Mirror Neurons in the Brain

Today we had one of our relationship based baby music classes. The babies, their mothers, and a grandmother, had only had one previous music session together. Last week we had improvised together, with the mothers and grandmother joining in echoing and singing the blues. We didn’t use words, but rather babbling sounds and sounds from the babies themselves. In this first session, several of the babies sat and watched, taking everything in, watching, waiting and listening intently. If we think of the mirror neurons firing in the babies’ brains as they watched and listened, this explains the purpose of these neurons. As we can imagine, all these babies’ brains were trying to figure out how the sounds were created, in preparation for being able to mirror or echo them back. The babies were responding emotionally and physically to our music making and everyone in this group was connected through the musical play (Levitin, 2006).

Babies don’t simply memorise every word and sentence they’ve ever heard. Rather, they learn rules about musical form and apply them in perceiving and generating new speech and use of musical language. Babies often sing their first words. Through watching, waiting, listening, and use of sound and silence, the children are not simply imitating what they learn through their senses, but rather, their brains are developing theories and rules about speech and the language of music that they can then apply in their own musical play. 

The Power of Imitation and Echo Songs

This week, in our second session, all of the mothers and babies were relaxed and happy, able to anticipate the musical sequence of events. We started with a “Hello Song” singing to each baby in turn. Half of the babies reached out to touch the marionette puppet as it danced for them one by one. There were lots of smiles, as well as anticipation and turn taking. There was a clear predictable structure to the whole music session, with a clear beginning, middle and end.

After the Hello Song, I sang a pitch song using a five note scale, with the pitch matching the physical massage of the babies’ feet, knees, tummy, shoulders and head by the mothers, who used firm pressure to massage their babies in time to the song, which started on the note C and went up to G, in the C major scale. This scale is within the child’s pitch range middle C – A. Regular use of such scale songs helps babies and young children to sing in tune. The earlier we sing to babies, the more likely they are to develop perfect pitch and to sing in tune.

When we introduced the drums and started improvising, matching the babies sounds and movement, several babies started bouncing and using their singing voices tunefully with our singing. Sometimes it was a single calling note, or a vocal pattern. Rose, aged one year, sang, bounced and briefly played on the drum, smiling and looking very proud of her music making. She looked at me intently when I matched her actions and sang her note. The babies started crawling into the middle of the circle and their play was intentional, musical, interactive and very engaging. They were leading me in our musical play.

After our improvisation, the grandmother joyfully shared a bouncing song from her childhood called “Walter Wagtail”, thereby passing on a vital part of her early childhood music tradition. This is how we develop a sense of music community within each musical play group. There is no right or wrong way to play, and families interact musically and learn how to play musically at home, throughout daily routines and playful times together.

In an earlier class, one of our former music babies Audrey, now aged “four and three quarters”, came over to play a beautiful sounding wooden tongue drum duet with me. When she was six months old, she used to end musical phrases with three beat rhythmic patterns which were always in perfect time, always musical, and which always completed each of my musical phrases. Today she was anticipating every aspect of my drum play. She matched my energy levels and took the lead, but could just as easily follow my musical sequences. She played confidently and musically with me, in front of the whole group and we finished on the same beat. Like a jazz musician, Audrey showed an amazing sense of timing, emotional engagement and ability to weave her rhythmic and tuneful patterns to fit in with my play. She made use of humour, dramatic pauses and rhythmic patterns. Her music had a natural sense of rhythmic flow and sensitivity to whatever I played. Her musicality flows into everything she does and she moves and plays with an innate sense of grace, creativity and pride.

When we sing, dance, interact and play musically with our babies and young children we are helping to prepare them for their mental and emotional life ahead. It is so beneficial for health, self-confidence, well-being, musicality and general learning – and it’s fun!


Levitin, D. J. (2006). This is Your Brain on Music. Dutton. Penguin Books. London, England.

© Julie Wylie, 6 March 2019