Of course, generations of parents have known the soothing effect of song on their infants, but now there is some solid evidence to back it up.
Researchers at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York have found that premature babies react positively to music made to replicate the sounds they heard when they were in the womb. In addition, their health also improved when parents engaged in the simple act of singing to them.
The study examined the effects of music over a two-year period on 272 premature babies aged 32 weeks or older across 11 neonatal intensive care units in US hospitals.
It found that music helped the babies sleep, breathe and feed better and also lowered their heart rates and made them more alert.
Three different musical methods were used in the study. Firstly, parents were asked to sing a lullaby, such as Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, or a ‘song of kin’ – a tune that means something specific to them – to their baby. On several occasions, this involved taking a well-known pop song and modifying it to make it sound more like a lullaby.
Among the songs chosen by parents in the study were Eight Days A Week by The Beatles, I Heard It Through The Grapevine by Marvin Gaye and Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone by The Temptations.
The second intervention involved an ‘ocean disc’ instrument, containing metal beads, which is designed to imitate the sounds the baby would have heard in the womb.
Thirdly, a device called a ‘gato box’ was played to create a rhythm that would replicate a mother’s heartbeat – a sound the baby would have also heard before it was born.
After using all three methods, researchers looked at babies vital signs and found marked improvement.
Dr Joanne Loewy, director of Beth Israel’s Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine and the leader of the study, told Metro that the ocean disc helped babies sleep for longer and the gato box enhanced sucking behaviour.
‘We found the lullaby to be very helpful, particularly in relaxing the heartbeat,’ she added.
‘The qualities of music in a lullaby are important for a baby. They’re slow, they’re lilting, they’re repetitive.’
She said Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’s universal melody meant lullabies like the alphabet song (‘Now I know my ABCs’) and Baa, Baa, Black Sheep – all three are variations of the old French folk song, ‘Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman’ – also worked well when sung to infants.
With more contemporary songs, music therapists helped the parents change the meter to make it more lilting, while also removing some words from the original and putting the baby’s name in there instead.
‘We wanted to break down the components of music to see which elements of music could help a baby physiologically,’ explained Dr Loewy.
‘We wanted to know what genre of music is most therapeutic for the parents and the baby because we know that the continuity of care for an infant is long beyond the hospital bed.’
As well as benefitting the babies, music also helped the parents to relieve stress, the study found.
‘If you calm the parents, the baby feels the effects,’ said Dr Loewy.
She compared the baby following its mother’s heartbeat to a classical musician tracking the conductor’s baton in an orchestra.
‘The heartbeat is the first sound the baby hears,’ she said. ‘It’s the first sound humans hear in the womb and it’s not just any old heartbeat – they hear someone else’s heartbeat. The first step of regulation for a human being is that rhythm.’
The results of the study show that music has an important role to play in a baby’s development both before and after it has left the womb.
‘What it means, at the very least, is that doctors and nurses in hospitals will see music and music therapy as a non-invasive healthy intervention,’ said Dr Loewy.
‘These musical interventions are cost-effective, they’re safe and they can have physiological effects which influence babies’ development. That means shorter hospital days and that means safer, more attuned care that includes the parents – not just putting the baby in an incubator.’
Tina Warnock is a trustee at the British Association for Music Therapy (BAMT). There are about 700 music therapists in Britain helping children, old people, young people with autism and people with learning disabilities.
She said: ‘I think it’s great that there’s a piece of research that supports the work which has been going on for quite some time. There are whole books on the subject, it’s just that actual large-scale research like that is difficult to achieve. We hope it will support development of music therapy in this country.’
She added: ‘Music connects with instinctive aspects of all of us. Babies have hearing in place much earlier than birth, so with premature babies that’s one of the few things that they can connect with right back to the mother’s heartbeat.
‘There is research that shows babies are naturally attracted to voices, particularly their mothers’ voices. In the womb, they hear their mothers’ voices from inside so they are able to recognise that voice when they come out.’
A study at the beginning of this year by Pacific Lutheran University in Washington state found that newborn babies can tell the difference between the language their mother speaks and a foreign tongue, illustrating that they listen closely while in the womb.
Singing is said to be a vital way in which parents can help their children avoid language problems later in life.
Professor Graham Welch, chairman of music education at the Institute of Education, University of London, said singing keeps us fit as it is a form of exercise. Singing also helps brain function and co-ordination, he said, as well as being a cathartic activity that builds self-confidence.
The BAMT is organising Music Therapy Week between June 8 and 15 – the campaign will let people know how music can change lives.
National music therapy charity Nordoff Robbins delivers more than 50,000 sessions a year in care homes, day centres, hospitals, schools and its own centres, usually helping people with autism, dementia and learning difficulties.
Its annual fundraising event, the Nordoff Robbins O2 Silver Clef Awards, takes place this year on June 28 at the London Hilton hotel. Singer-songwriter and producer Labrinth will be given the American Express Innovation Award at the ceremony.
The awards have been supported in the past by artists such as Sir Paul McCartney, David Bowie and Annie Lennox.