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Nursery Rhymes – Literacy, Imagination and Identity

Nursery rhymes are traditional poems sung to small children. They often contain historical references and fantastical characters, and many have been rumoured to have hidden meanings.

The earliest nursery rhymes documented include a 13th century French poem numbering the days of the month. From the mid 16th century children’s songs can be found recorded in English plays. Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man is one of the oldest surviving English nursery rhymes, first appearing in The Campaigners, a play written in 1698 by Thomas d’Urfey (1653 -1723). Interestingly, D’Urfey, active as a writer in the days when the term ‘wit’ was held almost as a career epithet, also composed songs and poetry and was instrumental to the evolution of the Ballad opera.

The first English collections of nursery rhymes were published before 1744.  Tommy Thumb’s Song Book and Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book included rhymes including London Bridge is Falling Down, Hickory Dickory Dock, Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary and Baa Baa Black Sheep; the very same songs popular today, nearly 300 years after they were first published. In fact they were probably sung for many years before publication, passed down in the oral tradition.

There is a lot of speculation about the words of these rhymes with suggestions that they refer covertly to insalubrious or violent topics. It is commonly believed that Ring a Ring o Roses is about the black plague that hit London in 1655, with the ‘rosie’ thought to refer to the rash that developed and ‘we all fall down’ (dead) being the result, but although this theory fits with the illustrative lyrics, there is actually no evidence to support this.

John Newbery’s collection of English Rhymes, Mother Goose’s Melody (or Sonnets for the Cradle) was published in 1765. This is the first record of many of today’s classic nursery rhymes. Newberry’s compilation seems to come from a variety of sources including drinking songs, historical events, traditional riddles, proverbs, ballads, lines of Mummers’ plays and even ancient pagan rituals.

The name Mother Goose is associated with Maurice Ravel’s piano suite (Ma Mère l’Oye) which was originally written for two children of Ravel’s acquaintance and subsequently orchestrated for ballet. The movements of Ravel’s suite relate more to fairytale characters such as Sleeping Beauty and Tom Thumb than to the nursery rhymes of Newberry’s publication.

There are rumours that Mozart wrote Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. He didn’t. But he did write variations on a French children’s song, Ah! vous dirai-je, maman, originally an anonymous pastoral song dating from 1740. The words to the popular English lullaby are from an early 19th-century English poem by Jane Taylor, The Star. The tune has been used for other songs too, including Baa Baa Black Sheep.

Despite, or maybe because of, the lack of real historical clarity, nursery rhymes and their weird and wonderful characters continue to entertain. History and the role of music in society are undoubtedly interwoven in a fascinating way into the sometimes seemingly nonsensical words of the songs. Pop Goes the Weasel is a nursery rhyme and singing game, first found in a manuscript of 1853, which not only references a pub that still exists, The Eagle on City Road, London, the words were added to an already existing dance tune.

Considering elements such as the incorporation of a pub into this song, it does seem likely that many nursery rhymes were not actually written for children. According to Kay Vandergrift, Professor Emerita of Children’s Literature at Rutgers University, most of them were part of an oral-based society that relayed news, spread coded rumours about authority figures, and worked out its moral dilemmas in rhyme and song. Existing nonsense rhymes would be adapted to make references to current events. It was not until the 19th century and the Victorian romanticising of childhood the past that nursery rhymes were written down and presented in collections for small children.

The poems are inhabited by kings and queens, peasants and drunkards, historical and mythical characters from a wild, often rural past. They predate many of our modern preferences, yet they are still relevant to today’s children and parents.

The world that spawned the rhymes seems far away from our modern lives, but the reasons people sang nursery rhymes are still the same.

Why Nursery Rhymes are Important

The dish ran away with the spoon…

Adults instinctively converse with babies using a sing- song voice with short, repetitive phrases and long pauses for the baby to respond.

This ‘dialect’ can be described as musical in its characteristics of rhythm, timing and rising and falling pitch. The qualities for relating well to babies and toddlers are also the basis of music, a nice synchronicity, since music is a means for bringing people together.

The way in which parents interact with their baby is vital to the baby’s development. It has been found that mothers who are having difficulty relating or who are suffering from depression can be helped if they are encouraged to sing and play musical games with their children. The singing provides a framework to support the mother to baby interaction.

Nursery rhymes fall into two categories:

  • Lullabies – designed to lull a baby to sleep or soothe a fretful toddler, lullabies are an age-old part of childcare in all cultures.
  • One-to-one songs/play songs – more appropriate for older babies and toddlers, these songs. They are sung and played on laps, often featuring actions such as knee joggling, tickling and surprise dips and spills. They are mini dramatic stories full of language, excitement, anticipation and rhythmic movement.

