We all enjoy music. We know that very young children respond to music. We even know that babies in the womb can respond to musical stimuli. But the latest research gives an important twist on what we already know. Music matters, but live music seems to have a positive effect on premature babies and the bonding experience between newborns and their parents. The research was reported in the journal Pediatrics (DOI: 10.1542/peds.2012-1367) following a two-year study of 272 premature babies across 11 hospitals in New York.
What proved particularly effective was the active participation of parents in music making, either through singing, or playing simple rhythmic and sonic instruments, which positively influenced cardiac and respiratory function of the participant babies in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs).
The study was carefully designed to ensure that by using appropriate live music activities, the babies’ immature sensory modalities, such as hearing and vision, were not overstimulated, as they might perhaps have been with recorded music. Having a live music focus also allowed the parents to interact better with their babies, as they were able to match the rhythmic patterns they played to their baby’s breathing. This in turn encouraged parent-child bonding and improved parents’ observational skills of their newborns’ development.
The musical elements of rhythm, timbre and vocal tone were essential ingredients and supported by a team of trained music therapists, the parents developed their own self-awareness of how music could be consciously manipulated and entrained to the infants’ physical conditions. The outcomes in this study were that both parents and babies were reported to be more self-reliant.
Overall, this research can be seen as part of an increasing worldwide interest in the potential power and benefits of musical engagement and there is expanding evidence around the physical, psychological and social advantages of music.
The study was also an important reminder that even where adults had previous negative experiences of music, i.e. they considered themselves to be ‘bad singers’; with the support of expert professionals, they were able to see the power of their vocal utterances and instrument playing on their children.
Given that we experience sound, including music, pre-birth from the final trimester in our mother’s womb, it makes sense to engage with music to support other aspects of development, including health. Music and medicine is a growing field and there have been several recent IOE health-focused studies, which illustrate music’s power across the lifespan. These include evidence of music’s social and emotional benefits for seriously ill children in an Italian oncology ward, and the health benefits of a specially-designed musical support programme for older people in care contexts in the North of England.
Music is a birth right, central to our humanity and the human condition, and should not be treated as marginal within our educational systems lest we miss the opportunity to maximise its potential for improving lives, whether it be premature babies or older people (such as me!).
Professor Graham Welch is Chair of Music Education at the Institute of Education. His areas of interest include: musical development and music education across the lifespan, teacher education, the psychology of music, singing and voice science, music in special education and disability and the wider benefits of music.