Why do kids love such terrible music?
...and why music is good for their development.
My son has a playlist of favourite tunes. They have a common theme: songs that are either annoying at once, or that very quickly become annoying. Two particular favourites are Baby Shark and Old MacDonald . It's not just Gabriel - 5.1bn viewers have 'enjoyed' Baby Shark on YouTube. Why do so many children like such awful music?
Like all musical parents, I spent most of his childhood introducing my son to music I liked. But not everything stuck. And those that did had something in common with his top two. Strong rhythm, participation and scope for freestyling. (Here's a link to the playlist .)
I spoke to my parenting circle, and my musical contemporaries. The story was the same across the board. I started wondering why this is the case, and whether there's a reason for it. Paul Underwood underwent a similar journey in the NYT . 1 He spoke to Dr. Eugene V. Beresin, M.D., executive director of the Clay Center for Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital. His suggestion was that the content of the songs was relatable to children. Kids like Baby Shark because they're babies - and because the song is all about families.
Next, Underwood spoke to musicologist Dr. Louis Epstein, assistant professor of music at St. Olaf College. 'Transgression', he said. Children love songs that have silliness, naughtiness or turn things upside down. The same way they love Roald Dahl.
So there are five features of the music children love - catchiness, adaptability, repetition, relatability and transgression. But surely that's a recipe for any popular song - from the Beatles to One Direction. What we've learned is that kids and adults like music for much the same reasons (except perhaps for bolstering coolness). But how does that happen and what is it for?
My next stop was educational psychology.
A five year study by the University if Southern California found that listening to and, particularly, learning to sing and play music appears to accelerate brain development in young children, particularly in the areas of the brain responsible for processing sound, language development, speech perception and reading skills. 2 Music is linked directly to communication skills.
Speech and music share a number of processing systems, says Susan Hallam, Emerita Professor of Education and Music Psychology at University College London. 3 Musical experiences can impact on the perception of language which in turn impacts on learning to read. Active engagement with music , she says,sharpens the brain’s early encoding of linguistic sound. Eight year old children with just 8 weeks of musical training showed an improvement in perceptual cognition compared with controls.
We love music because it fulfils the five criteria, and because the love of music develops alongside speech, language and reading skills. And that development is helped by the love of annoying songs. I'll never complain about Baby Shark again.
1. Paul L. Underwood, article in Parenting section, New York Times , November 2019 .
2. Five-year study by Brain & Creativity Institute , University of Southern California, Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience , June 2016.
3. Susan Hallam , T he power of music: Its impact on the intellectual, social and personal development of children and young people , International Journal of Music Education , August 2010.