Music for babies? What’s all the fuss?

Babies begin hearing as early 22 days after gestation.

Baby with headphones 370 (photo credit: reuters)
Baby with headphones 370
(photo credit: reuters)
When I tell people I teach music classes for babies and toddlers, I usually get one of three types of response: a) That sounds like fun; b) Oh! I’ve heard that’s good for brain development; or c) What is that? Do they learn the violin? Somewhere between trying to develop future Mozarts or math geniuses and shaking maracas to the “The Mexican Hat Dance” lies the answer. While we used to believe that babies came into the world as blank canvases or sponges, ready to soak up their surroundings, research has overwhelmingly shown that powerful prenatal neural connections form the basis for musical experiences.
Babies begin hearing as early 22 days after gestation.
After five months in the womb, a fetus’ ear is as well-formed and sensitive as that of an adult. According to Sheila Woodward, a professor of music education who has extensively studied fetal responses to musical stimulation, a fetus can remember music and even associate its significance.
Naturally, if music has the capacity for such stimulating cognitive experiences within the womb, once the baby is born, he or she is already filled with musical memories and associations.
“Now wait a minute!” I hear you say. “If I haven’t played music for my baby in the womb, what music can she possibly have [heard] already?” Here’s the thing: The pulse and rhythm of the mother’s world, her voice, the father’s voice, and the music playing in the car or on the radio have all made their way into the musical micro-rhythms of the infant’s brain.
Researchers such as J. P.
Lecanuet, M. Papousek, and D. Stern who have each studied mother-infant dialogue have shown that all that babbling, cooing and baby talk actually have unique patterns that are incredibly musical in structure.
Okay – stay with me a moment on this. When you hold a baby in your arms, do you say, “Hey, what’s up?” I doubt it. You say, “Heeeeeeey wittle dumpling! Looooooook at aunty! Awwwwwww.” These musical interactions between babies and adults exist across every culture ever studied across the globe, from pre-modern Zulu tribes, to the Sami people of indigenous Finland, to the families in downtown Boston. If babies across all cultures elicit this musical “motherese” from adults, then musical interaction must be something they need.
Yet I find that while most parents sing and dance with their children, parents often lack musical confidence, and will even deny their own musicality. So I think it’s time we change our definition of what it means to be “musical.” Let’s throw aside the idea that a musical person needs to play the piano and sing perfectly in tune! Or that being a “musician” means performing! I believe that all parents and all babies are musical.
We all love music, need music, and use music regularly in our lives. I have yet to meet a parent who doesn’t sing or dance with their baby, and I have yet to meet a baby who is critical of their parent’s ability to do so. In my “Baby Rhythms” music class, I try to foster musical interaction by encouraging vocal exploration, dancing, playing instruments, and using musical games and stories. I use puppets, pictures, and visual symbols of sound called “listening maps” to allow for multimodal opportunities to learn patterns and structural elements of the music.
Parents act as musical partners and models, as they bond with their child and gain tools for musical interaction.
I allow children to make their own music (think of how young children doodle and draw with crayons – this is similar to the musical “doodlings” that take place with our shakers and tambourines). I use music of many styles and genres, from jazz, to Greek folk dances, to Mozart, to Indian table drumming.
Though musical learning and expression aren’t always obvious at these early ages, I know it’s happening. And I know that whether or not one of these babies will one day perform Beethoven’s Fifth piano concerto at Carnegie Hall is beside the point.
In modern societies, where being human increasingly compels us to choose between black or white, music enables us to be better in touch with more subtle qualities that make us unique and human in a way no other subject can. The creation, study and sharing of music can contribute powerfully to our well-being – emotional, social and cognitive –– as well as to our development as a whole.
Active participation in music can transcend utilitarian and practical advancements.
Children who are musically engaged experience intrinsic joy, as well as important feelings of belonging, meaning, confidence and competence.
In the words of anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake, music allows us to alter our experience of the world around us – to find alternatives to what we are handed.
In short, it has the ability to “expand awareness of what it means to be human.”
Sounds pretty good to me! The author holds a doctorate in music education from Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York. She has been teaching babies, toddlers and preschoolers for over 10 years. Her research in early childhood music education has been presented in the US, Europe, Australia and Israel.
Her work has appeared in
Music Educators Journal, Childhood Education: Infancy Through Early Adolescence and The Qualitative Report. She currently resides in Jerusalem, where she teaches “Baby Rhythms” music classes, and pursues independent research.