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November 19, 2018

4 questions with Thomas Hamill, Director of Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra APO Connecting Education programme 

What are the benefits of playing music to babies – is it a mood enhancer or a way to help them develop language skills?

People often talk about the ‘Mozart Effect’. This is a commonly held belief that by playing Mozart to your developing foetus, or newborn baby, you will be giving them a bumper start to life aiding development and eventually even increasing IQ! In actual fact, the term ‘Mozart Effect’ was coined by French researcher, Dr Alfred Tomatis, in in his book Pourquoi Mozart? Tomatis looked at the effects of listening to Mozart and the learning outcomes for children with special educational needs, not a neonatal study at all.

Some later studies, such as a short paper published in Nature in 1993, went further and asked participants to listen to a Mozart sonata before undertaking spatial reasoning tasks. It was found that those who had listened to the Mozart had some improvements in their performance. However, the study was very narrow in its approach. Quite simply, there is no magic bullet when it comes to cognitive benefits and listening to classical music. Listening to Mozart and improved intelligence is not a transactional deal. Far better to see learning an instrument and listening to music as part of a package of broader benefits that can strengthen a young child’s ability to decode sounds and identify words. 

Is there any time of day when it is best to play it to them?

Any time of day is good to listen to music! However, it is almost universally accepted that music can be a mood enhancer and can set the tone for how you are interacting with your immediate surrounds. For example, Clair de Lune by Claude Debussy or George Gershwin’s Lullaby for String Quartet will set the tone for drifting off to bed, whereas Dmitri Kabalevsky’s The Comedians Suite or Wagner’s Die Walküre are great ways to get your day started. There is no arguing that music evokes an emotional response in people, so better to insert music into your daily routine rather than shoehorn a piece of music into the day at 12pm because someone has told you babies are most alert then! As a teacher I used to regularly open my lessons with Fauré’s Pavane and send students off to break or lunch with the William Tell Overture to set the tone for the next phase of the day for them. 

Is it true that music can make an impact on an unborn child? If so, is it when music speakers are up close to one’s belly or just playing in the background?

Some people think that effects made during early foetal development can have lasting impacts on the life of the child, but in the case of classical music this is difficult to prove. However, some academics have suggested that the relaxing effects of classical music are beneficial to both the foetus and mum. In effect, happy relaxed mum means happy relaxed baby. I am very fortunate that in my daily job I am immersed in the sounds of an orchestra and I have anecdotally heard of colleagues watching the orchestra rehearsing whose unborn babies have done somersaults whilst listening to Mahler’s tenth symphony. I have equally had colleagues in a former workplace who have sellotaped ear buds to their bellies for their unborn child to get a snippet of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik as traditional headphones didn’t fit over their stomach! 

Do you have children and if so, what are some of your pick of music to play when baby is in the womb and what about little babies?

I don’t have children but have lots of experience with selecting music for young people in our APO 4 Kids Concerts and also as a teacher of primary to college-aged students in a previous job. If I was expecting a baby I would probably pitch for two ‘regulars’ that I would play. As an oboist (of sorts) myself, the first would be the Mozart Oboe Quartet in F Major K.370, a beautiful piece that requires real virtuosity on the part of the oboist and could be considered almost concerto like. The high frequencies of the top F on the oboe would be sure to provide arousal to the foetus! I would also, in complete contrast, put on Debussy’s Prélude à l'Après-midi d'un faune, a beautiful symphonic poem full of complex musical cells and motifs shared around the orchestra. For children aged 3 and up, shorter melodic works such as Bizet’s Petite Suite (Jeux d'enfants) or any music from Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals are great programmatic pieces that are sure to engage young children.

Finally you can’t go far wrong with Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf,  a fantastic musical story with narration that you could share together with your own stuffed teddies as the characters in the music! Really young people will feed off of your own enjoyment of the music, if you’re having a good time so will your baby and child, it’s as simple as that.

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