They help infant development and family relationships:

They are good for the brain. The repetition of rhymes and stories teaches language and builds memory. Nursery rhymes also often represent a child’s first experience of literacy. Before a child learns to read, they can see how a book works.

Nursery rhymes preserve generations’ worth of history and culture. Familiar rhymes provide common ground between parents, grandparents and children, and between people who don’t know each other.

Singing is a great group activity. Singing nursery rhymes allows children to feel confident about singing and dancing, engaging them with music and building self esteem.

The moralistic lessons in some rhymes might seem important, but the main message of nursery rhymes is that they are fun to learn and sing. The supposed meanings of the songs and their obscure origins do not detract from their value – the words just sound good and help children discover a shared language, shared experience and a sense of a shared past.


http://www.mamalisa.com has lots of great songs and nursery rhymes from around the world. Here’s one we use in our workshops – a Turkish version of Old MacDonald Had a Farm

Contact the Music Workshop Company today!

Concerts for Babies: Music Without Rules

004This week the Ulster Orchestra announced a decision to grant free entry to under 16’s to their season concerts. This decision was shared on social-media site Facebook alongside a post describing one parent’s experience of taking her child to performances: That she’d had complaints her little girl was distracting other audience members. 

Whilst organisations such as the Ulster Orchestra emphasise that children are welcome, and classical music works to build a younger audience, parents are sometimes put off by the worry that their baby or child will spoil a concert for others. And parents aren’t the only people who feel uncomfortable. Perceptions around classical music can be that it is performed in a stuffy environment; that you have to be the right sort of person to enjoy it. 

Founder of ABC Baby Concerts, Viola Player and Creative Music Leader, Neil Valentine is working to disprove these ideas, and to engage people of all ages in concert-going. He talks to MWC about his work.



006Hello? A concert? Today? No sorry, I can’t go to a concert. No way. Why? Well, er, you know, it’s just not for me. I wouldn’t know which one to go to or what to do, and besides, I don’t fit in. No I don’t. It’s the silence you see, and the clapping or not clapping. I feel embarrassed when I want to clap but there’s silence. And it’s the serious faces and fancy clothes. Plus I wouldn’t know what to wear, and anyway all my clothes smell vaguely of baby puke, or worse. No, sorry, another time maybe.

People wonder whether classical music is dying. It isn’t. But what is dying are the perceptions that going to a concert is purely a middle/upper class thing to do, with rules you must abide by. This is happening because we are gradually understanding what we knew as babies and small children. We are remembering that the music doesn’t care how you smell, or whether you clap or not. The music doesn’t mind if you laugh or cry. The music will just be there, hoping that someone, however old or young will be there too, open and willing to hear and perhaps to listen.

Classical music is about connection, and those connections are best served live. Yes talking on the phone is good, but to really understand someone we need to see them face to face, look them in the eye, smile and give them a big hug. That is what we are hoping to achieve with ABC Baby Concerts. We want you and your baby/toddler to come and see us face to face. The music will look you in the eye, smile and give you a great big acoustic hug.

Live music can envelop you. It can surround you the way a recording cannot. Just watch the audience at an ABC Baby Concert, where Classical Music is played to the highest standard for an audience of 50 adults and 70 under 3s.

The music starts, and then………focus. what is that sound? it’s coming from over there. I can hear it. I can feel it, and it’s AMAZING. That is what the faces tell us. And what do these audiences of the future have to teach us? They teach us how to listen. With focus and energy. Responding with their eyes and faces and bodies. They show us it’s ok to be transfixed and absorbed or so excited you just have to move. That it is ok to lose your focus for a bit and enjoy staring at the ceiling only to hear a new piece and …..WOAH. Back to the music.

frida 1It is time we remembered that once music was just music. And people were just people. That a concert was a place where music and people could just be together, however that was. Concert etiquette is a learnt behaviour. There are plenty of stories of how, at a Beethoven Symphony recital the audience was so excited in the finale that they jumped on chairs and shouted and clapped their approval during the performance! Classical music can do that to you. If you let it.

If you’re a baby, that could mean having your nappy changed or throwing a tantrum to the sounds of Brahms, if you’re a toddler perhaps its dancing to Chopin or colouring a picture of a ‘cello to some Bach. If you’re a parent, perhaps it means just sitting cuddling your kids to Schubert. Whatever you are, whatever the music is, a concert is a place where you can go and spend some time with some music. And when that music is played by professionals who understand that sometimes you just have to leave and yes it was necessary to feed him 3 noisy rice crackers in a row, then you can just be too. Be whatever you need to be.”


To find out more about this new concert series in the South of England, please visit: http://www.facebook.com/ABCConcerts


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