Rhinegold Publishing

Q&A: Nicola Burke

8:00, 23rd March 2017

Nicola Burke has a master’s in Early Childhood Music Studies and is an associate of the British Association for Early Childhood Education. She has worked extensively as a music specialist in a range of early years settings and research projects, and delivers training and CPD. She led Tune into Listening, a yearlong action research project looking at the use of recorded music when working with young children, which won the Excellence in Primary/Early Years award at this year’s MT Awards

How negative can the unconsidered use of music be in early years settings?
It’s hard to know for sure, but I am interested in the potential impact on lots of areas of development: emotional wellbeing, communication, listening, and also how distracting background music can be in a learning environment. Overall, my concern is that often people just don’t think about it: in early years settings we think about things very visually, but we don’t always think about what the auditory environment is going to be, or what might be its impact. We also found that children were very moved by music, physically and emotionally. One girl was brought to tears by one piece, but it’s actually very hard to know exactly what emotion that response represents.

Which piece was that?
Pachelbel’s Canon – and while we do think it was a sad emotion, through exploratory questions with parents and so on, we’re not totally sure. It definitely moved her, and that demonstrates a depth of feeling that we take for granted as adults: the way we use music to get us through life, to regulate our emotions and how we feel. Often that’s just not considered with young children.

How widespread is the problem?
I’ve worked all over the country in different early years settings, and it’s very rare for me to meet practitioners and teachers who carefully consider their auditory environment. Some do, although they tend to think that it should be silent. At least there’s a thought there: they’re thinking that if they are going to put music on it should be for a purpose; but then when the music is put on, it is very limited in terms of genre, so it’s often either classical or ‘relaxing’ music – and ‘relaxing’ is incredibly subjective, of course.

What types of music were in that ‘relaxing’ category?
When I did my initial research I did some phone interviews and an online survey which threw up five main styles, and when I dug deeper into finding what ‘relaxing’ music was, most people were referring to spa-type, or whale sounds-type music. And quite a lot of practitioners were using YouTube, which brings the visual element and which is quite a different experience.

What practical things could help?
To ask yourself questions: when do you use music, why, what music, and what for? For example, sometimes practitioners put on the radio and you’ve got to ask yourself who that is for – is it for the children, or is it for themselves? Those questions are easily answered and people can then start thinking about things in more depth.

How important is it to stress the need for active listening, as opposed to singing or playing?
Active listening is really important, because in my initial research I found that recorded music was mostly used in the background – and actually nobody said it was used for ‘music’. It is used for tidy-up time, or to gather children together, but it wasn’t used as a listening experience in itself. I think we need to compare it to the opportunities children have to read books in nurseries: there are so many opportunities, and rightly so, but how can we provide a similar thing for listening to music?

What next for your research and the project?
There needs to be more. The website is designed to be standalone, but it would benefit from having more CPD around it, and there needs to be more research – each issue we’ve identified could be an action research project in itself. I’m hoping that the award will help raise the profile of music in the early years, and perhaps help to get early years onto the National Plan for Music Education.


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