Keep reading to children….. but don’t forget the music!

Miles & Kate large drum 9.5mths cropped

It has long been known that reading to children is one of the key activities adults can engage in to support children’s development. The number of books found in a home, and the amount of time adults spend reading those books to children, or even reading themselves, are key predictors of children’s later language and literacy skills. What we didn’t know until now is whether active shared music making in the home also has similar benefits for children’s development. The answer appears to be yes, but even more so in particular skill areas that can be tricky to teach, like social skills and attention.

I recently published a paper with a University of Queensland team that describes a snapshot of informal home music use in over 3000 Australian families participating in the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC). In families where parents reported more frequent shared parent-child music activities in the toddler years, children tended to be more prosocial and have stronger numeracy skills, and greater ability to control their attention at 5 years. These effects were over and above the effects of shared book reading and socio-economic circumstances, meaning that while book reading is absolutely important and was also associated with positive outcomes for children, music contributed additional value. In fact shared music was the only contributor to children’s prosocial skills, with book reading having no effect.

So exactly how is shared music time supporting children’s development? To be frank, we need much more research in this area. But we do know that music is fun and engaging. The very young and old, the skilled and unskilled, can participate together in ways that not many other activities allow – from active listening through to performing. Music addresses power and skill imbalances by allowing children to lead, and adults to follow. Even the toddler who is not yet ready to still for more than two pages of a book, can engage in active musical play. Dancing or doing action songs together often means face-to-face interaction that we don’t tend to get in shared book reading where joint attention is on the print. With more and more of our eye contact time going to screens of some kind perhaps this opportunity for human face-to-face time that comes with joint action songs, singing, and dancing, is crucial to the processes linking music with prosocial development in particular.

I strongly suspect that the opportunity that music provides for us to move our body in a rhythmic, structured way supported by pulse and beat is critical. This kind of movement stimulates brain-body connections likely to build the types of neural networks needed for attention, and regulation of behaviour and emotion. I’m not talking about complicated dance structures (though those are great too) – but simple rhythmic clapping, knee tapping, and fine motor action songs are probably ‘good enough’ to build these networks. Shared home music activities might provide a structure within which parents and children engage in mutually responsive interactions requiring joint attention, active cooperation, turn-taking, and immediate feedback, supporting children’s self-regulatory and social development. We also all know about the motivating context that music provides for learning specific information. For example, The Alphabet Song, Five Little Ducks (number sense, subtraction), and Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes (body part awareness, spatial awareness).

What should we take from this latest research? The paper has recently been awarded The Music Trust Award for Research in to the Benefits of Music Education. While “music education” sounds quite formal, the particular value of this latest research lies in its ability to highlight family music interactions like listening to music together, dancing, musical games, singing, and action songs, as important home learning activities. While formal music tuition and its ever expanding range of known non-musical benefits is often disappointingly confined to only those that can afford it, all families can engage in no or low cost informal home music activities in early childhood. In fact the study found that this kind of musical play at home was common with over 40% of Australian parents reporting that they shared some sort of music time with their toddlers at least six days per week.

How are modern society and the changing culture of parenting supporting or hindering this practice? This research and decades of other studies consistently highlight the role of parents as children’s first and most important educators….. but do we all believe this message? A growing number of parents enroll their young children in specialist user-pay music classes with formal early childhood music programs. It is hard to imagine that shared book reading would be outsourced from the home to quite the same extent (though many of us access story time at a local library). Certainly there is developmental and social value for children, parents, and communities in group music making outside of the home and I would not want to see these important community-building programs decline. But, it is hard to know to what extent these programs represent an outsourcing of familial musical interactions grown out of an eroded confidence on the part of parents, or if they are about something else. Do parents feel the need to ‘professionalise’ parenting, by accessing external expertise in areas such as music? Are these programs empowering and reinforcing parents’ capacity to use music in their own daily parenting practices as we believe they should, or further eroding confidence? Certainly if the music program you attend with your young child does not boost your confidence as a musical parent, and stimulate ideas for you to use yourself at home, then it may be time to look elsewhere.

