Understanding the magical influence of music on a child’s growth

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Lullabies and sing-a-longs: music is like magic for a child and an incredible force for their growth.

In 2013, a video of a mom singing a Rod Stewart ballad to her ten-month old daughter went viral. Why? Because astonishingly, her baby appeared so moved by the song that she became teary eyed.

Laurel Trainor, a professor of psychology, neuroscience and behaviour and director of the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind (MIMM) in Canada, was asked to explain this in an interview with National Geographic. According to Trainor, research has shown that the ear is very mature at birth and that an infant can actually distinguish between major and minor chords.

As many people understand minor chords to sound sadder than major chords, was the ‘emotional baby’ able to comprehend the sad content of the song? Perhaps this question was the reason the video went viral in the first place.

A love for music from an early age

Closer to home, Cape Town-based parents Lauren and Jeff Green found that their twin girls, who were born at 30 weeks, would respond well to having music in their environment from a very early age, whether the radio was playing or simply their parents singing silly songs to them. “Often, those silly songs were the only things that stopped the crying,” they said.

Around the time the twins were turning eight months old, the Greens were interested to hear that a music programme for babies was launching in the city. Being premature, the girls’ sensory processing development needed addressing and having read about the benefits of music classes introduced from an early age, they felt it would be a wonderful activity for the girls to be involved in.

They were soon enrolled in the music programme and the impact from the first class was nothing short of profound. “Julia, a typical cry baby, sat alone unassisted for the first time, during the entire class. She was riveted.”

Music class came to be the highlight of their week, not only for the obvious enjoyment, but for the noticeable developmental improvements in the girls, which included sitting still and paying attention, participation in the group, remembering songs and storylines in advance of the class, understanding and correctly interacting with the different instruments, “and the girls learnt counting and colours quickly because the information was put to song,” says Lauren.


Making music is a catalyst for learning

The role that music plays in a child’s development is a topic that has received major airtime. In the early 90s, The Mozart Effect was brought into public light. The concept suggests that early childhood exposure to classical music has a beneficial effect on mental development, enhancing intelligence, learning and creativity.

But, with time, the theory that simply playing classical music to your child will make them smarter had to make way for further research. “There is no evidence that listening to classical music has any more benefit than listening to any other type of music,” says Trainor. Rather, she emphasises the fact that whatever sensory experience infants have affects their brain development, and music is no exception.

The MIMM, which Trainor heads up, is an interdisciplinary group of researchers including psychologists, neuroscientists, music theorists, musicians, dancers, media artists, mathematicians, kinesiologists, health scientists and engineers. Part of their function is to study how the musical experience affects brain development, how musical training and exposure affects language, and cognitive and social abilities. In 2012 the institute released results from a study that was the first of its kind.

In the study, groups of babies and their parents spent six months participating in one of two types of weekly music instruction. One class involved interactive music-making and learning a small set of lullabies, nursery rhymes and songs with actions, and parents and infants worked together to learn to play percussion instruments, take turns and sing specific songs. In the other music class, infants and parents played at various toy stations while recordings from the Baby Einstein series played in the background.

Babies from the interactive classes showed better early communication skills, such as pointing at objects that were out of reach and waving goodbye. Socially, these babies also smiled more, were easier to soothe, and showed less distress when things were unfamiliar or didn’t go their way.

While both class types included listening to music and all the infants heard a similar amount of music at home, a big difference between the classes was the interactive exposure to music.


Got the music in you

Cape Town-based mom Kirsty Savides and Joburg mom Magdalene Minnaar are both musical, so this naturally flowed into their parenting but, reassuringly, the way they integrate music into their children’s lives is simple enough for any parent to consider.

Kirsty exposed her son to music in utero and was already getting positive cues. “I was teaching piano while pregnant with him,” she says, “and he would jump around like crazy in my belly during the lessons.” Short of moms-to-be being able to play the piano, many moms like to play baroque or classical music in the house when it’s time to wind down. Quite remarkably, there are studies indicating that infants remember sounds experienced in the last couple of months, before birth.

Kirsty also had music on-hand for its calming effect when her babies were colicky. She used every opportunity to expose them to many different styles of music, such as on car trips, and she sang instructions rather than yell instructions. Experts say you should sing simple, short songs in a high soft voice to your baby – try making up one or two lines about bathing, dressing and eating. Get your toddler to dance to music regularly and play songs with lots of repetition as this will stimulate their memorising ability. Buy them instruments, and when you’re playing music get them to reproduce the rhythm they hear.

Magdalene made a soothing playlist of music, mostly Mozart and Bach, which she has played to her son Jacob, now two years old, nearly every day since his birth. “I bought him a pair of good children’s headphones so he can listen to the playlist when we are travelling,” she says. In the same way it has guided and calmed Magdalene in her own life, music has helped Jacob to become the relaxed and focussed little boy his mom sees today.