why does music support early development? I spoke with a music therapist to confirm what we already know!

In this episode, Ayelet sits down with board-certified music therapist and developmental therapist, Meryl Brown, of Developing Melodies.” Meryl is a music therapist  with a “neurologic” music therapy specialty. Meryl and Ayelet discuss what “neurologic music therapy” is, the ways music can serve as a learning tool for everyone, as well as a habilitative and rehabilitative tool in the context of therapy, best tips for parents of infants and toddlers interested in using music to connect with their young child(ren), and favorite resources!  

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Welcome to episode 44 of the Strength In Words Podcast. Today, I’m speaking with Meryl Brown, a board-certified music therapist and Developmental Specialist working with young children, and Founder & Director of Developing Melodies Music Therapy Center in Bloomington Illinois. Meryl, welcome!

Meryl: Hi! Thank you so much for having me! Glad to be here!

Ayelet: Thank you! So, I have asked you to come onto the show today to speak a bit about music, about why it’s such a powerful tool and why it can be considered therapeutic for all infants and toddlers – as well as their adult counterparts! So, first, let’s just hear a little bit about you and what brought you to the kind of work you’re doing today.

Meryl: For sure. So, my background is music education, originally. I went to school in upstate New York, SUNY Potsdam Crane School of Music, to study music and how to educate the youth with music. While I was in school, we were given opportunities for practicum work, so going into the classrooms and teaching the youth. In the general opportunity that we had in college, we got two opportunities to go into these classrooms. One opportunity was to go into a general music elementary school classroom, and teach a lesson (even though we were there for like 8 weeks, we observed mostly), and then the other opportunity was that we were paired with an individual student to teach them a band instrument that was not your main instrument.

So, I went to school for French Horn, I was to teach the flute – and, I was given that because I failed flute the first time. So, those were the only two opportunities we had in the classroom before we went to student teaching! And, there was no way I felt ready. And, I know things have changed now because Crane produces some of the best music educators, so I know there are changes! I kind of dug a little deeper and tried to figure out how do I get in the classroom more? Like, I need help – I don’t feel comfortable as an educator, as of yet. I looked further, and there was a track that… it wasn’t a degree, per se, but it was an additional certificate that you could get, and it was Music Education: Special Education. So I said, hmm! I wonder! It gave you four extra opportunities to get into the classroom and work, it happened to be with children with special needs.

So I had all of these extra opportunities, I’m now inundated with opportunity to get into this classroom and be with these kids, and teach them music… but, you know, a couple semesters in, I wasn’t teaching music, I was in a classroom – this specific classroom was a classroom with children with multiple disabilities, anywhere ranging from 3rd to 5th grade. We had children in wheelchairs who were non-mobile, we had children who were non-verbal, we had children that didn’t use their fingers, we had children who were blind, we had children who were deaf – I mean, we had all of these children in this classroom, it’s Upstate New York, so, you know, you’re limited in what you have. You don’t have a multitude of classrooms to put these kids in, so they’re all in one classroom, and I’m supposed to teach them music. Where I was in my skill set and what I needed to do just wasn’t… but I realized that they were drawn to music! And I had no idea what this was… and we started working on visual tracking, and we started working on gait, and gross motor movement and fine motor movement – all words that were foreign to me when I was an undergrad. But, I was using music, I was singing songs with them, and these kids were reaching and they were smiling and they were laughing and they were vocalizing, and I was like, what IS this? I had no idea what music therapy was at the time. So! I went to my supervisor, and she goes, “don’t talk to me – go talk to the dean.”

Well, the dean happened to be Dr. Allen Solomon. He was a board-certified music therapist (we did not have a music therapy program at Crane). So, I went to speak to him, and he said, “oh, well, what you’re doing is music therapy.” And I was like, “huh?” And he’s like, well, you’re using the music, which is a motivator, because of all of these facets – the rhythm, the lyrics, the pitch – all of that – to motivate these students to do everything else that they want and should be doing, and can do. And I said, “oh!” And he goes, “yeaaaaah.” And that was kind of like our entire conversation, it was just like, “oh, yeah, cool!” So, I finished my degree, I got my music ed degree, and I had this in the back of my head, “music therapy, music therapy… no! I want to be a band director, though! That was cool, and I got my extra hours, but I wanna be a band director!”

