Music For Your Day

Classical music for babies – do they really benefit?

Do babies get anything from Bach, can Mozart help new mums, and what do tots learn from Tchaikovsky? Hannah Nepilová investigates.

There was a time when newborns didn't have much of a stake in the world of classical music.  How things have changed. Inspired by reports that listening to certain composers makes you cleverer, we compile playlists for our foetuses. We take those playlists into the delivery room. And then? Into the panic-struck world of new parenthood steps every Tom, Dick and Harry, offering to take on our babies' musical education. Between the drum-and-dribble bashabout, and the more glamorous Suzuki Stars or Colourstrings, there's a class to suit everyone – as well as an increasing array of concert experiences for infants. 

Ever since it was founded in 2011 by the classical pianist Miaomiao Yu, Bach to Baby, a performance series for children of all ages in the UK, has become hugely popular both in London and beyond, as have For Crying Out Loud and Chamber Tots, programmes for babies, toddlers and their carers put on by London's Wigmore Hall. With professionally-trained musicians and nappy change facilities, these concerts, often comprising full-length performances of classical works, promise a relaxed setting in which babies can freely do what they do best, while benefiting from their exposure to high art.

But do they benefit? After becoming a mother last year, I leapt on the baby concert bandwagon, smug in the belief that I was doing something useful for my son. I'd arrive at each event feeling optimistic, and leave feeling perplexed. Not that there was anything wrong with the music-making: it was what you might expect from any lunchtime recital in a church hall. And the atmosphere was nothing if not relaxed; frankly the parents looked relieved to be able to sit down for an hour. But while the odd toddler did wander up to the musicians, for the most part the primary target audience seemed more interested in the contents of their bottles.

Were they imbibing something more profound on a subliminal level? Studies have suggested that listening to Mozart can enhance spatial reasoning – for up to 15 minutes. But it has been a while since popular presentations of the so-called "Mozart effect", including the theory that "listening to Mozart actually makes you smarter", were largely debunked. For ticket prices that exceeded what a music-lover in London could pay to go to the BBC Proms, where, I wondered, was the added value?

Perhaps it was a mean-spirited question. There's plenty to be said for giving culture-starved parents access to concerts. And besides, there's more to be gained from exposure to music than IQ points. These babies might grow up to become musicians, critics, or at least lovers of classical music. But if that was the point, I reasoned, wouldn't it make more sense to serve up the art form in a way that was tailored to their attention spans?

Convinced that I had stumbled upon a gap in the market, I decided to set up a concert format of my own, in which bitesize excerpts of classical music were interwoven with retellings of classic children's stories. Nothing, I reasoned, could sustain someone's attention like a good narrative, and what better way to help small children engage with music than to relate it to a world that they could visualise. Armed with a Royal College of Music graduate pianist and an award-winning actor, I set about preparing my first show: a heavily abridged version of A Christmas Carol. A month later I unleashed my product on an audience of 20 babies and toddlers.

The result: carnage. Apparently impervious to the symbiosis between the words and the music, the toddlers spent the performance either running amok or squabbling over toys. Nobody could even hear the words. In all his years in the West End and on Broadway, our poor actor had never played a tougher gig. He ploughed on heroically, orating with all the flair of an evangelical preacher, while the pianist did lovely things with Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Bach and Mussorgsky. But by the end we all wondered what we had to show for our efforts. 

I felt like quitting. One review suggested that I should do. But out of sheer pig-headedness, I came back a few months later for more. The show this time was Hansel and Gretel. The stipulation: no under-threes. With a slightly more mature audience, the three of us managed to hang on to our dignity. The children listened, they concentrated, they asked questions afterwards. Inspired by the musical excerpts, one three-year-old went home to watch Humperdinck's operatic version of the story on YouTube. I admit that I was cheating: what had started out as a concert for babies had been transformed into an exercise in people-pleasing. But I considered it a price worth paying in order to visibly engage the audience.

A few months later, I’m less sure that writing off the babies was such a good idea. Research has indicated that even premature infants show decreasing signs of distress, as well as boosted oxygen saturation levels, when exposed to live or recorded music. The soothing effect of a mother singing lullabies to her newly-born child has been well documented: it reduces pain perception, it promotes parental bonding, and it even helps (I hear) to produce a stronger sucking reflex. Yes, a lullaby is a very different beast from, say, a Beethoven sonata. And I doubt that a baby, or even a toddler, can bridge the gap between them. But I'm also not sure that it even matters if you’re not preoccupied – as I was – with the here and now. 

Many of us won't remember the precise moment that we stumbled upon our love of classical music. Rather, we accept that it developed via a series of small, imperceptible steps, and by that logic, the earlier we start down that road, the better. So I believe that there is a place for Bach to Baby, Chamber Tots and those other outfits that refuse to dumb down for their fledgling audiences. They may not leave much of a visible mark on your baby, but they do remind us that, in a world increasingly focused on getting immediate, tangible results, the invisible marks still count.

Hannah Nepilová · Published
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