Tag Archives formusic and emotional intelligence

Nighty-Night: Bedtime Music Guaranteed to Put Kids to SLEEP

Editor’s Note: We’d like to welcome Robert Greenburg as a LifeTales guest blogger. Mr. Greenburg is a composer, pianist and music historian based in Califnornia. He offers over 30 music courses, originally made for The Teaching Company’s Great Courses series, through his website. He also blogs on Patreon and his website.

Dinner’s over. The table’s cleared and dishes are done. Now, there’s just one thing between you and an hour or two of peace. Bedtime, also known as The Witching Hour.

We all know how it’s supposed to go:   

  • The pajamas, diaper, or pull-up are on.
  • Hands and faces are washed.
  • Teeth are brushed.
  • This week’s favorite story is read and re-read again.
  • Cuddles are had, lullabies sung and goodnight kisses bestowed.

And that’s exactly when the stall tactics begin.

  • “I’m hungry!”
  • “I’m thirsty!”
  • “I need to go to the bathroom!”
  • “I want to stay up with you!”

Finicky sleepers are enough to push anyone to their wits’ end. But who do you call?

Dead European composers!

Seriously. Listening to classical music at bedtime is a surefire way to get your kids relaxed and ready for a good night’s sleep.

How classical music can make your bedtime routines smoother

Classical music with a steady beat and steady harmonic rhythm can prime your kids for sleep, says composer Robert Greenberg. Photo courtesy of Photo by Larisa Birta on Unsplash.

Music helps to calm, quiet, engage, distract and transport human beings of all ages to the drowsy state that is the gateway to a deep and restful sleep.  

As a pianist, composer and PhD in music composition with four children of my own, here’s what I’ve learned through experimentation and hard experience.

When picking classical music for bedtime, the piece should have:

  • A steady beat.  Why? A steady beat of moderate-to-slow speed induces steady breathing of moderate-to-slow speed, a necessary pre-condition for snoozing.
  • A steady harmonic rhythm, which means that the chords, or harmonies, change with a high degree of regularity. The harmonic rhythm of Johann Pachelbel’s ubiquitous Canon changes with the regularity of the seasons, creating a soporific effect that even a caffeine addict will feel. Contrast that to the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, for example, in which the jagged, explosive, unpredictable expressive mood is partially a product of a fairly irregular harmonic rhythm.
  • No vocal tracks. Voices and the words they contain grab and hold our attention. In general, it’s not conducive to snoozing.
  • No orchestral sections. Their greater dynamic range of loud and soft extremes in orchestral music may be too stimulating. I’ve found it’s better to stick to works for solo keyboard or chamber music. Save the 1812 Overture or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for your mornings.  

A note about the ‘Mozart Effect’ 

Over 225 years after his death, Mozart’s still being used as an aspirational model for many parents who want their children to achieve prodigy status. Photo courtesy of Anton Shuvalov on Unsplash.

Before we get into particular recommendations, I want to note that many fine, well-meaning music lovers have made small fortunes writing about “The Mozart Effect,” “The Bach Effect,” and even “The Alternative Art-Punk Emo Hardcore Effect.”

Regardless of composer or period, these advocates promise that playing certain specific classical music to children, both in utero and post-birth, produces smarter, happier and well-rounded children.

Sadly, such promises are utter nonsense. 

What works best for bedtime is instrumental music with a steady beat and a steady harmonic rhythm. While this definition eliminates most Emo Hardcore music, it does include the bulk of European instrumental music composed between roughly 1700 and 1800, and much of the instrumental music written to the late 1800s. 

That block of time spans the High Baroque and Classical periods, including notable composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Mozart. But it also captures work from hundreds of other worthy composers, whose music will just as easily put your children to bed.

So rest easy that if my selections don’t work for your family, you could also choose music by:

  • Arcangelo Corelli
  • Guiseppe Torelli
  • Antonio Vivaldi
  • George Frideric Handel
  • J.C. Bach, C.P.E. Bach or W. F. Bach (all three Johann Sebastian’s sons)
  • Georg Philipp Telemann
  • Joseph Haydn
  • Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (a real composer, honest)

Whether any of their compositions will also improve your children’s SAT scores is a conversation for another post.

