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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 They often contain historical references and fantastical characters, and many have been rumoured to have hidden meanings.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.

Resource:

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!

MWC Supports Protect Music Education

This month, we wanted to bring to your attention the Protect Music Education campaign, a drive launched in April by the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) to rebuild Government support for music education.

The campaign focuses on 5 key points:

  • The Government must unequivocally support music education
  • The Government is telling local authorities to stop funding music services
  • Local authority funding is in addition to national funding
  • The flagship National Plan for Music Education is at risk
  • Music is central to society, education and economy

Protect-M_EThe benefits of music education, particularly amongst children who learn an instrument, have been explored widely in recent years. We have read many times in the media about the improvement in literacy and numeracy, as well as the development of skills including co-ordination, presentation and team working, which come with the study of music. Learning an instrument has been shown to have a positive impact on academic studies.

In 2013, researchers in neuroscience at the Northwestern University, Illinois, found that childhood music lessons also have long-term effects on neurological health. The study demonstrated that participants who had between four and fourteen years of musical training had faster responses to speech sounds than participants without any training, despite the fact that many of them had not played an instrument for about 40 years.

As well as being of benefit to individuals, the creative industries are worth £36.3 billion a year to the UK. The music industry is worth between £3.5 billion and £3.8 billion depending on which measure you use.

Despite this knowledge, funding cuts in music education have been a common trend for a long time. According to a BBC report from 2011, Education Secretary, Michael Gove, insisted he would ensure that all children had access to quality music education, but even with that assurance he was unable to guarantee funding beyond the end of the year.

In 2010/2011, the Government spending on music education was £127.5 million. This dropped to £111.6 million the following year.

Despite the Government’s commitment to support music education, many local authorities are being forced to cut funding, with their main budgets being slashed by at least 30%. Some councils are cutting music education budgets altogether, with the Department for Education recommending in March this year that hubs should no longer be funded by local authorities.

The recent consultation document on local education funding shows that central government expects local government to cease funding music in English schools from 2016 and there is little certainty as to the continuation of funding after the current financial year. The expectation is that music services will be funded through music education hubs and school budgets, and no longer from the Education Services Grant (ESG).

The consultation is part of a plan to make savings of up to £200 million to the ESG, stating, “Schools should take greater responsibility for their own improvement, leaving local authorities to focus on their statutory functions.” These statutory functions are broadly administrative and include planning for the education service as a whole, providing a director of Children’s Services, health and safety, pensions and other services.

Screen shot 2014-05-12 at 18.04.18This recommendation, along with cuts in funding to the Music Education Hubs, puts the National Plan for Music Education at risk.

According to a report in the May 2014 edition of Music Teacher Magazine, the Musicians’ Union are currently backing a campaign to prevent the Council in Cornwall and the Isle of Wight from cutting 92 music teaching jobs, after Councillor Steve Priest remarked on BBC South that he would be, “looking for musicians in the area to teach our children as volunteers as there are many people who can play instruments”.

On May 17th, former winner of the Young Musician of the Year, Mark Simpson, writing in the Guardian, expressed his concern that funding cuts in classical music are depriving children from low income backgrounds of the opportunity to learn an instrument.

The problem is not specific to the UK. In Ottowa, Canada, where in 2012 fewer than half of schools had even a part time music teacher, astronaut and scientist Chris Hadfield criticised cuts in music education, saying, “All these cuts are not doing our children any good, they’re not doing the development of our children any good, and I don’t think they’re doing much for Canada.” Speaking at an event promoting music education in schools which took place on May 5th, Hadfield explained, “Learning to play the guitar taught me to improvise and be creative. Music taught me to be a better astronaut.”

Protect Music Education is attracting support from musicians including violinist Nicola Benedetti and soprano, Dame Felicity Lott, journalists and organisations such as the London Symphony Orchestra and Trinity College, London. The aim of the campaign is to raise awareness of the potential threat to music in education.

MWC’s Maria Thomas says, “Many of the musicians here at the Music Workshop Company, received their early musical training through the music services. For generations, local music services run by councils have created opportunities for young people to develop their musical skills and make friendships that last for life. The Music Workshop Company fully supports the Protect Music Education campaign.”

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Add your support to Protect Music Education today, and help ensure that future generations have the chance to benefit from learning music, with all the pleasure and benefits it can bring.

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