By Renée Henning
What songs do little children want to hear? Someone, including a music therapist and a grandparent, who plans to sing to youngsters should learn their musical preferences. I can give the would-be performer a playlist and can provide tips for creating his 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 1980’s I have crooned to hundreds of tiny patients one-on-one.
Too young to submit song requests, they communicated mainly through body language. They revealed their musical preferences in various ways. For example, they cried, stopped crying, visibly relaxed, cuddled closer in my arms, or fell gently asleep.
I learned from their reactions and from the song testers discussed below. 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.
Over the years I experimented with a variety of musical genres. (This was to avoid boring my listeners and myself, not for scientific research.) In virtually every genre I tried, there were at least two songs that the audience appeared to enjoy. Following are 25 of the categories my listeners liked, plus a particularly popular song in each category: (1) holiday tunes (“Auld Lang Syne”); (2) sports ditties (“Take Me Out to the Ball Game”); (3) ballads (the Duprees’s version of “You Belong to Me”); (4) World War I songs (“There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding”); (5) British music hall favorites (“It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary”); (6) Broadway show tunes (“I Could Have Danced All Night”); (7) operetta pieces (“With Cat-Like Tread”); (8) rock-and-roll (Buddy Holly’s “Everyday”); (9) lullabies (“Brahms’s Lullaby”); (10) pop music (Bobby Vinton’s hit version of “Roses Are Red”); (11) early American standards (“She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain”); (12) folk songs (“This Land Is Your Land”); (13) patriotic works (“America the Beautiful”); (14) country (“Take These Chains From My Heart”); (15) western (“Home on the Range”); (16) music from the 1700’s (“Baa, Baa, Black Sheep”); (17) music from the 1800’s (“Mary Had a Little Lamb”); (18) music from the 1900’s (“Let Me Call You Sweetheart”); (19) ethnic songs (“Bonnie Banks O’ Loch Lomond”); (20) songs in a foreign language (“Dites-Moi”); (21) barbershop quartet pieces (“Lida Rose”); (22) music with a Caribbean beat (“Under the Sea”); (23) waltzes (“Shall We Dance?” from the musical “The King and I”); (24) polkas (“Beer Barrel Polka,” but with every reference to “barrel” changed to “buggy”); and (25) jazz (a tame version, due to the neonatal intensive care setting, of the only jazz song I tested, “When the Saints Go Marching In”).
In short, the musical compositions to which babies and tots respond best tend to be relatively simple, slower-paced, rhythmic, bouncy, and cheery or tranquil. Fans of repetition, small children enjoy hearing the piece sung softly three or four times over. Two of their highest-ranking musical categories are cowboy and waltzes, and their favorite songs include “Easter Parade” (not suitable for all audiences), “Red River Valley,” and “It’s a Small World.”
The vocalist should skip songs noteworthy for their lyrics (which the youngsters cannot understand) and sad songs. Twice I sang “Danny Boy.” Both infants stiffened, apparently picking up on its pathos.
The singer should also rule out melodies with inappropriate lyrics. When the parents return, nobody should be serenading their little darling with “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog, cryin’ all the time”!
Based on my observations, babies are (like dolphins) inherently more receptive to some types of music than to others. Yet an individual’s tastes can change over time. I never tested certain 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 to which its mother is listening and can recognize after birth changes in a tune it heard frequently while in the womb. Thus, although hip-hop and heavy metal are unlikely to fall in the innately receptive class, it is conceivable that some newborns have already developed a taste for them.
Elvis Presley provides another example of an acquired taste. To my disappointment, the infants I cuddle in the neonatal unit seem blasé about his version of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” and “Love Me Tender.”
In any event, I often know before my three-hour volunteer session which songs babies will especially appreciate. Sometimes this comes from having seen frequently the reaction of infants to certain kinds of songs. Other times this is due to my use of four-legged or two-legged song testers.
It has been said that adult dogs have the intelligence of a two-year-old human. When I owned three dogs, I occasionally practiced aloud at home a song I was learning. The canines flocked to listen, and I noticed their responses. I could tell, if at least two of the three tails were wagging, that hospitalized infants would enjoy the piece. (A rousing rendition of “Saints” was the only song ever to set all three tails thumping madly.)
Now I have just one dog. Unfortunately, Moose’s musical tastes are not very discriminating. A dud as a song tester, he likes everything I sing!
Luckily there is a different type of song tester for identifying songs that appeal to babies. I memorized a particular Disney tune because my little granddaughter adored it. Kyleigh’s choice was a hit with the infants in the hospital. Songs other toddlers loved were also well received by infants, indicating that toddlers can substitute for adult dogs as testers. In short, a performer can develop a baby playlist by watching how multiple infants (hospitalized or not), multiple toddlers, or multiple dogs react.
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 someone planning to sing to little children start with songs in the above list of 25 categories. Then he should have fun experimenting with additional songs and additional categories and should develop his own playlist. That beats singing the ever-popular “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” for three hours – and going insane.
Renée Henning is a volunteer in the neonatal and pediatric wards of a major hospital, where she sings to infants and toddlers. Since the late 1980’s Rene has crooned to hundreds of tiny patients one-on-one. Her volunteer work and use of song testers taught hera lot about the musical preferences of small children.
Rene is also an attorney and an author on various topics.
Her articles have appeared in books, magazines, newspapers, and newsletters (e.g., WE Magazine for Women, Washington Post, Oslo Times, Modern Ghana, International Concerns For Children Newsletter, News Lens, A Day in the Life of Public Service Lawyers, WNC Woman, Catholic Digest, National Catholic Register, Journal of Holistic Health, ActiveOver50, Roots & Wings, Ours, Adoption Today, Adoptive Families, Adoption Option Complete Handbook, 2000-2001, Living, and Freelan ce).