Right from the day we brought Culturebaby back from hospital she's always shown a real interest in music. When we laid her on a rug in her first couple of days and put on my retro Fisher Price record player musical box next to her (thank you mum the hoarder...), it was amazing to watch her turn and follow the sound. This week has also been rather a musical watershed. Culturebaby has begun spontaneously bouncing and dancing along whenever she hears music. It's incredibly cute, and very exciting to watch.
Whilst music is a subject of lively debate and contention in our household, (I stand by my lifelong love for Paul McCartney despite ridicule from a number of quarters), and it is possible that Culturebaby will grow up with rather schizophrenic tastes that will range from 90's Northern Indie and 60's Rock and Roll, to UK Independent hip-hop, jazz, classical, Motown and a dash of cheesy musical thrown in, I hope that our combined enthusiasm will at least have some effect.
There is some evidence to show that babies can hear and are affected by music played to them in the womb, and can remember it up to a year after birth. From around 20 weeks, babies can hear, although this will be muffled by the liquid and tissue around them (like listening to music while underwater). In a well known (and mildly worrying) experiment, Peter Hepper of Queens Belfast showed that newborns seemed to respond and stop crying when the theme tune of Neighbours was played to them if their mothers had watched it regularly during pregnancy. Those whose mothers hadn't, showed no reaction. I'll know I'm to blame if Culturebaby displays an unexplained and slightly misplaced patriotism towards the United States, or a tendency to overly verbose and precocious musings on life during adolescence (The West Wing and Dawson's Creek kept me sane through several weeks of horrendous sickness)!
There is certainly rather a lot of debate on the internet about whether playing classical music to babies pre and post-birth helps their brain development. Some believe that it does, others question the evidence, but it is believed that listening to music reduces stress for a pregnant mother, which (if anyone had as rotten and puke-themed a pregnancy as me) can only be a good thing for mother and baby (for an interesting article on this see here), plus, of course, listening to and playing music as a child (while it may or may not make you better at map reading or maths), is likely to make you more musically adept.
I was, therefore, not one of those mothers who lay on the couch with earphones blasting out Mozart strapped to my belly (I was too busy hugging the loo, navigating the London tube system in the heat of summer, finishing work and trying to stay awake long enough to get through dinner)... but simply, playing instruments, singing and listening to music has provided a huge amount of happiness in my life, and this is what I want for my little lady and I've tried to introduce this to her in a number of ways.
Here's some of the ways that Culturebaby and I enjoy music together:
- Turning our days into a musical: It doesn't really matter how well or badly you sing. Babies love and recognise their mother's voice and enjoy the attention and chance for reciprocal communication. Culturebaby absolutely loves being sung to. It wakes her up or helps to calm her, sends her to sleep or gets her excited. We have songs for everything, from fabulous classics to the amateurish addition of new words to stolen tunes. It doesn't really matter to her. She happily gurgles along in rather a sing-song way, and has done from a few months old. One of my favourite videos of her is lying on her (musically talented) uncle's knee at a couple of weeks old, staring intently at him as he played on her brand new Ukulele and sang the Beatles to her. Interesting research also shows that singing traditional lullabies and nursery rhymes to babies and infants before they learn to speak, is "an essential precursor to later educational success and emotional wellbeing" as "... song is a special type of speech" and "...lullabies, songs and rhymes of every culture carry the 'signature' melodies and inflections of a mother tongue, preparing a child's ear, voice and brain for language."
- Going to music classes: There are so many music classes available for babies that it can be rather overwhelming. We attend a simple and lovely weekly drop-in session with a woman, a guitar and a basketful of percussion instruments. The babies and toddlers seem to love it, and it provides an excellent chance for me to revise long-forgotten tunes and rhymes.
- Learning action songs: We attend a wonderful baby signing class which uses music and British Sign Language to provide another opportunity for early communication for babies. The local library and childrens' centres also run free rhyme time and music sessions with lots of fun action songs. Even if Culturebaby can't do much more than wave and shake her maracas at present, she adores watching older toddlers dancing and doing the signs. I can see her trying to move with them and it is clearly an inspiration for her to join in.
