You could do worse than sit around and listen to the music of Mozart during pregnancy but a once-popular theory that it could boost your unborn child’s intelligence has long been discredited.
In the 1990s a whole “Mozart effect” industry sprung up on the flimsy basis of one small study of college students whose performance in certain IQ tests apparently jumped eight or nine points after listening to 10 minutes of a sonata composed by the 18th-century child genius – research which has since been found lacking by other scientists.
However, it is true that an unborn child can hear music being played outside the womb. And there’s undisputed scientific evidence that if the child later becomes actively engaged in music, ie plays an instrument or sings, this can have a range of positive benefits – including an increased IQ.
What most parents want is for their children to be healthy, happy and to fulfil their potential – and participation in music-making can help deliver on all three fronts.
The evidence for this is the focus of research by Prof Susan Hallam, a leading authority on music education. Her study, "The power of music: its impact on the intellectual, social and personal development of children and young people," sifts through findings relating to language, literacy and social skills, numeracy, creativity and health, among others.
There is “a strong case for the benefits of active engagement with music throughout the life span”, she concludes.
So how, as a parent, do you go about giving your child this gift for life? Well, for a start, don’t worry if you’ve never mastered an instrument or think you can’t sing. That’s probably down to lack of opportunity rather than it needing to be “in the genes”.
“The whole notion of music ability and it being something innate, that you either have or don’t have, has pretty much disappeared in research terms,” says Hallam, who is professor of education and music psychology at the Institute of Education at the University of London.
"We know no matter how good your aural skills might be as a result of what you've done at home – or maybe something inherited, although that is beginning to seem unlikely – you won't get anywhere unless you practise and make music and keep on doing it," she tells The Irish Times , in advance of a visit to Ireland this weekend.
Singing to your baby provides a very good foundation. These early listening experiences are “an important preparation of the brain for further music – but not for improving your intelligence”, Hallam explains. It takes active music-making to reap cerebral benefits.
“But you can see if a child is in a home where classical music is played all the time, they are going to get used to that and probably like it, whereas if it is heavy metal they are more likely to be interested in that. If there is no music, they will actually be at a bit of a disadvantage.”
It’s certainly a case for putting down those earphones and letting music, of whatever variety, fill the house instead.
The next step is to encourage the playing of an instrument. “Anybody who is going to be an international soloist, particularly in classical music, usually starts playing when they are three or four years old,” she says.
Taste in music is very personal. Hallam recommends giving children an opportunity to see instruments being played, “so they get a chance to choose something rather than being shoved in one particular direction. That might mean taking them to concerts, or finding a DVD that has different instruments being played.”
Good starting points
Pre-instrumental courses for small children, such as those at the Royal Irish Academy and the Dún Laoghaire School of Music, are good starting points too.
Speech and music share a number of processing systems in the brain and when musical experiences enhance this processing in the early years, there is an impact on learning to read.
One of Hallam's former PhD students, Marion Long, has achieved remarkable results with children who have problems with reading. She has set up a programme called Rhythm for Reading, during which these children spend a short amount of time each week learning to stamp, clap and chant simultaneously, following very simple rhythm patterns.
For some of them, within 10 weeks of spending just 10 minutes once a week on it, the programme improved their reading by as much as two years, reports Hallam. “But for some of the children, it has no effect at all.”
By improving children’s ability to co-ordinate their movements with rhythm, something clearly clicks into place and results in massive improvement, she comments, but not in all cases. Just why that is needs more research.
Learning to play an instrument has been shown to increase verbal memory too, which can also help with reading, while a relationship between maths and music is long known.
“What we don’t know is what bits of music affect which bits of mathematics,” says Hallam and again research is ongoing, as developments in neuro-imaging give a better insight into brain responses.
Child's musical future
This is where parents and music teachers can make or break a child's musical future.
“As children get older, the most off-putting thing for them doing their practise is their parents telling them to do it,” she says, while acknowledging younger children may need support.
“The shutting in a room and saying do half an hour is not very helpful either – practise has got to have a specific purpose. What the parents need to do – and there is plenty of evidence for this – is work with the teacher. Where teacher and parent have similar aims, the child does not need to do so much practise to achieve those aims.”
Equally, learning music is not going to help your self-esteem or confidence in other subjects if you have a music teacher who is constantly telling you you’re not very good.
Whereas children who may have struggled with other things but then take up an instrument or join a band and receive positive feedback, start feeling good about themselves. They then try harder in other subjects as well.
Hallam is one of the speakers at a conference for parents, teachers and anybody interested in music education being hosted by the Academy of Popular Music at CIT Cork School of Music this Saturday. Now in its third year, the academy is the first music school in Ireland to offer students aged 10-18 graded certification in electric guitar, electric bass, keyboard, drums and pop singing.
Nurturing musical souls
The academy's guiding philosophy is, explains director Karl Rooney, "If you let people play the music they actually want to play, you are nurturing a musical soul as opposed to squandering it.
“Simply put, if you make a student play something – either an instrument or a style of music – that they don’t want to play, it never, ever succeeds, no matter what parents might imagine.”
