by Renée Henning
Anyone, including grandparents and music therapists, who plans to sing to little children, should learn their musical preferences. I can offer the would-be performers
a playlist and provide tips for creating their own playlist.
My experience comes from volunteer work in the neonatal and pediatric wards of a major hospital, where I sing (usually on-key) to babies and toddlers. Since the late 1980s, I have crooned to hundreds of tiny patients one-on-one.
Too young to submit song requests, they revealed their musical preferences in various ways. For example, they cried, stopped crying, visibly relaxed, stiffened, cuddled closer in my arms, or fell gently asleep. To my surprise, I discovered that toddlers and infants, including preemies, who should still be in the womb, respond positively to many types of music.
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Over the years I have experimented with a variety of musical genres. I developed my baby playlist for my three-hour volunteer sessions primarily by watching how multiple infants (hospitalized or not) and multiple toddlers reacted. In virtually every genre I tried, there were at least two songs that the audience appeared to enjoy.
Twenty-five of the categories my listeners like with a popular song in each category
• Holiday tunes (Auld Lang Syne)
• Sports ditties (Take Me Out to the Ball Game)
• Ballads (the Duprees’s version of You Belong to Me)
• World War I songs (There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding)
• British music hall favorites (It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary)
• Broadway show tunes (I Could Have Danced All Night)
• Operetta pieces (With Cat-Like Tread)
• Rock-and-roll (Buddy Holly’s Everyday)
• Lullabies (Brahms’s Lullaby)
• Pop music (Bobby Vinton’s hit version of Roses Are Red)
• Early American standards (She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain)
• Folk songs (No Man Is an Island)
• Country (Take These Chains From My Heart)
• Western (Home on the Range)
• Music from the 1700s (Baa, Baa, Black Sheep)
• Music from the 1800s (Mary Had a Little Lamb)
• Music from the 1900s (Let Me Call You Sweetheart)
• Ethnic songs (Bonnie Banks O’ Loch Lomond)
• Songs in a foreign language (Dites-Moi)
• Barbershop quartet pieces (Lida Rose)
• Music with a Caribbean beat (Under the Sea)
• Waltzes (Shall We Dance? from the musical The King and I)
• Polkas (Beer Barrel Polka, but with every reference to “barrel” changed to “buggy”)
• Jazz (a tame version, due to the neo-natal intensive care setting, of the only jazz song I tested, When the Saints Go Marching In).
In summary, the musical compositions babies and tots like best tend to be relatively simple, slower-paced, rhythmic, bouncy, and cheery or tranquil. They enjoy hearing the piece sung softly three or four times over. Two of their highest-ranking categories are cowboy songs and waltzes, and their favorite songs include Easter Parade Red River Valley, and It’s a Small World.
Based on my observations, babies are, like dolphins, inherently receptive to certain types of music. Yet tastes can change over time.
I have never tested musical categories such as hip-hop and heavy metal on my audiences.
However, according to research on prenatal learning, a fetus can eventually hear the music her mother listens to and can recognize after birth changes in a tune heard frequently in the womb. Thus, although hip hop and heavy metal are unlikely to become favourites, some newborns may have already developed a taste for them.
Some studies indicate that infant patients receiving music therapy eat more, cry less, and leave the hospital sooner. Improvements in matching the song selections to the musical preferences of this audience could lead to better and more effective therapy.
In any event, there is a world of music for babies and toddlers besides lullabies and kiddie songs. I recommend that anyone planning to sing to little children start with songs in the above list of 25 categories. Then they should have fun experimenting with additional songs and categories and should develop their own playlist. That beats singing the ever-popular Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star for three hours — and going insane.
Renée Henning is an attorney, an author on various subjects, and a hospital volunteer. Her articles have been published in North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. She lives in Arlington, Virginia.