By Arden Dier
Strolling by the Colborne Street United Church on a Tuesday afternoon, you might hear music escaping from within where a vocal group practises.
Half of its members are babies.
Gathered in a circle on a carpeted floor inside the vast church, surrounding an array of colourful rhythmic instruments — without sharp edges, of course — are infants, newborn to 18 months old, and their caregivers.
They start with a “Hello” song.
“Hello everybody, say how do you do?
How do you do?
How do you do?
Clap hands everybody, say how do you do?”
Each week it begins the same — to help build musical memory.
“Not just memory of words but memory of pitch, even though they don’t sing yet, of course,” said Sonja Dennis, a choral instructor in the faculty of music at Western University and music director at Colborne.
Dennis formed the music group, called Sing to Me!, last fall after giving birth to her son, Samuel, now 13 months old. The free music sessions — open to the public — developed out of her need as a mother to connect not only with her son, but with other parents who were interested in using music as a way to bond with their children.
“Voice is just such a strong bonding agent,” Dennis said.
Each week, along with the other parents, she sings old favourites like “Old MacDonald” and “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window,” as well as more recent songs. The atmosphere is playful with plenty of laughter mixing with the babies’ murmurs.
“They’re obviously not quite going to be singing because they’re not speaking yet … but they do vocalize with us sometimes when we’re singing, which is really sweet. You can tell that they’re trying to sing with us.”
Margaret Campbell-Brown decided to take her daughter, Mary, to Sing to Me! because she had had little contact with other babies.
“At first she was shy and kept close to me, but as the weeks went on she would crawl over to play with the other little ones, share toys and so on,” Campbell-Brown said.
Social time is just one of the benefits of the group. The rhythmic instruments used in the sessions, including miniature tambourines and maracas, can help in a child’s development from gross motor skills, like balancing and crawling, to fine motor skills, Dennis said.
“They particularly love the tambourines because they can also beat on those tambourines like a drum,” said Dennis, who encourages parents to tap out the beat of a song as they sing. “And then their children start to mimic that.”
The sessions’ activities are meant to be translated to the home. When Dennis’ son gets frustrated or impatient when having his diaper changed, for example, she begins to sing.
“And immediately he is engaged. It’s just a great way of helping us get through our day, and I think that’s as true for infants as it is for adults actually. When you think about the office place, how many of us have our radio stations going?”
Diane Bales is a human development specialist at the University of Georgia in Athens, who’s studied the effect music has on the brain.
While she said there’s no evidence that listening to music by itself will make a child smarter, her research explains that babies as young as three months old can pick out the complex musical structure of classical music and recognize songs they’ve heard before. She said listening to any sort of music “helps build music-related pathways in the brain.”
“Music affects children’s moods and sleeping/waking cycles and can be a valuable learning tool,” Bales said in a phone interview.
“Learning new information through song can help children remember what they’ve learned. There is also good research showing that learning to play a musical instrument enhances children’s spatial memory.”
Bales recommended parents share the music they enjoy with their children and sing along — just like those taking part in Sing to Me!
In addition to the more immediate benefits of music that Bales explained, Dennis said she’s seen firsthand the advantages music can have later on in a child’s life. As a former music teacher in both piano and vocals, she saw improvements in her students’ abilities outside of a musical capacity.
“I actually had parents bringing their children to me because their children were struggling with math,” Dennis said, adding she remembers one female student’s math skills improving over the course of a year as she learned music and the theory behind it.
“That’s one of the huge benefits: It helps build math skills, it builds memory, it builds hand-eye coordination and then just confidence at achieving something. I’ve seen it build a lot of confidence in children over the years.”
Yet there’s a reserve in some parents that Dennis said might deter them from taking part in the group that offers caregivers a chance to “sit back and enjoy.”
“Their inhibition before coming is that ‘I haven’t had any music background,’” she said.
“It’s not about that. This is where you come to get music background. People say ‘I might not have the prettiest voice,’ and that doesn’t matter either. We’re not here to make the perfect voice. We’re just here to use our voices.”