GUEST BLOG: Nature vs nurture: what matters most when bringing music into a child’s life?

In this post Voices of Birralee welcomes guest blogger, Boppin’ Babies founder and Birralee parent, Vicky Abad who gives her thoughts on how music can be encouraged in the home, no matter a parent’s musicality. 

Recently one of my piano students bought me a T-shirt for Christmas that says “I don’t sing all the time, oh wait, yes I do!” and it is so true. 

I sing constantly, in my head and out loud. I also have a child who sings constantly – out loud (never in her head!).

I had a father who sang all the time. He was a beautiful musician, truly talented and self-taught; and a mother who loved to sing and did so with great enthusiasm but couldn’t hold a tune to save herself (and still can’t bless her).

This shirt got me thinking about my daughter, Miss BB and her singing. She loves to sing all the time, in the shower, in the pool, in the car, as she goes to sleep.

She has sung with Voices of Birralee’s children’s choirs for five years, starting as a Piccolo when she was just six years old.

Last month she sang in her first opera stage concert with internationally acclaimed lead singers! I may have been more excited than her, given my music training in opera, but wow what an opportunity for her!

Because I value music so very much, I prioritise it in our lives, I budget for her choir and tuition fees and I make time to support her practice (and drive her to endless rehearsals). 

But does she sing because she is nurtured to or is this nature?

Does she sing because genetically she comes from a long line of singers? Or is it her musical environment?

I would say all of the above.

Musical home

Music is a part of our DNA

From a research perspective, archaeological evidence suggests we humans have sung to communicate, connect and engage with each other since the time of our earliest ancestors.

In fact, theorists believe that ancient humans communicated emotion through vocalising long before we had language and words.

Certainly mothers tap into this primal use of music to soothe their babies from before the time infants can understand the words that are being spoken to them. 

But babies can understand the emotion that is being portrayed through song, and in particular through melody, pitch, rhythm and timbre, and the way that it is being sung.

That is to say, we sing emotionally and expressively when we sing to babies.

We also speak to them in a similar way. Adults from all cultures speak and sing to their young in a particular way (in the research world we call it infant-directed speech).


The case for nature

Parents are hard wired to sing to their babies. It is a part of our evolution.

When we sing we feel good because singing increases the release of endorphins in our brain. Our little babies will often engage and vocalise and interact back, which means, while we are maintaining close physical and eye contact with them, we are in fact falling in love (more endorphins!). 

You can see how music is a part of our genetic makeup when we look at it this way.

Babies can hear their mother’s voice long before they are born. During the third trimester they can even associate certain music with emotion, remembered via the limbic system.

When bubs are born they will seek out their mother’s voice in this new and alien world. And many mothers will hold, rock and talk/sing/vocalise to soothe their new born infant in these moments.

We are designed to do this. Babies are born with competent hearing capacity and they are ready to hear you. They prefer high pitches and frequencies, and this could well be their mother singing.


The case for nurture

What baby doesn’t love being nursed and sung to while they lull off to sleep?

If it were just nature, we could argue that all parents do this comfortably and competently.

My current PhD research (still to be published) suggests that many parents don’t feel confident to sing to their little ones, and in fact, many think that an iPod or music edutainment program marketed as ‘good for baby’ would be better.

Some also believe that they should not sing unless they are a music expert. Neither of these is true.

You are the expert of your baby, and you are human which means you can sing.

Very few people are actually tone deaf. There is some new and fascinating research in this area, that show most people can sing or learn to sing (my mother is not one of them unfortunately).


Find time for music every day

The other thing I find that impacts on the nurturing of musicality these days is time.

Parents are super busy, especially if they work. CDs or DVDs seem an excellent stimulating way to provide a little one with musical engagement while the grown-ups get jobs done.

Research shows us that nothing replaces the magic that is a parent singing to their child.

This is when neural transmitters fire, and new neural pathways are formed. Little brains light up when they interact musically with a human that they love.

You can nurture your child’s musicality by finding the time to sing and be with your child in a crazy busy world.

It’s not as hard as it sounds.

Say no to technology and overstimulation and focus on the simple pleasures, such as sitting and singing nursery rhymes together, or having a cuddle and a tickle to a favourite song.

Nurture them with a home environment full of live music, full of your singing and banging the pots and pans together. 

And be sure to have song books and age appropriate CDs on hand if you run out of puff singing!

About the author

Vicky Abad is a Registered Music Therapist with extensive national and international clinical experience in paediatric and early intervention music therapy and music early learning.

She is founder of the Boppin’ Babies Music Early Learning Program for babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers and their parents conducted with a music therapy focus.

She is a widely published  researcher at the University of Queensland where she is currently completing her PhD on music early learning and the impact of this on family well-being.

Vicky is also the President of the Australian Music Therapy Association.


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