Updated: Nov 17, 2020
When and how do children start composing music? The short (and shocking) answer is: when they are babies.
Babies don’t simply memorise every word and sentence they’ve ever heard. Rather, they learn rules about musical form, and apply them in perceiving and generating new speech and use of musical language. Babies often sing their first words. Through watching, waiting, listening, and use of sound and silence, the children are not simply imitating what they learn through their senses; but rather, their brains are developing theories and rules about speech and the language of music that they can then apply in their own Musical Play. In short, this means that babies develop the skills to compose music.
The amazing music composition ability of babies has been beautifully exemplified today, in one of our relationship-based baby music classes. The babies, their mothers, and a grandmother, had only had one previous music session together. Last week we had improvised together, with the mothers and grandmother joining in echoing and singing the blues. We didn’t use words, but rather babbling sounds and sounds from the babies themselves. Several of the babies sat and watched, taking everything in, watching, waiting and listening intently.
During their first Musical Play session, mirror neurons would have been firing in the babies’ brains as they watched and listened. Mirror neurons fire when a person performs an action and observes someone else performing the same action – it allows humans to learn through imitation. As we can imagine, all these babies’ brains were trying to figure out how the sounds were created, in preparation for being able to mirror or echo them back. The babies were responding emotionally and physically to our music making, and everyone in this group was connected through the Musical Play (Levitin, 2006).
This week, in our second session, all the mothers and babies were relaxed and happy, as they could anticipate the musical sequence of events. We started with a “Hello Song,” singing to each baby in turn. Half of the babies reached out to touch a marionette puppet, as it danced for them one by one. There were lots of smiles, as well as anticipation and turn taking. There was a clear predictable structure to the whole music session, with a clear beginning, middle and end.
After the “Hello Song,” I sang a pitch song using a five-note scale, with the pitch matching a physical massage of the babies’ feet, knees, tummy, shoulders and head by the mothers, who used firm pressure to massage their babies in time to the song. The song started on the note C and went up to G, in the C major scale. This scale is within the child’s pitch range middle C – A. Regular use of such scale songs helps babies and young children to sing in tune. The earlier we sing to babies, the more likely they are to develop perfect pitch and to sing in tune.
When we introduced the drums and started improvising, matching the babies sounds and movement, several babies started bouncing and using their singing voices tunefully with our singing. Sometimes it was a single calling note, or a vocal pattern. Rose, aged one year, sang, bounced and briefly played on the drum, smiling and looking very proud of her music making. She looked at me intently when I matched her actions and sang her note. The babies started crawling into the middle of the circle and their play was intentional, musical, interactive and very engaging. They were leading me in our musical play.
Although babies cannot compose music like Mozart, they amazingly can still compose music. After one relationship-based baby music class, we watched as the babies used the information gathered by their mirror neurons to create music and led us in Musical play.
When we sing, dance, interact and play musically with our babies, we develop their ability to create music. Not only is it beneficial for health, self-confidence, well-being, musicality and general learning – it is also fun!
- Originally published by Julie Wylie, 6 March 2019
Levitin, D. J. (2006). This is Your Brain on Music. Dutton. Penguin Books. London, England.