So, I graduated, and I got a job immediately. Halfway through my student teaching, I was offered a job in the Syracuse City School District. I was asked to teach eighth grade general music, it started in January. So it was only at that point a 6-month position. And in that 6 months, 2 of my 8th graders were pregnant, 2 of my 8th graders were killed in gang violence. So, these kids don’t want to learn music! I mean, like, they are coming to this classroom grieving, fearful, they don’t want to be in general music… but they had all of these emotions, and they were using that music for something totally different. And in this side, it was self-care, and in this side, it was grieving. So, it was at that point that I called my dean and I said, ok, where do I go now? And he said, ok, apply to these schools, I applied to some schools, and I got a phone call from where I ended up getting my Master’s degree, Illinois State University. When I entered their music therapy graduate program, I learned that this is exactly where I needed to be.

Ayelet: So fascinating. And I love… because we all come to “the place where we end up” in such fascinating ways. What a great story, I love that. So, I have seen and heard the term “neurologic music therapy.” Can you tell us more about that? What is that, what does it mean?

Meryl: So, Neurologic Music Therapy is an additional training, it’s an advanced training that music therapists can get. There are several out there. I chose neurologic music therapy because I have a weird fascination with the brain. What it is, exactly, is they took everything we already know about the brain, and they made these 20 very standardized clinical techniques. And they can be used to address sensori-motor, speech and language training, cognitive training, all of that, but they’re very specific. So, for example, one of them is called RAS, and it is the Rhythmic Auditory Stimulation, also known as gait training. When you see all those videos on Youtube by non-music therapists, but could-possibly-be-music-therapists, like, “oh my gosh, look! He’s walking with his walker!” That is a standardized clinical technique that we use and it’s even billable by insurance – don’t tell anybody! We’re facilitating the rehabilitation of motor skills. That’s one of them. It’s not just gait training, but you can use it for other movements, as well. So, arm movements and finger dexterity and stuff like that. Another one, and this is really good for the parents, is Developmental Speech and Language Training through Music. So, acronym DSLM. And this is just the specific use of developmentally specific appropriate music materials to enhance the speech and language through singing and chanting and playing instruments, and combining music, speech and movement, so this is basically what we do as early childhood music therapists.

Ayelet: Funny enough, this is exactly what we – whether we’re music therapists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, or infant/toddler teachers – or parents, actually! – we are using that sort of multi-modal, multi-sensory approach to teach language, to help encourage movement, to understand concepts, right? Infants and toddlers learn holistically, meaning that, when we engage all different kinds of learning, that’s how they learn!

Meryl: Multi-modal is the way to go. The only difference between a parent using this technique and a music therapist using this technique is that the parent has no idea “what” they’re doing?

Ayelet: What are some of the ways that music functions as a habilitative or rehabilitative tool?

Meryl: It kind of works in both ways. The beauty of music is that it’s processed all over [the brain]. You know, where lyrics is processed on one side, speech is somewhere on the other side of the brain. And using the music helps to bridge these two gaps and create these new functional patterns within our brain. And that’s both habilitative and rehabilitiative. When we’re working with infants and toddlers, I’m not working with kids who haven’t lost skills, they’re just learning skills. So, it’s not rehabilitative, because they never had them. So, we are giving that to them. Actually, a really cool one is cochlear implants. I have a bunch of friends who are researching how music therapy and cochlear implants bridge the gap, and how these kids are learning different pitches, and different sounds, and different waves…

Ayelet: And for anyone who is unfamiliar with what a cochlear implant is, essentially it is an auditory tool in the case when a child or adult is deaf, severe to profoundly deaf and needs, basically, stimulation to create the ability to hear, and it goes straight into the auditory nerve, straight into the brain, and bypasses the ear. So it creates the ability to hear for someone who cannot hear, essentially.

