Dust off the old piano to get your preschooler engaged in music-making.

How to Teach Music to Preschoolers Using Instruments

by Cara Batema

You’ve probably never met a kid who didn’t love music, and while simply listening to tunes is an enjoyable pastime, it’s not always enough to engage your move-a-mile-a-minute preschooler. Young children need active, exploratory encounters to wrap their little brains around something so complex and thrilling as music. Through instrument-based activities, preschoolers can learn and apply musical concepts.

Rhythm and Drum Set

Introduce your preschooler to the drum set. Have your child wave hello and tell him the different names of all the components of the drum set -- cymbals, snare drum, hi-hat, bass drum and toms. Ask your preschooler to repeat the names after you, and test him to see if he can name each drum.

Ask your preschooler if he can count to four -- by now he’s getting excited because, of course, Mom, he can count to four! Have your preschooler count to four over and over again while you tap a steady beat on the snare drum, then explain that the bass drum likes to play when you say one and three, and the snare likes to play on two and four. Demonstrate that pattern. Bring your preschooler, who has waited so patiently now, to the drum set and help him play the basic pattern.

Bring your child over to a dry erase board and show him the rhythm of what he just played. Draw one quarter note -- an oval that is filled in with a line, or stem, coming up from the right side of the oval -- and say, “this is a quarter note.” Draw four quarter notes and count them with your preschooler. Tell your child that in music, players like to count to four over and over again -- so once you get to four, start over at one again. Practice clapping and counting to four a few times while you point to each quarter note. Return to the drum set and play steady quarter notes.

Teach your child a variation of the beat where he plays two times on the bass drum followed by once on the snare drum -- this is the beat pattern for “We Will Rock You.” Turn on a recording of the song and have your preschooler play along. If you have done this activity before or if your preschooler is ready for more, teach him what the rhythm of this pattern looks like in music. It is two eighth notes followed by a quarter note; the two eighth notes look like quarter notes except they are combined together by a line, or beam, across the top connecting the stems.

Teach these various rhythms with any rhythm instruments, such as wood sticks and tambourines, or even through body percussion like stomping and clapping.

String Instruments

Introduce string instruments, including guitar, ukulele, bass guitar, violin or cello to your child. Count how many strings each instrument has and talk about how they make sound. You can get silly at this point and ask questions like, “Do I play this with my teeth? With my toes? Oh, I know, you play it with your belly button!” Your preschooler by that point will likely be shouting, “No, Mommy! You play with your fingers!”

Ask your preschooler to repeat the phrase “Mississippi hot dog” or “pepperoni pizza” after you -- each of these phrases has a specific rhythm associated with it.

Let your preschooler hold an instrument and instruct him to play the “Mississippi hot dog” rhythm on the instrument. He might strum a guitar, pluck on the bass or use a bow on a violin.

Ask your preschooler to come up with his own silly phrase and play the rhythm of that phrase on the instruments.


Show your preschooler the piano or a keyboard. Ask him if he can point to the white keys and the black keys. Play some notes in various places and ask your child where the high notes and low notes are located.

Set the keyboard aside and teach your preschooler the musical alphabet. Say, “Do you know the alphabet?” and your preschooler will likely respond by singing the entire ABCs. Tell your preschooler that in music, you go “A, B, C, D, E, F, G” -- but when you get to G, you go back to A. Practice singing the musical alphabet to the same tune as the regular alphabet, but you only sing the letters "A, B, C, D, E, F, G" on repeat.

Bring out the keyboard again and show your preschooler how to find C -- it is in front of a group of two black keys. Have him practice finding other Cs on the keyboard. Now instruct him to place his right hand thumb on the C, then place once key per finger, so he can play C-D-E-F-G with the five fingers of his hand.

Let your preschooler play the notes C-D-E-F-G in various patterns to teach him improvisation -- making up music as he goes along -- and melody, or playing one note at a time.

Items you will need

  • Drum set
  • Piano or keyboard
  • Guitar, ukulele, bass, violin or other string instrument
  • Dry erase board and markers


  • Don’t make music lessons a chore. Being silly and letting your preschooler play new instruments will feed his love of music.
  • Make variations with different instruments, but don’t be afraid to repeat lessons. For example, you can repeat the lesson on quarter notes on virtually any instrument, not just the drum set.
  • Don’t forget that your child’s voice is also an instrument. Teach your preschooler silly songs or let him improvise singing.


  • Teach instrument safety and care -- you don't want your preschooler to break Daddy's guitar!

About the Author

Cara Batema is a musician, teacher and writer who specializes in early childhood, special needs and psychology. Since 2010, Batema has been an active writer in the fields of education, parenting, science and health. She holds a bachelor's degree in music therapy and creative writing.

Photo Credits

  • Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Getty Images