How Musical Play is Influenced by Neuroscience

Updated: May 24

“Rhythm stirs our bodies. Melody or tonality stirs our brains. The coming together of rhythm and melody bridges our cerebellum (the motor control, primitive little brain) and our cerebral cortex (the most evolved, most human part of our brain)” (Levitin, D).

Our work in Musical Play is based on our experience and understanding of neurological development, and highly influenced by the science, as it develops, year by year.

The brain is hierarchically organised from the bottom to the top, from the lowest part: the brain stem and the lower brain, as per Bruce Perry’s Neurosequential Model.


The cerebellum right at the bottom of the brain is the time keeper of the brain, controlling movement such as foot tapping, dancing and playing an instrument. It plays an important role in emotional reactions to music. Our lower brain develops early and is functional from birth. It is involved with the regulation of all our primary body functions such as heart rate, breathing, digestion, temperature and regulation. Music helps with calming and regulation because it is an intuitive language of the emotions. We don’t have to think in order to process music. It can provide a calming, regulating environment of sound. The lower brain systems function without any conscious thought, but they respond to stress by speeding up our heart rate and breathing, slowing digestion, making the body ready for action. When we are highly aroused, it is harder for us to access higher levels of the brain. Music can calm stressed systems through the use of soft singing, rocking, patting, use of slow tempo and specific use of the elements of music.


Music is a language of the emotions. It helps us to become calm and regulated by matching our emotional level and either arousing or calming us, thus allowing the midbrain to integrate incoming sensory information from the environment and from our own body. It is also where the limbic system is situated. The limbic system controls our emotions and memory and is involved in every action or plan that we undertake. When a child’s lower brain is calm, regulated and more organised, they are able to develop emotional connections and relationships with their families and those people who are close to them.


The upper part of our brain is the cortex, where thoughts and plans are formulated and language and reasoning are possible. When the brain is over-aroused we cannot think clearly. When children are anxious or over-aroused, this affects their overall learning. Young children simply cannot calm or regulate themselves. Use of specific songs and music, plays a vital role in the calming and regulation of stressed systems.

The C major scale with the notes C,D,E,F,G can be used to help children to become aroused, as we sing up to the fifth note G, and for example, sing questions just using this fifth note, thus keeping children in a state of suspense and the brain in an interested state of arousal, before coming back down to the calming tonic or home note C. We can sing “Up, up, up, up, up……down, down, down, down, down” with corresponding hand gestures, so that children can learn the pitch directions from a sensory perspective.

Use of these five notes fits into Perry’s “Neurosequential Model” “Applying Principles of Neurodevelopment”.

The elements of music are used in very specific ways within Musical Play to match children’s energy levels, to build joyful, musical, regulated, relationship based music interactions between parent and child, and parents and their children, within each Musical Play group.

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

© Julie Wylie Musical Play, 2017

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