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Nothing Simple About A Lullaby

Hartt Educator Says Music At An Early Age Promotes Brain Development

William Weir

November 14, 2011

During a recent music class at Hartt School of Music for children under 2, teacher Connie Greenwood, led a singalong. The parents were singing, but the children mostly just bobbed back and forth. One toddler wandered the room carrying a maraca.

"This isn't really for the kids; it's for the parents," said John Feierabend, head of Hartt's music education program, while observing the class. The class focused on instructing parents how to make the most of singing to their children. Fieriebend has made a career of teaching the importance of musical interaction with children.

Children's music may sound simple to our ears, but as Feierabend explains, there's nothing simple about a lullaby.

"If you just sing lullabies to your kids for the first three years," he said, "they'll grow the neuropathways that process a tune, and they learn to use their voice to imitate the tune."

But what if you don't sing well?

"That's not great," he said, "but it's better than nothing."

Feierabend, who has written several books and produced DVDs on children's music education, compares the importance of music to children to the importance of language. Even when parents speak poorly, he said, it's better that they talk to their babies early than not at all.

"Can you imagine not talking to a kid for the first five years of life and then say, 'OK, now we're going to start talking to you'?"

Not only would doing so put the child years behind in language development, he said, but it would warp the brain's development to the point that language would never come naturally.

There are a few key numbers in Feierabend's theories on music. At age 2, a child's brain has the densest thicket of neurofibrils, allowing for quick absorption of new information.

If a baby can sing well by age 3, he said, he or she will be able to sing well for life. If a child has had no musical training by age 7, time has pretty much run out, and the chances that he or she will be naturally musical are slim.

There's no dearth of children's music available these days. In recent years, singers such as Dan Zanes and Laurie Berkner have become superstars in the world of children's music, partly because parents find their music more tolerable than the kind you would hear a purple dinosaur singing. A few rock bands once considered edgy They Might Be Giants and Devo among them have lengthened their careers by putting out albums of children's music, aimed at the offspring of their original fans. Parents can even buy recordings of Metallica songs performed as lullabies.

Any music is better than none, Feierabend said, but he doesn't seem particularly interested in much of the new children's music especially when there are so many classics to choose from. In his list of his 20 favorite lullabies, all are between 100 and 200 years old. For one thing, he said, these songs have an intergenerational appeal, and grandparents, for instance, are more likely to sing along. That's important, he said, because so much of music's benefit is communal.

Also, he said, actually singing with a child is always better than relying on recorded music. For children under 2, he recommends parents clap their hands with their children or tap them on their face to the beat of the music. For children over 2, he recommends adding activities like call and response.

What if you don't know any lullabies? Would singing Beatles songs be just as good? Again, Feierabend said, it's better than nothing, but, no, it's not as good as singing actual children's songs. Lullabies are written specifically so that children can relate to the lyrics.

"If you have an emotional response to something, you're going to learn it better," he said. In other words, take some time to learn a few lullabies.

Back in the 1990s, many educators were optimistic about the so-called "Mozart effect" a theory that promised that simply listening to music would boost IQ points among children. Further studies showed that this wasn't the case, but researchers still believe there are cognitive benefits to be gained from music training.

A study published in last month's issue of Behavioral and Brain Functions (http://bit.ly/r4owbj) found that children who scored low on reading comprehension tests also had less activity in the regions of the brain where music is processed. The researchers, from Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University, said the results demonstrated the importance of musical training on developing language skills.

Some parents are taking notice. Cameron Logan, of East Hartford, who brought his 13-month-old daughter to the class at Hartt School, said he and his wife are both musicians and they thought it important that their daughter also have a good musical foundation.

"It gives them something social to do," Logan said, adding that they're also interested in what some of the studies have shown. "There are lasting benefits."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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