10 Musical selections for better bedtimes

An orchestra plays for a packed assembly hall.
Not all symphonies are created equally for bedtime, says Robert Greenberg. Here are his top 10 picks. Orchestra photo courtesy of Arindam Mahanta on Unsplash.
  1. Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello.  A suite is a collection of dances, and Bach composed six such solo cello collections from 1717 to 1723. They form the bedrock of the cello repertoire and are the most frequently played solo works ever composed for the instrument. Listening to a solo instrument soothes the mind because of the intimacy of concentrating on a single, musical voice. Cellos have a round, sweet, and relatively low/deep sound that compounds that effect. Not sure which recording to choose? I recommend Janos Starker on Mercury.
  2. Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Composed in 1741, this epic keyboard work consists of a theme and 30 variations, concluded by a reprise of the theme. This is the most thematically “appropriate” piece on this list. Composed to help a former Russian ambassador to the electoral court of Saxony sleep at night, it will help your kids, too. Recommended recording: Glenn Gould’s 1982 piano recording on Sony. (Gould’s 1955 recording is too fast for bedtime.)
  3. Joseph Haydn’s String Quartets Op. 33. These six string quartets, composed in 1781, were published together as Opus (or “work”) 33. They’re works of great beauty, brevity, and expressive directness. Recommended recording: The Kodály Quartet on NAXOS.
  4. Wolfgang Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp. Composed in 1778, this is an ethereally beautiful work from Mozart’s repertoire. Recommended recording: Yehudi Menuhin conducting the English Chamber Orchestra on Virgin Classics.
  5. Wolfgang Mozart’s “Haydn” String Quartets. Mozart composed these six string quartets between 1782 and 1785, and dedicated them to his friend and mentor Joseph Haydn. Upon hearing these quartets, the Haydn told Mozart’s father that, “Before God, and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name.” They should help your kids relax, too. Recommended recording: The Alexander String Quartet on Foghorn.
  6. Wolfgang Mozart’s Piano Trios.  Mozart composed five mature trios for piano, violin and cello between 1786 and 1788. Recommended recording: The Beaux Arts Trio, on Philips.
  7. Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartets Op. 18, known as the “Early String Quartets”.  The six string quartets in this collection—elegant lyric, and ahead of their time—were composed between 1798 and 1800. Recommended recording: The Alexander String Quartet, on Foghorn.
  8. Johannes Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet in B Minor. Brahms wrote this preternaturally beautiful work, scored for clarinet and string quartet, near the end of his life in 1891. I humbly and happily suggest that it is among the most perfect pieces of music ever composed. Recommended recording: Karl Leister, clarinet and the Vermeer Quartet on Orfeo.
  9. Johannes Brahms’s Trio for Violin, Horn, and Piano (known as the “Horn Trio”). Another pieces of perfection from Brahms, you’ll want to listen to it for yourself once the kids are asleep. Recommended recording: Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano; Itzhak Perlman, violin; Barry Tuckwell, horn on London.
  10. J. S. Bach’s Inventions and Sinfonias (“Two and Three-Part Inventions”) for harpsichord. This last piece is a household favorite.  I have played this music for my youngest two kids (aged 12 and 10) nearly every night for the last ten years. Once, many years ago, I attempted to substitute something else. My daughter, five years old at the time, staged an demonstration and shut down the house. I never swapped it out again. Recommended recording: Kenneth Gilbert, harpsichord on Archiv.

We’d love to hear from you

Are you a believer in music as a gateway to better bedtimes? What kind of music plays well in your family? We’d love to hear about your journey. Drop us a line at hello@lifetales.com.

Do you have professional expertise of value to families? Would you like your expertise featured on our blog? Send your pitch to hello@lifetales.com. We can’t respond to all inquiries, but we’ll be in touch if there’s a fit.

Picking the Perfect Lullaby

No matter which lullaby you pick, the important thing is singing to your children

Ask any large group of adults what they most fear and their list will likely include:

  • Public speaking 
  • Heights, skydiving or bungee jumping
  • Singing in front of others 

While it’s entirely possible to live your life avoiding items one and two, having kids may push you to sing in public in ways you never thought you would.

