More Than Just A Lullaby: The Benefits of Sharing Music with Your Children

My oldest child and I started Music Together classes when he was 18 months old. It was so much fun; we’d sing and dance and play instruments, and he really started to love singing and even began to sing (mostly) on key. We couldn’t ride in the car without listening to “his” music — he had every song memorized.

A mother and her child share a joyful moment during a Music Together class in Virginia.

A mother and her child share a joyful moment during a Music Together class in Virginia.

My second baby percolated in these wonderful music classes for the entire pregnancy — so I shouldn’t have been surprised when he, at a mere two weeks old, started singing in class. In the middle of a song, he started (what I thought was) fussing and then let out a loud cry, stopping a few seconds later when the song ended.

Our teacher exclaimed, “Listen to his beautiful singing! This is why music is so amazing!” I wasn’t convinced he was actually singing (he was two weeks old!) — but then it happened again during the next song. And again after that. He really was singing!

Here’s the thing about kids and music: They’re born with it. Music is — naturally and innately — a part of us, even in the womb. Babies can hear sounds from as early as 18 weeks gestation, they’re they’re able to respond to voices and music as early as 25 weeks, and they’re born able to make and respond to musical sounds.

This is wonderful news; it means that we don’t necessarily have to “teach” music to our children — we just need to provide them opportunities to make music with us!

As it turns out, providing our children these opportunities has some pretty awesome benefits. Music improves cognitive abilities, including language skills and memory. Moreover, because music is processed in multiple parts of the brain at once, it can enhance emotional intelligence and creativity, too.

Music can also improve children’s confidence, even from an early age. Lauren Roscoe — voice performer/teacher and author of the children’s book How Hootie Found his Hootwhich is about a little owl who learns to sing by believing in himself — agrees. “I’ve seen music propel even the shyest children to try new things. A child who isn’t comfortable interacting with other children might be comfortable doing so through music,” she shared.

Music also helps us bond with our children. Numerous studies have shown that listening to and making music with our children can improve the quality of our attachment relationship . In fact, music can even help improve outcomes and increase bonding in the face of postpartum mental health difficulties, including postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety.

This positive effect that music has on attachment relationships makes sense because music taps into several major attachment needs that all young children have: Children need us to enjoy the world with them, delight in them as they learn and explore, and provide comfort when they are upset — and music provides wonderful opportunities to do all of these.

Angie Spong, a musician who’s also a new mom, was floored — despite being a graduate of Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music and a lifelong music lover— to see how naturally music calmed her infant daughter when she was upset. She says:

“In my earliest days as a first-time parent, I constantly underestimated the effect of music. I’d sadly internalized from our arts-starved culture the idea that music is a nice ‘extra’ — but not something we can’t live without. It seemed nonsensical to sing lullabies when my child was screaming at 3am, but my husband, who was already an experienced parent, kept urging me to give it a try. It turned out that singing to her — even without getting out of our bed when she was in her crib— was like hitting the snooze button on an alarm clock; she’d instantly calm down. And as she grew, when she started to smile, I began to see how a song she loved would light up her entire face. I’ll never again doubt music’s power at a deep, unconscious level within us.”

Researchers believe that these positive attachment outcomes — and the fact that these outcomes are observed even when parents are depressed — occur in large part because our brains release dopamine when we listen to music we like. Dopamine not only improves mood, but it’s also necessary for parent-child bonding to take place; it makes us feel good and want to do more of what we’re doing, which, when we’re talking about attachment, is interacting with our child.

Marie-Louise Lyon — board-certified music therapist, registered Music Together® teacher, music educator, and owner of Crescendo Music in Warrenton, VA — had this to say about children and music:

“One of the many blessings of my job is that I get to witness beautiful moments of connection — as simple as playing patty cake and as complex as singing harmonies and parts. Singing together, creating music together — it creates a community where none existed before. I watch friendships develop. I watch parents come in stressed from the craziness of their mornings — and then regain their center during class.

Parents share stories about beating the bedtime battle with a lullaby we’ve done in class; they tell me about children who’ve clapped their hands for the first time to a song or who’ve finally spoken because of a song they love. I wish I could bottle up these snapshots of beautiful connection and send them home with parents. I often have moments during class where I’m overwhelmed at what an extreme honor it is to be able to facilitate these moments of connection and community.”

The best part of sharing music with children is that you don’t have to be a musician (or have any musical ability at all!) to experience these amazing benefits. All you need is you, your child, and some music! Here are some fun ways to incorporate music into your day:

  • Dance with your child. Turn on your favorite songs and have an impromptu dance party! With really little ones, you can pick them up or put them in wear carrier and dance ’til you drop. (As a bonus, it’s a great way to get a workout in!)

  • And while you’re dancing, make sure to also dance for your child — your own dancing and musical expression is so important to truly connecting with your children around music.

  • Let your child lead the dance. Do exactly what they do — like James Corden And Gisele Bündchen in this hilarious video: http://digg.com/video/toddlerography-gisele-corden

  • Follow your child’s lead by practicing “serve and return” through song, dance, instrument play, or really any sort of musical activity you’re doing. Your child will “serve” you an idea, and you’ll “return” it to them by doing it back and adding your own little twist. So for example, say your child is slithering like a snake while you’re singing a song, so you start slithering like a snake and singing a lyric in the song about slithering snakes. Give it a try and see where it takes you!

  • Pull out some pots and pans and do some drumming.

  • Turn on music while you’re driving and sing along!

  • Bring your child out into the community to be around groups of people singing (like at church, a folk concert, library story hour, or Music Together classes) — just be sure to bring ear protection if the singing will be loud. Harmonies are particularly amazing for children to hear.

  • Sing lullabies to your baby — and don’t worry if you don’t know actual lullabies! Just sing your favorite songs slowly and quietly for your child.

  • If you play an instrument, play for your child!

  • While listening to music, hold baby on your lap and move her hands or bounce her to the beat; with older children, you can clap or stomp to the beat.

  • Clap rhythms for baby; for older children, see if they can copy you.

  • Sing a familiar song for your child, and pause partway through; see if your child “fills in the blanks” by singing the next word or note. You’ll be surprised what they’ve retained — and doing this is an exercise in audition, which is foundational to musical ability.

  • Enroll in a Music Together class; it’s a wonderful way to be part of a music-making community with your children. If there are no Music Together classes in your area, library story hours are a wonderful (and free!) way to sing in a group with your child. Make sure you participate because children are always watching you, and they’ll get the most out of these classes (and feel safe participating fully) if you are actively involved.

  • Play music at home whenever it’s appropriate to do so — while you’re making dinner, while you’re relaxing at home together, etc. You don’t need to play any specific type of music — just whatever you love.

How you choose to incorporate music into your time with your children matters less than the fact that you do it. Make sure to do it in a way that you enjoy; children will do what we do, and if they see us truly enjoying music, they will too. And try to let go of any self-consciousness about your singing voice or your rhythmic abilities; children are the least judgmental people on the planet, and to a child, there is literally nothing else in the world as magical as a parent’s voice singing.

So what are you waiting for? Go make some music together!

Dr. Hilary Mandzik is a licensed psychologist serving Cary, NC and the Triangle area. She provides therapy for childrentherapy for new parents, and support for parents through consultations and workshops in her Cary office and offers online therapy and consultations for parents throughout NC and VA. Click here or call919–344–1296 to schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation to see if working together is a good fit for your family’s needs.