Singing With Your Baby by Carolyn Spencer

Research into the benefits of singing with your baby by Carolyn Spencer
(BKA Newsletter, Autumn 2001)

For my final year dissertation at Roehampton I decided to study the effects that singing to babies had on the relationship between parents and their infants. For the project, two mums kindly let me teach them songs and come and observe and video them as they sang to their baby. J’s baby was 6 months old when I first introduced the songs them and G’s baby was just 3 weeks old when she started singing to him. What follows is an observation of the responses that the babies had to being sung to and then how the mothers felt this impacted on their relationship. The mothers also had copies of the songs on a CD I had made.

Freddie first heard the songs by listening to the CD. The songs were very repetitive and usually in rounds so soon J was singing along with the CD. Freddie turned immediately towards the source of the sound. His body became alert and still and all the babbling that he had been doing stopped instantly. He stayed transfixed for the whole CD (15 songs) and the moment it stopped he started to wave his hands and babble as if to say “Again!” We played it again and observed the same response: his body became still and he was totally silent.

As the weeks went on J noticed how he was able to listen to Radio 3 in complete concentration for 20 minutes. She also found that he could bear to be without her as long as the CD was playing, and that he had definite favourites. The CD ended with “My paddle’s Keen and Bright” and they started to notice that he would become agitated when that song began. They then realised that Freddie knew it was the last song on the CD and was upset about it. Freddie’s Dad put the CD on ‘shuffle’ to try to get round this problem but Freddie soon expressed his displeasure, he wanted the songs he knew to be in the order that he knew! This was strange to me because obviously J was singing to him in any order that arose. It seemed that the CD represented an important link with J, reminding Freddie of all the close times he had with her. Perhaps for this reason it needed to be unchanging.

J talked about how singing was becoming such an important part of their day. She described it as being a way of communicating with Freddie, where words would perhaps be too harsh and invasive. Sensing music to be a communication that goes beyond language J also felt that the exchanges that it facilitated strengthened their attachment to each other.

This seemed to tie in with some research that I had been reading (Dissanayake in Wallin et al 2000) where there was a challenge towards the traditional Darwinian view that music arose out of the need to stake sexual and territorial claims, much as other animals use musical sounds. Dissanayake argues that music originates from the mother’s deep seated need to communicate with her infant; to make strong attachments which will reward the enormous investment she makes in keeping the baby alive. This argument convinces in so far that it explains the use of music to express wide ranges of emotion and experiences, not merely territorial drumming or wooing of mates. However it is also to me an absolutely mind blowing assertion: that all the temporal arts and probably language itself emerged from the mother’s primal need to communicate with her infant.

Working with G and her baby, Jack showed me some different aspects surrounding infant directed singing. G sang with a nice voice but rarely did Jack relax his body or make eye contact with her. He generally arched his head back and away and kept his body stiff. Eventually I suggested she sing one of the slower lullabies. The effect was astonishing.

His body relaxed and he made eye contact. I took readings from the video of what speed G needed to sing to make contact with Jack and it was always the same: no quicker than 40 beats per minute. Even with Freddie who was 6 months older the faster songs where no faster than 60-80 beats per minute and the slower ones were between 20-30 beats per minute with a lot of rubato and expressive facial display. It seemed to indicate that the smaller the baby, the slower the song needed to be for the baby to feel contained enough by the music to respond. In this way I felt that music was a powerful way to help G to tune in to Jack’s needs. It was this kind of interaction which builds on relationship and communication and establishes enough good experiences connected to music. This means that when Jack awoke screaming in the middle of the night he could connect the soothing singing with all the previous occasions when he had felt safe and connected to G.

I felt from the months observing G and J with their babies that music was playing an important role in their developing relationships with Jack and Freddie.

The second part of the research involved three separate groups of mothers and babies. I taught them some of the rounds on the CD and watched the babies respond. The mothers then filled out a questionnaire for me. Some mothers were inspired to buy the CD as well.

This part of the research was intended to try to find out whether mothers are singing to their babies or whether it is something that fewer people do in current parenting cultures. In the questionnaires that came back to me nearly all the mothers felt that they had been sung to and nearly all said that they sang to their babies every day. This surprised me and I concluded that apart from the possibility that the mothers were filling in the questionnaires with the view of giving me what they thought I wanted to hear; they may be singing, but few had a canon of songs. Many said that they could not remember the words. Also, singing was being used in a utilitarian sense and not necessarily as a building block for relationship, for example one mother wrote on her questionnaire “Singing kills a tantrum,” and another told me of how the only way her baby would accept being bathed was if she sang to her. As my work with J and G suggests this may mean that music is less powerful and has less meaning than when it is also used for the sake of creating positive interaction. This holds implications for my third research question which was to try to discover if the quality of the mother’s musical experience was important for creating a positive interaction with her baby. The overwhelming favourite song for the mothers in the groups was, “Bless you, Bless you Bonnie Bee.” They sang this in rounds and the still magic that was created in those moments was really special. I concluded from this that the songs had to be slow, of good quality, repetitive and if there is singing in a group then ideally they need to have a harmonic quality to them.

It was the most incredible privilege to be there when the mothers where singing to their babies like that. It make me think of just how reluctant adults can be when you try to teach them a song or ask them to sing in public. I had expected to meet this resistance with the mothers in the group and was amazed by their eagerness to sing. I concluded that at a deep level they knew that music was important for their relationship with their babies and this provided a motivator which was able to over-ride the normal resistance to public singing. This, coupled with my awareness that I was witnessing very intimate and private exchanges between mothers and their babies made it a very rewarding experience.

If you would like to know more about the singing to babies project, or would like a copy of the CD please contact Carolyn on 01483 503035

Wallin, N, et al (ed.) (2000) The Origins of Music Massachusetts, Massachusetts Institute of Technology