We now know that every child is born musical. What do children learn musically from nursery rhymes?

  1. Because young children love repetition, it is easy to teach a specific melody and indeed a wide range of melodies through this shared resource. An often repeated melody is easily memorised. Here is a delightful melody in Little Jack Horner that is also used for Little Miss Muffet.

Cobbler Cobbler


2. The rhythm of spoken English is formalised within the spoken or sung nursery rhyme. Repetition of the lyrics over time sets up a preference in the mind for these lilting patterns of sound. Listen to the strong rhythm in Cobbler Cobbler.    

3. Those delightful patterns – the phonology – are caused by the repetitions of vowel and consonant sounds that drive the lyric forward. They present a “mouth feel” to borrow a phrase from the popular TV cooking programs. There is pleasure in the way the words sound in the cranial spaces, feel on the palate and trip off the tongue. There is enjoyment in the way the breath is regulated.Try singing Wee Willie Winkie and enjoy the sensations.

4. Western music time signatures or metric patterns are learned by experiencing them in a pleasurable fashion so the child who is fortunate enough to learn to play an instrument in middle childhood already has a repertoire tucked into their memory. Chook Chook is in four four time mimicking the staccato calls of a chicken. Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush is in six eight time encouraging a skipping, light-footed response.

Rhythmic response

5. The spoken and sung versions of nursery rhymes have power because of their form or structure. Young children incidentally learn the basic forms that music takes with contrasting and repeated sections. In fact, according to neuroscientists such as Dr Daniel Levitin, the rhymes themselves wire up the children’s brains to search for and enjoy these forms in other poetry and songs later in life (Levitin 2008 p.32).  In the song, I Had a Little Nut Tree, it is the ternary form that gives a “complete” feeling as the first and third/final sections are the same melody.

6. Learning nursery rhymes in early childhood is a foundation stone for learning to sing, play instruments, move expressively and improvise. We often see that in the un-selfconscious three-year old dancing their way through the supermarket aisles singing a stream of consciousness that sounds awfully like a nursery rhyme but isn’t. It’s something they’re making up “on the go”.

Moving and playing

Regarding improvisation, Daniel Levitin talks about the cognitive faculty of “rearrangement: the ability to combine, recombine and impose hierarchical order on elements in the world” (Levitin 2008 p15). A child’s creativity knows no bounds and the musical material learned in the nursery rhymes is a large part of the “stuff” for combination and recombination in the child’s musical play. Nursery rhymes are great in themselves and are forever recyclable.

Reference: Levitin, Daniel J 2008 The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature Dutton: New York

See our Training page if you’d like to know more about how to incorporate nursery rhymes into your practice with babies, toddlers and preschoolers.