What a caveman taught me about children's music

On a warm summer evening around 41,063-ish B.C. a young Homo Sapien showed up to the nightly drum circle with something no one had ever seen before: A bone flute.

Neanderthals in attendance gasped. They knew, the world had changed…

Music is a cultural universal. If you look at any human culture in the history of the world, you will find music used as a vehicle for emotional expression. To celebrate, to entertain, to unify, to protest, to mourn, to calm.

This is obvious as a new parent. Almost everyone agrees that singing to or playing music for your infant is a good thing. You will find this in all corners of the globe.

We sing to our infants to soothe, to entertain, to teach, to communicate, and to bond with them. The brain boosting effects of listening to music in early childhood is well known. And we’ve covered it before (Word Up). Not surprisingly, a recent study looking at parent views on music for infants found that most mothers believe there is an ‘appropriate’ music. But where it gets interesting is that there was no agreement on what qualifies as baby-appropriate music.

There must be a best music for babies, right?

There are two camps in this debate.

 

Hardwired for music

One side of the debate is that we are born with it. That our brains are hardwired to prefer certain music.  Following this logic, music can be optimized. By using math and neuroscience, music can be made to sound more enjoyable or even provide an intellectual boost. 

The pop culture phenomenon known as the Mozart Effect is an example of this. The effect essentially says listening to classical music, or more specifically Mozart, will make your kids smarter.  A whole generation of parents bought into this. The problem is, the Mozart Effect is based on a study that looked at how music affects college student’s performance on a spatial reasoning test. Not young children, and not general intelligence.

The effect only lasted 10 minutes, and a lot of attempts to replicate the study have established that the Mozart Effect is not real. Yet, once the original headline took hold in our culture—the true meaning of the research didn’t matter anymore. It became a folktale and a marketing goldmine.

 

Learning to love music?

The other side of the debate is that musical tastes are learned. How, when, where, and why music is played influences your opinions of music.

Researchers from MIT recently studied music preferences of a remote Bolivian tribe called the Tsimane (MIT News). This is one of the few places in the world that hasn’t heard of Post Malone. When asked to rate music, they showed no preference between harmonic and discordant music. This suggests that the concept of harmonic and discordant themselves are the result of our own experience and preferences.

Frankly, labeling sounds as pleasant and unpleasant to rate music quality is overly reductionist anyway. Some of the most popular music past and present use a blend of harmonic and discordant sounds to generate a song. Legendary Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham is famous for using non-standard time signatures on the drums to create a tension that made the song unique, and depending on your musical tastes…better.

 

Who’s right?

When I told a friend that we were user testing songs to include for JamBebe, he laughed and said “good luck, nobody will agree.” Awesomely, he’s right, musical preference is different for everyone. People are not afraid to tell you what music they think sucks. That is what makes it so fascinating from a child development perspective. Why?

Because music is a cultural phenomenon, a personal form of expression, not a formulaic collection of tones.

Music trends are generational. Each generation redefines what “good” music is. Yet there is still a cultural identity that bridges generational gaps. Much of culture is driven by tradition. My mother did this, and her mother did this, and therefore I want to do this with my child. This works with children’s music too.

If you look closely, many children’s songs are passed down across generations. This has a huge influence on why children’s music has evolved into what it is today--with some help from the toy industry. We have convinced ourselves that kid’s music is better, or gentler, or better suited for young ears, because that’s the way it’s always been. It’s a cultural artifact.

 

Why is that a problem?

It’s not… unless children’s music annoys you.

The point is, don’t get too caught up in the whole this type of music is good or bad for me/my child debate. There is a cultural significance to the music we choose to listen to. However, there is no evidence that there is an innate preference or intellectual advantage to a particular style of music. It is all about exposure.

Mozart was a genius composer not a developmental psychologist sneaking intelligence boosting rhythms into his scores. If you like classical play classical, if you like kid’s music, lucky you! If neither of those apply, play what you like. It will not harm your child developmentally, emotionally, or functionally.

Better yet, take advantage of the unprecedented benefit we have in the streaming era. You are no longer restricted by the albums you bought or what is playing on the radio. You can literally listen to any kind of music in the world.

 

How can we change kid’s music culture?

The reality is that kid’s music is not going to go away. But there are other options. Passing down your love of music, just like our ancestors did, is how culture endures. If you ask me, embracing the variation of different music is far more authentic than trying to strip music down to an algorithm for generating the most baby optimal sound anyway.

Just know there is a 99% chance your child's musical tastes are eventually going to be different from yours no matter what you do. Get comfortable with that. It is an identity forming rite of passage in youth. Your infant or toddler isn’t there yet. So, enjoy sharing the music you love with them now.

Imagine the shockwaves echoing off of the walls when the Stone Age equivalent of Ian Anderson brought the first bone flute to the evening drum circle. At the next Paleolithic parents association meeting, concern was in the air— “first its bone flutes, now Mungo has started drawing animals on our cave wall, Eve stopped eating mammoth meat, and Lucy has been hanging around with that Denisovan kid. Our culture is crumbling!”

Thankfully music transcends individual cultures and will continue to evolve regardless of what you or I think is pleasant to the ear.



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