Sunday, December 17, 2006

Christmas Carols Calm

I am not a big music person, but I own a lot of Christmas CDs. Nothing like some Bing and Frank to get the season started off great.

There's yet another benefit of Christmas carols, as has been reported in the last few days - they calm babies. Here's a story from the Casper newspaper, taken from Scripps Howard. I'm copying it over in case they take it down but the link is at the bottom.

Christmas music calms newborns, nurses report
Scripps Howard News Service Thursday, December 14, 2006

The holiday season is in full swing and it is giving nurses who work with newborns something to be thankful for. Their rows of usually fussy infants have been seduced into a collective calm, thanks to the tunes of Christmas.

"They are usually pretty cranky," said Amanda Ring, a women and children's health nurse at New York Presbyterian Hospital, Cornell Medical Center. "But when we put Christmas music on, they stop crying. It's amazing."

Studies have shown that babies are born with the ability to perceive and process basic musical sounds and patterns, often with a preference for those in major keys. It just so happens that most holiday music is written and performed in such keys.

"Because the way that our brains are wired, you don't need to have a fully developed frontal cortex to be affected by music," said Suzanne Hanser, chair of music therapy at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Even in adults, soothing music can be used to initiate a state of relaxed awareness in the brain, studies show. The music triggers neural impulses which themselves cause nervous system reactions that produce relaxation in muscle tone, brain wave frequency, and other reflexes.

"It's not surprising that newborns would feel soothed by almost any music," Hanser said.

But Ring said the infants are noticeably more content when holiday music is played compared to the usual classical or soft-rock music that flows from the overhead speakers in the hospital's two nurseries.

"It's a really busy nursery," Ring said. "There can be up to 22 babies in one nursery at a time and it's rarely quiet for more than 10 minutes. But with the Christmas music on, it can stay quiet for more than an hour and a half."

Christmas-music expert William Studwell, professor emeritus at Northern Illinois University, said the variety of yuletide tunes also proves interesting to babies.

"Slow music and classical music, such as Yanni, would not shake up the children, but it's boring," Studwell said. "Christmas music has such a different body. Some are secular, some are sacred, some are fast, and some are slow."

Another contributing factor could be the calming effect that Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and other Christmas crooners have on the nurses themselves. Babies can pick up on the serenity of their caretakers, which then makes them happier, too.

Hanser agreed.

"(Christmas music) might have a great impact on the nurses themselves," she said. "As they pick up a child it may remind them of their family and celebration. Having a positive effect on the caregivers themselves, would enhance the whole environment in which the children and staff are behaving."

Hanser said that some kinds of Christmas music -- those songs with rich orchestration and often-loud sounds -- might actually be too stimulating.

"There are very upbeat carols and children's songs and those that get one in a holiday spirit," she said. "And then there are the very religious and sacred hymns that speak to the seriousness of the history behind the holiday."

Hanser said she would be careful about advising people to play Christmas music to newborns because of its volume.

Studwell disagreed. Even the upbeat, fast-paced songs, such as "Come All Ye Faithful," do not overwhelm. They lift.

Most important, he said, is the key in which they are performed. Lullabies are usually in major keys, which tend to be more upbeat and positive, even when they are slow. The same holds true for Christmas music.

The nurseries at New York Presbyterian play both types of Christmas music, with the volume kept low, Ring said.

"It's amazing," she said. "You just walk in and every baby is quiet."

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