x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Growing up in tune with the times

Music does not have to be defended as a short cut to a better understanding of algebra.

Car journeys with Astrid used to be dreadful. The first glimpse of her car seat sparked bouts of wailing and flailing, which peaked and troughed and finally crescendoed just before we arrived at our destination. She is much better now. In fact, she likes sitting in her car seat. The cause of this dramatic change is simple: Astrid was given a CD of nursery rhymes and songs for Christmas.   The 24 tracks run the gamut of Casio keyboard preset rhythms. Bossa nova, mambo, samba, reggae: the accompaniment is varied, but the bad singing remains the same. Some of the lyrics are appalling. A ballad called Koala is particularly bad. "Koala, koala, you cute little bear/What do you think/When you're awake in your dreams?" You get the idea.

At least Astrid is happy. Like a city commuter with an iPod, she has found that music helps to create a self-contained and more agreeable world. The warbling from car speakers helps her to mark out her territory. It demarcates a space she is happy in. In particularly flustered moments while driving, I turn the music off to help me to concentrate, but I find myself turning it back on pretty quickly. As bad as it is, the music is preferable to Astrid's caterwauling. At least the CD player has a volume control.

Fortunately, amid the Latin rock, shuffle rock and rock waltz, there is room for the cradle to rock. From Rock-a-bye Baby to Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, many of the nursery rhymes we are singing along to date back centuries. They have been passed down orally from generation to generation and will probably continue to be sung for many years to come. Knowing that successive generations of parents have put up with these songs makes them somehow more bearable, even in the strangled, synth-laden versions we are listening to.

As well as the CD in the car, Astrid has just started going to Kindermusik. These music classes involve singing and dancing with children of the same age. Undoubtably they are good fun, even if they are run with military precision. The company's website extols the "power of Kindermusik", detailing the ways in which experiences with music are good for a child's development. It goes through how "early, positive, age-appropriate experiences with music" can help with literacy, maths and social and emotional development.

Certainly, the classes are good for coordination. Being awoken by Astrid banging on the lid of the laundry basket as if it were a drum a few days after her first class is proof enough of that. But all this talk of other benefits seems to miss the point somehow. Music needs no such excuses. It does not need to justify itself with merits outside of itself. Music exists for music's sake. It is joyous, spontaneous and uninhibited. It does not need to be defended as a short cut to understanding algebra.

From my experience with Astrid, we are, it seems, born with an understanding of the power of music. We seem innately able to grasp what the writer Ralph Ellison described as music's magic with mood and memory. We understand music as a whole, with playing and listening not yet riven apart by formal training. While music classes are no doubt good for children in all sorts of ways, this kind of raw appreciation of music is something worth standing up for.

Astrid has developed an attachment to a purse. She carries it with her everywhere. In her push chair and in the car, she clings to it like a life raft. She puts it on the front of her walker and totters around the flat with it. I'm certain she would take it to bed with her if we allowed her to. Of all the objects for her to fasten herself to, a purse somehow strikes me as strange. I'm not sure what item would be less odd: a fluffy toy or a blanket, perhaps, something with a soft and comforting texture. The purse is shiny and smooth and pleasingly weighty, but it is not downy soft or velvety. It does not have any of the expected characteristics of an object that a baby would grow attached to.

Astrid has, I would venture, picked up on the purse's aura of importance. She has glimsped its role in day-to-day transactions, which as yet she does not understand. She has noticed the key part it plays in so many encounters. Money has grabbed her attention before she knows what it is.