By Alex Gazzola
There is more to music than meets the ear! The idea that music possesses a wide variety of curative powers and can enhance quality of life is not a new one. Even in pre-Christian times music was used to help treat the depressed and mentally ill.
Various studies have shown that listening to music can ease pain, shorten post-operative recovery periods, boost immunity, ease stress, help insomnia, accelerate learning, improve concentration and even help premature babies gain weight more rapidly. An Edinburgh study found that chickens may lay more eggs when music is played to them. It appears that it is not only humans that can fall under the magic spell of harmony!
Vitally for you, babies and toddlers can benefit too. Musical Minis is a national music group that enables budding S Club Juniors as young as six months to explore the world through music. “Our classes aim to encourage child development through music” explained founder Karen Sherr.
“We have instrument sessions with lots of banging and blowing which are good for toddlers manual and co-ordination skills, listening sessions with stories and puppets which aid concentration, games of musical statues to help with listening, and we use nursery rhymes ad songs to encourage speech and language.”
Classes include children of mixed ages, needs and abilities. “We find that younger babies benefit from observing and copying older children”, says Karen. “Then there’s the social aspect too – sharing instruments and all the teamwork involved allows children to mix and make friends.”
Musical Minis classes integrate children with specific needs – like Down’s syndrome and autism – with ordinary children. “We have blind and even deaf children too”, says Karen “All children love music and its something they can do so nobody gets left out or feels stupid.”
Joining a class like this one can help all babies development but parents with little ones with specific needs or behavioural problems may like to consider music therapy.
Trained music therapists use music to effect positive changes in the psychological, physical, cognitive or social functioning of individuals with health or educational difficulties. Because music is an intrinsic part of our bodies – our heart pulses, movement and breathing are all rhythmic, and our laughter and crying is melodious – the music therapists can address needs through interactive music making with the child forging a secure relationship with him.
Doctor Alison Levinge, a music therapist course leader at the Welsh College of Music and Drama has many years experience working with children. She says that music therapy can have terrific effects. “There is a link between some of music’s elements and who we are and how we develop as humans,” she says. “Music parallels a lot of the processes through which mothers build relationships with their babies – like gestures, sounds and movements.
“Music therapy in Britain is very much based on improvisation and through this the therapist can pick up what’s going on with the child – be it a movement, mood, or a sound – and reflect it in the music, making a connection and drawing the child into a relationship. A child with autism, or perhaps an emotionally disturbed child who finds it difficult to relate or to speak, can thereby start to make connections with himself, and with others.”
On a more prosaic level, its also good to use music in the home. Ambient music, for instance, can soothe the most restless and sleepless of toddlers, but it must have a repetitive and predictable element, with non-dynamic rhythms and structures. Classical music would be overly complex and unsuitable, while pop music will liven a baby up and raise a smile – good for when he’s bored, but not so when its bedtime!
Dr Levinge recommends mothers sing to their babies too, because it has so many benefits – the closeness, the contact, the focusing with the child, and the fact that the child learns to pick up the implication of what you are saying through your musical ‘voice’.
Don’t be discouraged if you feel you can’t sing – unless your baby is a Simon Cowell clone, he’s unlikely to fire crushing put downs at you or give you two out of 10. Try something simple like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star – a song composed by Mozart specifically to lull babies to sleep.
Researchers in Florida found that unborn babies regularly exposed to music which the mother finds soothing can recognise that music once born.
“The recognition means that the baby connects with the comforting sensation of being in the womb,” says Dr Levinge. “He therefore makes an association between the music and a calm situation, which can be enormously soothing.” So if you want to use music to calm your baby, it may be a good idea to plan well ahead!
Angela Duce from Watford is mother to Oliver, four, and Isobel, three. She’s been taking both to Musical Minis for almost three years. “Oliver was hard work when he was born. He was difficult to feed, didn’t sleep properly, would scream for hours and wouldn’t stay still. He didn’t so much learn to walk as learn to run! My health visitor suggested Musical Minis and because Oliver loved me singing to him, I enrolled him straight away.
“Things started to improve quickly. He learnt that there was a time to sit still and a time to run around and he began to actually listen and react to the music. Musical statues was a game he responded to immediately, putting his finger to his lips and ssshhhing! At home, the biggest difference I noticed was his speech. His speech development had been slightly delayed until then. He also became more disciplined; he realised that he didn’t have to get worked up when activities ended. He started to see that there would be further opportunities to play later on. His new calmness helped me a lot because I knew he wouldn’t have a temper tantrum if I said no to him.
“I use music videos a lot in the home too, so he can see what’s going on and copy the actions and movements. When I first took Oliver to Musical Minis, my daughter Isobel was only four days old, but when she was old enough to join I signed her up too. She was a calm child, but it helped her out of her shell – she’s so much more social and outgoing now.”