Meryl: So, that’s kind of one of those… they’re using all of these different techniques – not necessarily neurologic techniques, though, it’s all-encompassing, but they’re using a variety of techniques, and instrument play, and instrument timbres. So, utilizing a different instrument to mimic another sound. The art of being able to hear a tambourine vs. an egg shaker, or a drum – to produce those hard consonants, as opposed to a shaker where they are more fluid and soft. But, music as a rehabilitative tool – so where, as I said, we’re recreating those pathways in the brain, where we’re using it in a rehabilitative manner. Probably the most famous story is Gabby Giffords. So, she was shot, and lost speech function. She couldn’t speak, and music therapy was one of the first therapies administered – with speech therapy – to help her to regain her speech and recreate those neurologic patterns. Music is processed in such this way that you can, you know, Parkinson’s patients, Alzheimer’s patients, they can sing it before they can speak it.

Ayelet: Amazing, so cool. And I actually get shivers down my spine when I think about the power of that. It’s awesome. Let’s take a quick break and hear a word from our sponsors, and then we’ll hear more about some of your favorite tips and resources, Meryl.

Meryl: For sure!

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Ayelet: Ok Meryl, let’s hear your three best tips for parents and caregivers of infants and toddlers (regardless of that child’s developmental level), when you’re using music to connect with or support their young child’s development!

Meryl: Well, I’m not gonna lie – this was really hard! Because they are all things that we already know, we just don’t realize that we know.

Ayelet: But those are sometimes the most powerful and most important things!

Meryl: I know, and I was like, well I gotta pick something tangible, so! First and foremost, my BEST tip for infants and toddlers: SING. WITH. Your child. Sing to your child, sing with your child, SING. They don’t care what your voice is, they’ve heard your voice since they were in the womb! That’s the first sense that is created – is hearing. They know your voice.

Ayelet: They’re not judging it.

Meryl: There IS no judgment. They don’t get judgment until they’re like, you know, maybe three. Because mine, you know, she tells me to do that a lot, “stop singing! No!” you know, one of those. But no, sing with your child! Sing to your child. That… just sing. And I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t sing with my children as often as I should. I know the power of music, I know the benefit of music, I know what music therapy does, and yet I don’t use it at home.

Ayelet: Because, because you’re a parent!

Meryl: Right. I’m a parent. And so I get that. But, you know, sing! I get a lot of parents sometimes who are like, “ugh, diaper changes are awful! And my kid is like rolling here and there!” And one thing we never really had much problem with in our house is diaper changes. And I do realize that that is the one time that I ALWAYS used music. And we sang about what we were doing with our diaper. We all do it, whether you’re a therapist, whether you’re not. We are all singing the steps to everything. And we make it up as we go along! You know, the song is different every time. The fact is is that it’s something that the kids focus on.

Ayelet: So, the key takeaway there is, sing because it focuses, it’s the vocabulary for what we’re doing, and, in fact, when we’re talking, we’re also engaging in a very musical-type activity, because, especially when we’re talking to our infants and toddlers, we’re often using a term called “infant-directed speech” or “motherese” or “parentese” which is, by its very nature, slowing down, using exaggerated pitches, being, essentially, more musical with our voices. Because, we know, (and I have a podcast episode about this specifically, called “Infant-Directed Speech”), because we know that they attend to it. We are often just using this and doing it naturally, but it actually makes our children more interested in what we’re saying.

Meryl: Oh yeah. And there’s nothing that pairs better with speech than using it musically, because it is natural – that’s how we do it, we phrase naturally, with both our speech and songs. It happens. So, my second one: live music, live music, live music, live music, live music. And I’m not talking, like “bring your kid to a Phish show.” I’m talking about live music. Engage with your child in live music opportunities. Whether it is going to your library, going to a music class. The live music opportunities are the most important. Anybody can go and stick a CD in a CD player and think that they’re entertaining their child. And that kind of came out really mean, but it’s the truth.

Ayelet: What is it about live music that is different?

Meryl: So, live music, because of what you can do visually, as well, it becomes multi-modal, which is how these children are learning. When you put a CD into the CD player, sure, the kid can dance around, that’s fine. But that’s all they’re doing: they are experiencing music from the outside. They’re like, ok, I hear music, I’m dancing. They are not paying attention to speech… you’re most likely not going to teach your kid to speak just playing a CD. But, pair that with a live music experience where you have the visual, here, you have the visual in emotion, you have the visual of movement. And then you’ve got the movement, you’ve got the feeling, you’ve got the tactile, you’ve got all of that. So that is a huge experience. Live music will give you these things. Recorded music won’t give you all of those things. I am a big believer of that. And when you’re looking for a music class, choose a music class that has that live aspect of music.

