography

A few weeks ago, Youth Music hit the headlines with our findings about the diverse music tastes of early years children beyond nursery rhymes - from rock to R&B. It was energising and exciting to see early years creativity discussed on national platforms – including Sky TV, BBC Breakfast, Loose Women, Express , The Times , Mail Online and Telegraph .

However, the debate quickly became polarising. Pick a side - nursery rhymes, or other genres. Which of course works for grabbing national headlines, but doesn’t leave space to discuss the nuance. In fact, nobody is calling for nursery rhymes to be binned. There is room for every genre. Let’s just let children decide which genre that is!

Our story led to a BBC Breakfast segment featuring Angeline Conaghan from Groundswell Arts, our new Learning Partner for the Youth Music Energiser Fund. She reflected: “It would have been great if the piece had done more to highlight the strength of co-creation and the ways in which today’s vibrant early years music sector, and many EY music organisations, strive to reflect a more inclusive repertoire, adopting a range of innovative approaches that listen to early years children and their families.

“It’s really important to acknowledge that some children already experience a rich and diverse musical diet at home. Instead of dismissing their musical tastes, there is an opportunity to listen to children and their adults to build on children’s existing musical experiences,” she added. 

Personalise the Playlist

Children’s musical tastes develop alongside the evolution of popular music culture. But while the universal elements of music remain the same – rhythm, repetition, beat – the way these elements are used in modern music open up new avenues for early years children to find out what makes a song sing for them.

Whether this involves changing the lyrics to a nursery rhyme to reflect a young person’s personal experiences, playing with the structure of traditional songs to reflect the broad spectrum of genres today or exploring songs beyond the traditional nursery rhyme repertoire. Collaborative approaches to early years music education allows a child’s natural curiosity for movement and play to come to the forefront of their listening and learning.

This doesn’t mean consigning nursery rhymes to history, but instead adopting the diverse styles representative of what children listen to around the home and in their daily lives. To do this, early years children must have a say in what they sing. They should be given every opportunity to influence what they learn based on their own culture, tastes, and history.

Angeline said: “In our work on Sing Our Story, we work with children and their families to acknowledge and explore their musical tastes and responses to music building bespoke lyrics around topics and themes important to them and singing about what matters to them.”

New Rhymes for New Times

Engaging in this work also brings us towards a crucial conversation that needs to be had about decolonising the music repertoire. We all know that some traditional nursery rhymes have racist historical roots. Instead of perpetuating these rhymes simply because of tradition, we should challenge their relevance in today's diverse society. We’ll explore this further in the future. But in the meantime, organisations like Sound Connections and people like Nate Holder have done significant work in this area, promoting inclusive practices in early years music.

Tune in to Tomorrow

How can we make space for children's voices and opinions about what they learn and listen to, to allow them to find their own way into music? By being open to the co-creation of music with early years children, we can ensure that what the ways in which they learn are reflective of the lives and stories that are meaningful to them as individuals with a right to be heard.