The Baby Hit Parade

By Renée Henning

Someone, including a grandparent and a music therapist, who plans to sing to little children should learn their musical preferences.  I can give the would-be performer a playlist and can provide tips for creating his own playlist.

My experience comes from volunteer work in the neonatal and pediatric wards of a major hospital, where I sing (usually on-key) to babies and toddlers.  Since the late 1980’s I have crooned to more than a thousand tiny patients one-on-one.

Too young to submit song requests, they revealed their musical preferences in various ways.  For example, they cried, stopped crying, visibly relaxed, stiffened, cuddled closer in my arms, or fell gently asleep.  To my surprise, I discovered that toddlers and infants, including “preemies” who should still be in the womb, respond positively to many types of music.

Over the years I experimented with a variety of musical genres. I developed my baby playlist for my three-hour volunteer sessions primarily by watching how multiple infants (hospitalized or not) and multiple toddlers reacted.  In virtually every genre I tried, there were at least two songs that the audience appeared to enjoy.  Following are 25 of the categories my listeners liked, plus a particularly popular song in each category: (1) holiday tunes (“Auld Lang Syne”); (2) sports ditties (“Take Me Out to the Ball Game”); (3) ballads (the Duprees’s version of “You Belong to Me”); (4) World War I songs (“There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding”); (5) British music hall favorites (“It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary”); (6) Broadway show tunes (“I Could Have Danced All Night”); (7) operetta pieces (“With Cat-Like Tread”); (8) rock-and-roll (Buddy Holly’s “Everyday”); (9) lullabies (“Brahms’s Lullaby”); (10) pop music (Bobby Vinton’s hit version of “Roses Are Red”); (11) early American standards (“She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain”); (12) folk songs (“No Man Is an Island”); (13) patriotic works (“God Save the Queen”); (14) country (“Take These Chains From My Heart”); (15) western (“Home on the Range”); (16) music from the 1700’s (“Baa, Baa, Black Sheep”); (17) music from the 1800’s (“Mary Had a Little Lamb”); (18) music from the 1900’s (“Let Me Call You Sweetheart”); (19) ethnic songs (“Bonnie Banks O’ Loch Lomond”); (20) songs in a foreign language (“Dites-Moi”); (21) barbershop quartet pieces (“Lida Rose”); (22) music with a Caribbean beat (“Under the Sea”); (23) waltzes (“Shall We Dance?” from the musical “The King and I”); (24) polkas (“Beer Barrel Polka,” but with every reference to “barrel” changed to “buggy”); and (25) jazz (a tame version, due to the neonatal intensive care setting, of the only jazz song I tested, “When the Saints Go Marching In”).

In short, the musical compositions to which babies and tots respond best tend to be relatively simple, slower-paced, rhythmic, bouncy, and cheery or tranquil.  Small children enjoy hearing the piece sung softly three or four times over.  Two of their highest-ranking musical categories are cowboy and waltzes, and their favorite songs include “Easter Parade” (not suitable for all audiences), “Red River Valley,” and “It’s a Small World.”   Based on my observations, babies are (like dolphins) inherently more receptive to certain types of music.  Yet tastes can change over time.  I never tested musical categories such as hip-hop and heavy metal on my audiences.  However, according to research on prenatal learning, a fetus can eventually hear the music to which its mother listens and can recognize after birth changes in a tune heard frequently in the womb.  Thus, although hip hop and heavy metal are unlikely to be innately receptive, some newborns may have already developed a taste for them.

Studies indicate that infant patients receiving music therapy eat more, cry less, and leave the hospital sooner.  Improvements in matching the song selections to the musical preferences of this audience could lead to better and more effective therapy.

In any event, there is a world of music for babies and toddlers besides lullabies and kiddie songs.  I recommend that someone planning to sing to little children start with songs in the above list of 25 categories.  Then he should have fun experimenting with additional songs and additional categories and should develop his own playlist.  That beats singing the ever-popular “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” for three hours – and going insane.


Renee Henning is an attorney and an author on various topics.  Articles by me have appeared in publications in North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Oceania (e.g., in Cape Christian News, Washington Post, Oslo Times, Modern Ghana, International Concerns For Children Newsletter, News Lens, A Day in the Life of Public Service Lawyers, Women Magazine, WE Magazine for Women, WNC Woman, Catholic Digest, Journal of Holistic Health, ActiveOver50, Roots & Wings, Ours, Adoption Today, Adoptive Families, Adoption Option Complete Handbook, 2000-2001, Living, and Freelance).  For an example of my published work, please see concerning the physical and emotional benefits of song sessions for little children.

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