- Experiencing live music: This can be rather tricky as concerts are not always the most appropriate places for babies! I recently considered strapping my bottle-rejecting little lady to my front to attend the Stone Roses reunion tour in Manchester, but of course in the end I sold my ticket, had a little weep and carried on... If you are in London there are some great opportunities to attend tailored classical concerts, but I've found that Culturebaby just loves any live music, from bands at weddings to hymns at mass. This week we've been visiting her uncle and had a couple of brilliant times together when he played the guitar and she bounced around and moved her legs to the music. Amusingly on our return journey, when we put on one of his recorded tracks, she stopped crying and started tapping her foot.
- Dancing together: I don't quite have two left feet, but I'm no ballerina. However, fortunately, at this stage the little ones are not that picky and Culturebaby is completely delighted every time we dance together. It's one giant, exciting chance for either great exercise or a cuddle and we both have a penchant for a bit of Ella Fitzgerald at the end of a long day...
- Music to sleep to: We have a great baby monitor that plays soothing classics at bedtime. It really helps Culturebaby to calm down and prepare to fall asleep. Even more welcome - with a touch of a (lovely lovely) remote button - it often helps to get her back to sleep if she wakes in the night. Musical mobiles also provide an ideal combination of sights and sounds for little babies and can be attached above a cot. We've customised ours to keep the music and change the mobile attachment from time to time (as babies clearly get a bit bored of looking at the the same thing hanging over their head after a couple of weeks).
- Singing along to books: There are some great, and beautifully illustrated books of nursery rhymes and songs - from the classics (such as those by Kate Greenaway), song books with feely textures, my dusted off childhood favourites (such as Oh Soldier Soldier and The Hums of Pooh), to new versions such as Doing The Animal Bop and Whoosh around the Mulberry Bush.
- Watching little clips: Culturebaby doesn't really watch TV - I don't think she needs it - but I do make the exception for occasional song clips and videos. She bounces with excitement when we watch and sing along to tunes from Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music or Disney classics.
- Playing musical instruments: I've always had a rather bizarre habit of collecting musical instruments in every country I've visited on holiday, plus there are so many gorgeous and affordable wooden percussion instruments for children I've encountered that we've amassed quite a collection. Our basket of instruments is one of the most versatile of our sets of toys and is as exciting to four year old visitors as babies - and can entertain them both at once (excellent for babysitting duty). Whatever we are listening to, from The Beach Boys to Beethoven, we get our instruments out and shake them along. The best musical instruments are always the simple and natural ones - and Culturebaby seems to prefer these to more snazzy electronic versions. Some of the best items in our basket are: A Ukulele, rainmakers, a wooden painted shakey egg (absolute favourite), various sleigh and hand bells, shakers, castanets, maracas, a couple of tambourines, drums and a monkey drum, a xylophone and a mini-piano.
- Visiting exciting musical places: There are many great museums with the opportunity to try out musical instruments. We already wrote about the fantastic collection of interactive musical instruments at the Horniman Museum, the chance to try a Grand piano at Dunham Massey and the sound garden at Stockwood Discovery Centre. We've also recently found a real old cinema organ to try in St Albans Museum's exhibition about the old Odeon.
- Making classical music exciting: When I was a baby, my mum used to introduce a new classical piece every week. She'd play it every day and I'd learn to recognise it. It must have worked well as I can still remember the excitement of acting out Grieg's In The Hall of the Mountain King- creeping round and round the lounge, progressively faster and having to dive behind the chair and hide before the door to the mountain closed! Babies learn from repetition and I've been trying this idea out with Culturebaby. I thought I'd acquaint her with her 1/8th Cossack, so this week we've been listening to Prokofiev's Troika. This is such an amazing and exciting piece for anyone (and encapsulates the excitement of Christmas perfectly!). Culturebaby has begun to recognise it as it starts, smile and laugh and shake her sleigh bells. There are times she has also focused her gaze on the speakers and babbled until it has been turned on again. We've varied what we've done as we have listened to it and used percussion, humming, dancing and even watched videos of it on You Tube. It's been hugely rewarding and, I think my mother's idea will be resurrected as a weekly tradition. Hmm... what for this week?
"I was born with music inside me. Music was one of my parts. Like my ribs, my kidneys, my liver, my heart. Like my blood. It was a force already within me when I arrived on the scene. It was a necessity for me-like food or water."(Ray Charles)