Ayelet: Meaning what? Because, in my mind, all music classes are live.

Meryl: The live aspect is the facilitator of that class is using the music as well. There are some music classes out there that will… and sometimes, that’s what you have in your community, and you don’t always have a skilled musician with kids available in your community. So, library programs are often using a CD and, again, yeah that’s great, go and do that – because you should experience that. But you now have to take what you heard, and bring that back to your child, live, using what you heard, and bring it to your child to make it multi-modal.

Ayelet: So, what I’m hearing is it’s that interaction. That’s the key.

Meryl: Yeah. Between parent and child, child and facilitator, child and instrument, child to child! There are studies out there that show that when people are participating in live musical experiences, whatever they want to happen will happen that much faster.

Ayelet: Yes. And we actually happen to have live online music classes through the Community LAB. Which is so fun. And it’s great because I bring parents and babies up on the screen with me, and then we’ll do something specific together and then… it’s just fun.

Meryl: Yeah! I think that’s a great way to use technology in how you’re doing it. When those parents bring that back, there you’ve added, you know, of course, online, we’re not touching and feeling, but you are touching and feeling.

Ayelet: With your child.

Meryl: Exactly. That’s a huge thing. So yes.

Ayelet: Ok, so give us your third tip!

Meryl: So, my third tip! [Lowers her pitch significantly] Don’t sing down here. But no! When you’re singing, kind of put your voice in that higher register, because that’s what kids are hearing. They’re still developing their hearing skills, they are still developing all of those different pitches. Don’t sing up here [significantly heightens her pitch], we don’t want that, but if you’re singing too low, it’s not in that “childese” that “motherese” that “daddy-ese” – you want that to be attainable for your child. So, choose music that is in that pitch. Choose music to sing that is in that…

Ayelet: Interesting. And you’re saying that that is because then it is innately more encouraging for them to try it out or do it. And that’s so interesting. I’ve never actually heard that said quite like that, but it’s totally true. And we know there’s so much research that actually says that even very young, from like 6-7 months, infants will attempt to try a new skill when it is moderately difficult – so not too easy, and not too hard. So, they will decide, based on what they hear, what they see, what they feel, whether they should try it out, or whether they should imitate what you’re doing. So when something is, like you’re saying in the example of singing in a pitch range that is a little higher… a little higher… where infants and toddlers and young children speak (because they do use a higher register, because the larynx is actually much smaller, right?!).

Meryl: Yes!

Ayelet: That if we sing “up there,” they are actually going to be more likely to imitate and interact musically, as well. Fascinating, Meryl!

Meryl: Yeah, it’s more encouraging. And for the exact reason that you said: they can’t produce the low sound. So what’s going to motivate them to repeat it when you sing, “row, row, row your boat gently down the stream” down there. Like, they’re not going to that. They might think it’s funny when you’re doing it in song and they want to mimic. So, we sing a “Shaky Eggs” song. And it’s just a really easy “Stop and Go,” you know, “shakey, shakey, shakey, shakey, shakey, shakey, shakey, shakey, shakey, shakey, shakey egg.” I mean, like, that’s it. I have sold – the thing is $2.00 online – I made some site a long time ago. I’ve sold more of that song that you could probably imitate on your own than any other song!

Ayelet: You’ll send us the link to that, right?

Meryl: I will try and get it to you! In that song, we give the instructions. And so we’ll sing in the instructions, we’ll sing, “can you shake it up high? Up high in the sky? Can you shake it down loowwww…” and then, because physically, they can grasp that “low,” but they’re not going to vocalize that, most likely. So, keeping in that range.

Ayelet: Alright, so, here’s a question… what about, what about dads who have low voices? What do they do?

Meryl: Well, the kids know your low voices. You know, I have not researched that, or read a ton of research on daddy voices vs. high mommy voices. And there are mommies out there who have low voices, and there are daddies out there who have high voices, but the kids are going to tune into the voice that they recognize. So, if Daddy is singing that, they know Daddy’s voice – they’ve known Daddy’s voice since they were down here, so they’re still going to attune towards and have attention towards that. I’ll be honest, I don’t know what the research says about that. But I do know that they will pay attention to a daddy’s voice when it’s their daddy. If it’s not their daddy, they’re less likely to pay attention to it. But, I also tell my daddies to sing a little higher.