Children quite often stop playing an instrument when they move to secondary school. This may be due to time pressures, or because they think they’re no good, or it could be rejection of an instrument or style of music imposed on them.
However, collaborative music-making – be it in an orchestra, band or choir – can keep teenagers engaged. “The fact that it has become part of their social life encourages them to carry on,” says Hallam.
Rooney, a saxophonist and course co-ordinator and co-author of the BA in Popular Music at CIT, sees a trend in common psychological characteristics among young instrumentalists.
“Those who are slightly more confident will go towards voice; those who are more introspective will go towards bass; those who are more studious will go towards keyboards, those who are more extrovert will go towards guitar.”
Music of their choice
Parents who struggled to persuade a child to practise classical music are often amazed, he says, at the enthusiasm and work ethic when that same young musician starts playing music of their choice with their peers.
Weekly instrument classes at the academy are conducted in groups of five or less and bands are carefully assembled by tutors, with an eye to age, ability and genre preferences of the players, who must all attend a weekly theory class too.
The biggest stumbling block the academy has, according to Rooney, is convincing some parents that music-making here is just as valid and beneficial as its classical counterpart. They think it’s “music light” and not the real thing.
“The only reason to engage in any artistic outlet,” he adds, “is to experience emotion – getting somebody to read through a concerto and feel nothing, you’ve missed the point.”
Although Hallam is passionate about her field of education, we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking everybody has to do music, she says. Once a child has mastered reading, music’s health and social benefits can be achieved through other activities or hobbies, such as sport or chess.
“Having said all that,” she adds, “there is no question music at any age has a huge impact on our mood and emotions, so even if people are not carrying on playing an instrument they probably are going to use music throughout their lives to change their moods and emotions – pretty much everybody does.”
So remember, those first lullabies you sing to your baby are the start of a soundtrack for life.
Prof Susan Hallam is among the speakers at the Popular Music Education conference at Curtis Auditorium, CIT Cork School of Music this Saturday at 3pm. Tickets cost €10. See theacademyofpopularmusic.ie for more details.
Speks from Glasses Island: Dads band together for nursery rhymes
When traditional flute-player Paul Quin became a father and went looking for a CD of nursery rhymes, the electronic music on the recordings available “drove me nuts”, he says.
He wanted something more traditional and authentic for his two daughters. Gathering together lads with whom he had played music since his childhood, and who were now parents too, he formed a virtual band called The Speks to produce such universal favourites as Three Blind Mice with a twist of trad.
To make the whole enterprise more child-friendly, they created a "life" for these characters from Glasses Island .
After the CD first came out in 2008, people were buying it as a gift and wanted something more substantial, explains Quin, who lives in Ennis, Co Clare. An illustrated nursery rhymes book followed, enabling parents and children to read and listen to the music simultaneously.
To promote the book, The Speks needed to play live, so the band members dressed up as the characters they had created. From that they were invited to do theatre shows.
“Because we are all parents with young kids and all have day jobs, I never thought we would end up performing,” says Quin.
Demands on their time limit appearances but upcoming shows, aimed at children aged two to seven, include the Hawk's Well Theatre, Sligo, on St Patrick's Day, Gl ór in Ennis, Co Clare, in May and the Town Hall Theatre, Galway, in June.
Schools have also picked up their material but for Quin it is primarily about entertaining children and their families. “If there is an educational stream to it, that’s a bonus as far as I am concerned.”
The Speks are also popular with emigrants, “who are clinging to their Irish roots and want to introduce their kids to Irish music at their level”, he adds.
Listen for free on thespeks.com.
Draw ing children in with a beautiful voice
Singer and composer Fiona Kelleher soon realised "less is more" when she started to perform in cre ches.
Rather than delivering a structured show, she liked to set up in the corner, with some objects around her, and draw children in with her voice. “I found it was a way of reaching them.”
It’s not hard to understand how children would be lured in by the beautiful, ethereal quality of her voice.
The simple phrasing of the songs reflects how a small child will intently examine an object.
"The work is very new to me, even though I have been a musician for many years," says Kelleher, who started composing for the 0-3 age group after the Graffiti Theatre Company in Cork asked her to be involved in developing an early years artistic programme.
Last year she recorded an album of new music inspired by her work in cre ches, called I Am a Little Boat .
"For me it is all about the benefits of artistic activity for children – particularly musical activity. "
There's a positive impact you see right there in front of you, she explains, never mind the reported long-term impact.
She sees benefits too for childcare staff, who can become bogged down in duty and responsibility.
“Sometimes the joy that could be in their work is a bit overtaken by that.”
Although she is a mother of three children, now aged 11, 10 and eight, she came to this work after their toddler years had passed.
She reflects how easy it is to be consumed by the busyness of parenting in the early years, “that your own joy takes a back seat as well”.
“I would love to be able to reach more parents and more carers with the message that the best kind of gift you can give to your children is your happiness – there is no doubt about it.”
Even if your children aren’t going to be great musicians, she adds, you can still give them great memories, that may put them on the path to something else.
Listen in on fionakelleher.com