Music is all around us. At the start of the 21st century, technology in industrialised societies provides us with easy access to a vast amount of recorded music. We can listen to our favourite music at home, in the car, on the train; on home stereos, personal stereos, and through our computers. We are also often surrounded by music which we have not chosen, at the shops, waiting for a train, even at the doctor’s.

Research is beginning to show how music has the power to change the way we feel, think, and behave. We know that music can lift our mood, and certain kinds of music can temporarily boost specific kinds of intelligence. Listening to our favourite music can even help us tolerate high levels of pain.

What do we know about how young children engage with music? There has been quite a lot of research looking at the very early years. We know that babies can remember music from even before birth. My own study with the Child of Our Time group in 2001 showed that exposure to a particular piece of music before birth had long-lasting effects, as the babies seemed to prefer listening to that music up to 15 months after birth. Other studies have explored the features of maternal singing, showing how this can make the baby feel calm.

There are also studies of babies’ responses to music in the lab that show them to be really very sophisticated listeners. In their first year, babies can notice all kinds of small differences in musical sequences, and are even better than adults at some tasks. These findings have led some researchers to suggest that we are somehow biologically “pre-programmed” for responding to music. Music seems to be something that we can’t stop ourselves engaging with, right from the very start.

As every developmental psychologist knows, it is much harder to study toddlers than pretty much any other age range! We know a lot about early babbling and singing, and the sequence of singing development has been intensively studied. In terms of toddlers’ responses to music, though, less is known. An extensive study of children’s musical behaviours by Helmut Moog in the 1970s showed that children aged 2 tended to move a lot in response to music. Their movements became less frequent from the age of 3 and up, as they began to play more with music and use music in social interactions like dancing.

However, technological changes since then have had a large impact on the way that children engage with music, as well as opening up new possibilities for research. Using a new technique called experience sampling, I have just finished a study with three-and-a-half year olds which captures ‘slices’ of their musical exposure and engagement. This study included nearly all of the Child of Our Time group, as well as other volunteers (thanks to both the BBC and the British Academy for support).

In the study, caregivers carry a mobile phone with them for a week, and are phoned at random intervals during the day to find out whether the child is hearing any music (either at the time or within the last 2 hours) and if so, what it is and their response to it. Over the hundreds of episodes analysed so far, music is being heard 77% of the time; some children are listening to music every time we call, while even those with the least exposure are still hearing music 42% of the time.

This shows us that there is a great deal of music in children’s lives. But what kind of music are today’s children listening to? “Children’s” music is the most frequently heard, chosen, and responded to positively by the children. This includes television theme tunes as well as a lot of nursery rhymes! Most of the time the children are hearing music in recorded format, from the television, children’s websites (CBeebies is a popular choice), CDs and tapes, and the radio. This is a marked change from 30 years ago, when young children would rarely have been allowed to put on a gramophone record. Children today have access to high quality recordings on relatively durable child-proof formats like CDs, and many of the children in the study put on their own music for themselves.

Pop music is also frequently heard by children today, although this tends to be not the children’s own choice. Mothers often put music on, especially the radio, to accompany everyday routines like mealtimes and driving. Older siblings are also influential, in some families, in determining the music choices. For example, Jamie Craven from Child of Our Time is having his musical tastes almost entirely shaped by his older brother Robert, who has a liking for rock music. Some children respond well to pop music and sing along and dance to it, especially some of the ‘cheesier’ pop with memorable lyrics and fast beats (All the Things She Said by Tatu was a big hit amongst several COOT families last year).

Other musical styles such as classical music or folk music are very rare in these children’s lives, and would not typically be chosen by them. One example of the relatively rare occasions when children might listen to classical music is at school nurseries. Many play calming classical music after mealtimes to help children wind down to rest. This hasn’t changed much in the last 30 years - many of the children’s parents would have had similar musical experiences – but it is only a small part of children’s musical lives today.

Alongside the experience sampling I also carried out a lab study of the children’s choice of music, using a toy keyboard and four real recordings. Three pieces were provided for every child (a fast pop piece, a fast jazz piece and a slow jazz piece) with the fourth varying. For the COOT group the fourth piece was their “womb” music. Overall, the favourite piece for all the children was fast pop (Lazy by XPress 2 and David Byrne). The next most popular choice was the fast jazz piece (Just the Job by the Hung Drawn Quartet), and the least favourite was the slow jazz piece (The Sleeve Notes by the Hung Drawn Quartet).

Although none of the COOT children seemed to prefer their “womb” music overall, this fourth piece was as popular as the fast pop, even for the non-COOT families where the children had not heard these pieces before. This shows that the COOT mothers made good choices of music to play their babies before birth! It also shows that children aged three-and-a-half are able to make definite choices about the music they want to hear.

So why do children like particular kinds of music? The three-and-a-half year olds all tend to choose fast music when they’re given a choice. We know from adult studies that liking for faster music might be related to aspects of personality, such as sensation-seeking. I also studied children’s personalities, but there were no clear links between personality and musical preference at this age. We need to remember that both their music preferences and their personalities are still developing at this age, so these links might become more important later on.

This new study shows that music is a very strong influence in young children’s lives, both as part of their routines and their free time. One of the most important uses of music in children’s lives is a social one. Singing songs at nursery, making up rhymes with other children in the car, singing in the bath – these are all social forms of musical engagement that have been going on for as long as we know. But I’m also seeing more modern kinds of social engagement with music, such as arguing over which CD to put on, dancing around the living room in front of a TV music channel, or singing (and dancing) along to the children’s programmes on TV.

There are very few moments when young children listen to music on their own: only one child in my study has her own personal stereo. In my view, music is for sharing, and technology has opened up many opportunities for doing just that. The “soundtrack to our lives” means we don’t always have to sing well or remember all the words to have a singalong – this means music can be fun without necessarily being very skilful! Taking an interest in children’s musical tastes can help parents and other family members really get to know what’s going on in their lives, and it can be a good way of talking about feelings as well as activities. Ultimately musical preferences are individual and personal, but they are also something we can explore and talk about as a way of sharing something important with others.