Ayelet: Even a person with a low voice can sing a little higher.

Meryl: Yes. And my husband used to be a music teacher and he has a low voice. But when he was working with those kids, you bet he tried his best to sing an octave up! He did what he could to get in their range.

Ayelet: Yeah. We’re talking about the key or the octave, not putting yourself in “way up here!”

Meryl: Oh gosh, no. I mean, our developmental classes here in the studio and when I’m working with clients one on one, I’m singing in that range and I’m showing them, “hey, try this, can you bring it up a little?” I model what I want them to do. And that’s huge! Because, you can say this, but they have no idea what you’re talking about, so we model it. And I do provide recordings for my families when they want it. And so, they can still model that: that is, the recordings are not so they can sit there and play it on repeat – the recordings are so that they can learn it, and they can do it with their child for that live musical experience.

Ayelet: Yes! Good. Just to wrap it up, let’s hear about a few of your other favorite resources.

Meryl: Yeah, for sure! So, one of my favorite resources (as I went through this whole speech about live music) is Barefoot Books. It is a publisher of children’s stories for all ages. Part of those, there are these musical stories. What I love about them is they are books printed with the CD in the back. The music is printed in the back, but the story is really cool. So, one of them is “Driving My Tractor,”[affiliate link] and it’s, “driving my tractor down a bumpy road, and in my trailer there’s a heavy load; there’s a little grey donkey going ‘hee-haw, hee-haw’ – and it has all of these, you know, animal songs and other things, but it’s musical! One of the reasons why I like that is because I do have a lot of parents that are scared of music. They are scared to music. As a verb. Yes, they are scared to music. And this gives them a little bit of a cushion to do that. It has a story – which we all know the power of books. It has the music – you now know the power of music. And it also has a visual component, which is wonderful. AND, the kicker, is most of their music books have a YouTube video. And I’m not a big proponent of YouTube except these are the books, animated. So, it’s the exact picture that you’re seeing in the story. So, if you have to utilize something… they’re not zombies in front of the TV but they love to look at things. So this gives them just another area, another avenue to get that.

Ayelet: I think that’s great, too, because we all need tools to become more comfortable with things that we are less comfortable with, right? So, that is a nice bridge, as well, like you said. Anything else you got?

Meryl: Another one is my early blog. Go back two years, and I was really, really blogging. There were a lot of activities that I put out there as a new parent. This was when I had one child and a whole lot of time on my hands… and I was also a stay-at-home-mom with my child for about a year, so I was able to do these! But, there’s some great activities that we did there, both musical, non-musical, and it served as a really good resource at that time. The blog is still there. You can get to it through my website, just go back like 4 posts, and then it will be like 2 years ago! Because I haven’t posted in a while. It’s coming back, don’t worry, on developingmelodies.com.

Another one is Sprouting Melodies. So, there is, in the music therapy world, we have a whole slew of developmental music classes and trainings that you can go to. This actually is a blog (there is a training), but the Sprouting Melodies blog and YouTube channel… there are videos on there from a music therapist, and she is teaching the parents how to music – as a verb. How to music, which basically makes you one with the music and the development, and there are songs on there, there’s tips, there’s tricks, and that is my newest resource.

And as I said, there are four [tips]. And the fourth one is actually the parent. You! The parent! Go back in your mental history and remember what you did as a kid. I can guarantee that there is music in your lives. I can guarantee that there is something that your parent did to help you get through something, learn something, or move past something. And it may not have been musical, it may just have been something that they did, but you are a great resource! Don’t doubt yourself. You are a parent, and there is a reason you are a parent – because you can do it.

Ayelet: That’s great. Thank you, Meryl!

Meryl: Thank you!

Ayelet: Thanks so much, and thanks to all our Community LAB members who are here listening live, we will continue the discussion and open up for a Q&A session for you guys in just a minute, but for everyone listening at home or on the go, thanks so much for joining us, and we will see you next time.