The connections between music and other life skills are rich and varied. Scientists have long theorized that’s there’s a connection between music and math, for example, although Scientific American notes the exact nature of this relationship remains fuzzy.

Other associated benefits may include higher emotional intelligence, better social skills and a greater appreciation for tone and rhythm. 

Beyond the possible skill benefits and a general appreciation for music, hearing a lullaby can form iconic childhood memories. 

Whether your parents chose to sing pop songs by Joni Mitchell, The Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel, traditional nursery rhymes like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” or camp songs like “The Wheels on the Bus” and “Old MacDonald,” you may yet have strong feelings to that music and hearing your parent sing it.

Singing is an activity that parents and children can enjoy at any age, and it can also be a key part of your bedtime routine. A lullaby can help set the mood for the end of the day and help your baby’s brain to understand that it’s time to relax and wind things down.

Where to begin? We’ve compiled some quick suggestions as you get started. 

Don’t be shy about singing a lullaby.

Particularly in North America, it’s very easy to internalize cultural rules about who is allowed to sing (people with “good” voices, whatever that means) and who is not (everyone else). However you feel about singing in other parts of your life, try not to let that judgement into this process. Singing develops your child’s bond with you. What matters is that you do it, not how you sound. As Ian Mendes has written for Today’s Parent, “If the sound of mom’s gurgling digestive juices helped baby doze off, then the bar is set pretty low for you as a singer.”

Work with your voice’s natural range.

If you can barely hum “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” then songs like “Memory” from Cats or Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” may not be the best choice for you. Longevity should be your guiding principle. When your child develops a fondness for your lullaby, it’s possible you will still be singing the same song 10 years from now. Have mercy on your vocal cords and pick a tune that you can sing easily and without strain at various volumes. (Seriously, have you considered “Ba-Ba-Black Sheep?” It works pretty well.) 

It’s okay if you don’t know the whole lullaby.

Can’t remember the weird second verse to “You Are My Sunshine”, which ends with the heartwarming line, “You have shattered all of my dreams”? No sweat. Your baby won’t care if you know a single verse or just the chorus. In some ways, it’s easier to choose a short song that you can easily loop when it’s 3 am and you’re gamely singing while pacing their bedroom in a vain attempt to get both of you some sleep. 

Ear plugs can be your best friend.

Keep a pair of earplugs handy if you’re got a fussy baby who’s fond of screaming along to your midnight (or afternoon, or morning) performances. You’ll still be able to hear yourself singing and it may help take the edge off.

Have a few back-ups for days when you “absolutely cannot sing that wretched song” one more time.

You’re going to get tired of singing the same song (trust us on that one). For mental variety, pick a secondary lullaby or two that are also easy to sing and toss them in now and then for you and baby. One of our team members used the classic song, “ABC,” as her back-up lullaby because it’s easy to sing at different pitches and speeds.

Pick an existing lullaby you like and make-up new words.

Want more of a challenge? Pick an easy song you like (“Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” maybe) and swap the words out. You can describe what you see in your baby’s nursery, talk about what you did during the day, or tell your baby about people in your family. Young babies won’t care, but it can be a fun game for you to play as they get older.

The Internet is your friend: Source the lullaby that’s perfect for you

Still not sure what to do? Pity the parents who successfully raised children in the dark era before YouTube and run a search. You’ll quickly find over six million examples of lullabies you can learn from a range of cultural backgrounds. 

Failing that, if you find your kid passes out to your improvised version of Feist’s “1234” or Beyonce’s “Halo,” embrace what works and do your thing. Sing to that child and fear no judgement! 

Thanks to technology, it’s never been easier to record an audio file or video of you singing to your child. Adding your lullaby traditions to a LifeTales story collection gives you both have a soothing memory to reflect upon as your children grow and your voice inevitably changes.

What were the go-to lullabies in your house growing up? What are they now? Have a suggestion for a different blog topic? Get in touch at hello@teamlifetales.com. We’d love to hear from you!

The photo, “White and Wooden Wall Decor,” appears courtesy of Charles DeLuvio.