Music makers: New UCC programme for children with Down syndrome

BAND AID: Conor Nolan gets some musical accompaniment from his mother Alison, left, and Dr Eva McMullan at the music department at UCC. Picture: Eddie O’Hare

Music is believed to provide children with Down syndrome lots of benefits. Now UCC researchers are putting that theory to the test, writes Áilín Quinlan.

Alison Nolan’s son, Conor, adores the sound of music. Even in babyhood, her youngest son’s face would light up when he heard music being played.

Now aged 10 and with a mild to moderate intellectual disability, Conor would not necessarily be able to learn the words to a poem, his mother says — but the words to a song come easily to him:

Alison, a mother-of-three and a board member of the charity Down Syndrome Cork says parents of children with Down syndrome know from experience that music really appeals to the children.

“They naturally gravitate towards music, there’s something about music that they just adore. Conor loves music — his interest in music was obvious very early on,” she says.

As a baby, she recalls, he’d play with baby musical instruments at the family home in Farran:

We noticed that his face lit up when music was played around him.

Today Conor enjoys playing musical videos and singing along to the songs.

“If he has a choice of things to do he will gravitate towards something that involves music.”

It comes as no surprise then, that for the past 18 months or so Conor and other young members of Down Syndrome Cork, have been participating in a hugely successful programme, Music4 Children, which is run by Dr Eva McMullan, a part-time lecturer at UCC’s School of Music.

“The programme takes place once a week, on a Saturday for 45 minutes and it involves musical theory, playing instruments and the development of listening skills,”says Alison.

“As part of the course Conor is exposed to different instruments and can identify instruments by listening to the sound they make. He understands the basics of rhythm and also musical theory in terms of musical notation.

"The course exposes him to everything from classical music to paying in an orchestra.

“When we started music with Eva and the puppets, I don’t think any of us as parents at Down Syndrome Cork ever imagined the amazing impact it would have on our kids.

“The benefits these sessions have had on auditory processing, language skills, speech, shared experience with parents, attention building, turn taking, literacy skills and most of all fun, is astounding,” says Alison.

But that’s not all — after Easter, and along with other children with Down syndrome, Conor will also participate in a very unusual, carefully designed, eight-week research project which is being run by three UCC departments — music, applied psychology and anatomy and neuroscience.

The children will take part in a daily intervention music programme run both in their homes and at UCC.

Before and after each musical programme a series of neuropsychology tests checking for various mental skills in a fun setting will be conducted.

Brain activity will be measured by electroencephalography (EEG) at UCC’s Department of Music and Department of Applied Psychology. Meanwhile, the biological correlates of the children’s wellbeing will be assessed by researchers at the Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience.

Music4Children was born when McMullan, a mother of five children between the ages of four months and 14 years got together with a colleague, Padraig Wallace, to design a programme of teaching the fundamentals of music to children. “I wanted my children to engage with music,” McMullan recalls.

After receiving a call from Down Syndrome Cork to say the organisation was looking for a music therapist at the time, she suggested they instead try the Music4Children programme. It was so successful that 18 months down the road, it’s still running. It was this programme which led to the research project.

“Since 2017 Padraig Wallace, Esther-Anna Bennett and I have been teaching the Music4Children programme to children with Down syndrome,” says Dr McMullan. “In our classes we used a lot of instruments, so they took turn playing and the classes were very interactive. Parents started to report on positive impacts in terms of language development, turn taking and social interaction.” While there are many other music programmes for children available, what makes Music4Children unique is that “it is very specific in terms of celebrating children’s musical ability.”

The move to researching the reported benefits came about after Eva talked to a colleague in UCC’s Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience about the reports from parents. The duo discussed the possibility of proving that once children with Down syndrome engaged with music they experienced benefits in other areas of their lives. That conversation, she recalls, led to the design of a research programme funded by the College of Health.

An interdisciplinary research team of experts was formed to carry out research into the promising early anecdotal evidence.

We expect to increase the once-weekly music session to daily interventions in the form of music lessons videos created by Music4Children programme.

“Parents will be given a resource pack to take home and to go through with their child every day — we teach the fundamentals of music to the children through the videos with the support of the resource pack.”

As the programme proceeds, she says, researchers will test the children’s brain and cognitive development to see how they have improved. “We know that music is good for everybody’s brain, but it is important to consolidate the parents’ report of huge benefits with solid scientific research, which can help us understanding exactly which improvements we can expect,” said Dr Annalisa Setti, lecturer in the School of Applied Psychology at UCC.

Adds Dr McMullan: “Once we can prove our findings, we’d hope that the Music4Children programme would be rolled out in terms of a national framework for musical education.”

Right Note

A study published in 2010 showed that music has a beneficial impact on the development of children and young people.

The research, carried out by Susan Hallam of the Institute of Education, University of London, and published in the International Journal of Music Education found that active engagement with music seemed to bring benefits for the development of perceptual skills affecting language learning — which subsequently impact on literacy.

The opportunities provided by music to learn to co-ordinate rhythmically also seemed important for the acquisition of literacy skills, said Hallam, who observed that fine motor co-ordination was also improved through learning to play an instrument.

Music also seemed to improve spatial reasoning, one aspect of general intelligence which is related to some of the skills required in mathematics, the study author said.

Engagement with music in a positive learning experience it found, could enhance self-perception.

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