Music in our home. In my own experience the way music is used in the home necessarily changes as children grow and develop, and find their own musical identities…. And all families will be different. Almost all children will hear their first sound in utero – their mother’s heart beat is rhythmic, not random, and her voice is melodic, not monotone. This is one of the reasons we speak of music as inherently human and of children as naturally musical beings. In my case, our children also experienced several early childhood music therapy sessions a week in utero as I was a practicing Registered Music Therapist at that time. However, I stress to you that my training and work has not made our use of music in the home more sophisticated or complex than in any other home – though for some homes where one or more parent is highly trained in music, it might.

If you need a break and a giggle about now check out this musical infant, make sure you have the sound turned up:

When our children were infants and toddlers, my husband (not musically trained) and I both engaged in the kind of brief music engagement that seems to be happening in many Australian homes. We ‘sang’ (term used very loosely here) our way through baths, nappy changes, and belted over the top of screaming babies in the car (yes, we had one of those children who didn’t calm in the car, only ramped up). We incy wincyed and twinkled our way through some otherwise painful early evening feral hours, we used lullabies at bedtime which I’m sure were more about distracting our own frazzled minds than lulling babies to sleep. Now that the kids are older we use recorded music as a mood changer and lifter at home (getting ready for school or cleaning the house are prime times), we play music critic games on road trips, and both privileged kids are in formal piano lessons because we choose and can fund that for them (with differing degrees of protest from each). One of our kids is all about the rhythm and always has been (and struggles to find pitch); the other one finds their natural music voice most easily through expressive dance – she dances to her own constant tune playing in her head – and living with her is at times like living in a stage musical. I’m sure many of you know that feeling.

You might think with my history of two music degrees I’m keen to incubate music genius and that every interaction in our house is somehow ‘musical’. This is certainly not the case, I know of many other more ‘musical’ households stimulated by both trained and un-trained musical parents. I liken music in our house to swimming training – music experience and formal education in our family is about having some skills, confidence and options in leisure and recreation time, about making connections with other people, and about having a way to express yourself and escape from the rest of the hurly burly of life. Certainly the expense of formal music lessons is an absolute privilege and the commitment to support for regular practice in a busy family life is not an easy road for many parents and children. I am not certain how long either of my children will maintain their piano training at this point (my rule is a two year minimum as research shows that positive neurological changes are likely to have been embedded by then – aaah the unique suffering of a kid with a researcher as a mother!!) In my own childhood, it was only thanks to the free and internationally renowned Queensland Education Department Instrumental Music program that kicks in around Year 4 in Queensland primary schools that I began my own musical career – we MUST keep this program. And from then I had a mother with no musical training herself, who recognised and fed my passion in extraordinarily committed ways with very limited resources – I am very grateful.

What musical experiences is your child accessing in education settings? Along with reinforcing the musical parenting role, the study findings also suggest that early educators should be aware of the non-musical benefits of active music participation for young children, and should be trained and supported in the use of music to support early development. As many of our children spend large amounts of time in early childhood education and care settings, there are strong indications that educators should be well equipped to engage in shared music experiences with children and to promote music as a home learning activity to parents. How much music training is provided in the training courses of early childhood teachers and child-care workers? How confident and effective are teachers in using music as part of the program to stimulate child development across multiple domains? I suspect we may have lost some ground here in recent years.

The study described here is a small part of a wider research project led by the Head of UQ’s School of Music, Professor Margaret Barrett and Professor Graham Welch from University College London, funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant. Team members include Vicky Abad, Mary Broughton, and Libby Flynn. While we are lucky to have such large longitudinal datasets like LSAC in Australia that allow us to take these national snapshots of phenomena such as home music use, much more detailed and nuance research is required. The UQ research endeavour is currently investigating many of the questions posed here in more depth, so stay tuned for further findings. The project Being and becoming musical: towards a cultural ecological model of early musical development aims to provide a comprehensive account of how Australian families use music in their parenting practices and make recommendations for policy and practice in childcare and early learning and development in and through family.

Music is an inherently human and social activity, and as a tool for parenting and early education, it is too valuable to be left to the ‘professionals’ or in fact left to the wayside – devalued, and under utilised. As a community we should build parent and educator confidence in this area, and provide equitable access to quality early music engagement for all families, and in particular for all young children. It is time to show some commitment.

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