By Philip Raperport, Apples & Pears Ambassador and Head of Marketing for Classical Music at the BBC
I’m going to try a little experiment. Before you read the next few paragraphs, click here and let the music play in the background as you read on.
We marry to music, we mark birthdays with music, we even mourn to music. Every culture ever studied has been found to make music and it’s no surprise that nearly all of us feel a fundamental and emotional connection with it. But do we really appreciate its stimulating and therapeutic power, and in particular the vital role it can play in helping young children develop?
Here comes the science bit. Scientists at MIT University in America recently discovered that music is treated by our brains in the same way as speech – it’s that primal and essential to us – and classical music in particular enhances the activity of genes involved in the release of dopamine (the feel good hormone). It also stimulates the synaptic functions which benefit learning and memory. I can absolutely relate to this – classical music enhances my emotions and feeds my brain in ways no other music can. But simply accepting the developmental benefits of music for young children isn’t enough. We need to feel confident introducing this music to the children we care for in ways which engage them and create lasting connections.
When classical music has such great potential to stimulate young minds, it’s unfortunate that a lot of people still view it as stuffy and exclusively for old, ‘posh’ people. This perception can mean that young adults, parents and families often miss out on its benefits and it’s no surprise that fewer young children are engaging with it and picking up musical instruments as a result.
But what if we could change that? What if we broke down these stereotypes and helped parents and carers introduce children to classical pieces, using simple stories, to help them experience their stimulating potential?
Now hold that thought for a moment and pause to stop the music which is playing in the background. You’ve been listening to Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber which was composed in New York in 1936 when he was only 26 years old. Barber was obsessed with poetry which comes through in the beautiful melody but he also had strong feelings of melancholy at the time which radiate from the rising and falling harmonies.
How did this piece make you feel? Invigorated? Relaxed? Even sad? Did you get a tingle down your spine? Does your brain feel more alert? Personally, it always helps me focus on whatever task I’m working on and makes me feel more responsive and open to new ideas. If this piece of music connected with you too there’s so much more to explore.
Experiencing classical music with children can be amazing, but I admit it’s hard to know where to start. So here’s a suggestion…use animals! The children in your life probably love cats…or dogs…or even watch viral videos of screaming goats on Youtube. But have you ever considered how animals are connected with music? From Old Macdonald Had a Farm to Three Blind Mice, they help tell wonderful stories when we’re growing up and classical music can take us on even greater adventures.
Here are three pieces of music which I think offer the perfect opportunity to introduce children to classical music using the theme of animals.
Swan Lake composed by Pyotr Tchaikovsky
Have you ever imagined what four young swans dancing together sound like? Try listening to this section of Swan Lake, a ballet based on a Russian folk tale.
The bassoons and oboes at the start represent the cygnets tip-toeing along the surface of the river until the violins come in and they start gliding effortlessly across the water. Pyotr gives all the instruments in the orchestra different jobs and uses the melody and the rhythm to communicate the charm and elegance of the swans.
Peter and the Wolf by Sergei Prokofiev
Have you ever told young children the story of Peter and the Wolf? And did you know it was written especially for children to help them develop their musical tastes in their first years at school?
Here the composer uses different instruments to represent each animal. The flute soars high like a graceful bird, the oboe could only be a duck quacking its way through the pond, and the French horns…well they’re the evil wolf so watch out! It’s an amazing combination of story telling and music and has been narrated by celebrities including David Bowie and Sting.
The Wasps by Raph Vaughan-Williams
What about taking flight with a swarm of wasps? It’s not as scary as it sounds! You don’t always need to know the backstory of a piece to understand immediately what it’s all about.
I felt like I was hovering over wild flowers with them – did you?
These are just three examples, and there are hundreds more, but I hope they’ve shown how classical music can be related back to the natural world which children see around them every day. Making these kinds of comparisons can help make the music more accessible and may encourage them to start a new journey of discovery.
If you’ve enjoyed these pieces and would like to explore further, here’s a little playlist of animal-themed music which I have put together – Classical Animals .
You can also learn more about the positive developmental effects of classical music through this iWonder guide from the BBC.
I hope this blog has whetted your appetite and inspired you to help the children in your life sample some of the delicious classical music on offer!