Feel the Beat in Books – Introducing Babies to Music

Music – for pleasure and enjoyment, for its role in child development, for its emotive possibilities, for its capacity to connect – belongs in every child’s life.

And books can play a part in introducing children to music, starting with their very first board books.

Think about the basic elements of music – beat (the underlying, repeating pulse), rhythm (the pattern of sound and silence into notes of different length), tempo (speed), pitch (the range of high and low notes), dynamics (the variety of loud and soft notes) and tonal colour (the quality of the sound). Now think about the way we use our voices when we read and tell stories aloud. Each of the musical elements can be – should be – present when we read out loud.

Beat (pulse)

The simplest way to start feeling the beat in books is with nursery rhymes.

If you recite ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ to yourself, you’ll notice it has a straightforward 4/4 beat: Twin (1) – kle (2), twin (3) – kle (4), lit (1) – tle (2) star (3, 4), how (1) I (2) won (3) – der (4) what (1) you (2) are (3, 4).

‘Twinkle, Twinkle, little star’ (Traditional)

Whether you say the words or sing them, feel the underlying pulse. Babies are already familiar with a regular beat – they’ve been listening to their mother’s heartbeat in the womb.

Rhythm (pattern)

Adding some variety to a steady beat introduces rhythm.

Board books sometimes adapt traditional songs to give them a localised or more modern flavour while still maintaining the rhythm of the original. Matt Shanks’ Old MacDonald Had a Farm, for example, puts a twist on the usual collection farm animals by replacing them with Australian fauna. The emu has a peck-peck here and a peck-peck there. Here a peck, there a peck, everywhere a peck-peck!

Old MacDonald Had a Farm (2020)

Some of words in Old MacDonald’s rhythm maintain a steady, even beat, but then there’s a longer note on the ‘O’ of Ei-I-Ei-I-O and plenty of shorter notes when the emu starts pecking. Now there’s a rhythm overlaying the beat.

Tempo (speed)

Let’s change it up some more by varying the speed at which the words in a book are read.

Incorporating tempo into books for the very young is not always easy, but one book that achieves it with gusto is British author, and former Children’s Laureate, Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, an adaptation of old American folk song.

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is a simple ‘there and back again’ tale – a family leaves on an outing, reaches its goal and returns home – but the obstacles encountered along the way change the pace at which the text is read.

The tempo is relaxed on the outward journey although trekking through the long wavy grass is quicker than squelching through the thick oozy mud. On the way home, with a bear in pursuit, the storytelling speeds up and the text is read at a headlong, rushing pace.

The evocative travelling sounds from the outward journey, like Tiptoe! Tiptoe! Tiptoe! (through the cave), and Stumble trip! Stumble trip! Stumble Trip! (through the forest) and Squelch squerch! Squelch squerch! Squelch squerch! (through the mud) lend themselves to both slow, drawn-out readings on the first encounter and fast, rapid-fire renderings on the return trip.

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (1993, 2015)

Pitch (high/low)

Adding pitch to rhythm creates the melody.

Where Is the Green Sheep?, by multi-award winning South Australian Mem Fox (text) and gifted artist and cartoonist Judy Horacek (illustrations), creates multiple opportunities for pitch variation.

When reading the text for the up sheep and the down sheep, you’ll easily recognise where to pitch your voice.

Where Is the Green Sheep? (2006)

It’s important to ‘read’ the clues in the illustrations as well as the words in the text.

Judy Horacek’s train sheep is pictured in a carriage with an animal menagerie. Does the dog make a high-pitched, yappy sound or a low-pitched growl? Does the cat purr contentedly in a lower register or spit and snarl higher up the scale?

Where Is the Green Sheep? (2006)

And what about the swing sheep and the slide sheep? Imagine the slippery, slide-y sound of a trombone and stretch out the words out as you read. The words swing sheep might start low and rise higher, the words slide sheep could sound from high to low, matching the sheep’s descent.

Dynamics (loud/soft)

As a music primer in board book form, Where Is the Green Sheep? truly ‘tops the charts’. In addition to its in-built melody (based on a regular, repeating rhythm and the opportunities to create pitch variation), it lends itself to choice in dynamics.

Judy Horacek’s multi-talented band sheep plays the drums, the tuba, the guitar and the xylophone giving the reader a chance to use a range of voices.

Where Is the Green Sheep? (2006)

Perhaps the drum will be loud and thumping; the tuba low and throbbing; the guitar gently lilting; and the xylophone quietly tinkling.

The scared sheep might be read with a squeaky tremolo and the brave sheep with a booming confidence.

And, at the story’s end, the tempo slows and the text instructs the reader to Turn the page quietly. In a hushed voice, the reader closes with: Here’s our green sheep, fast asleep.

Tonal Colour (sound quality)

Darwin-based Nick Bland’s The Very Noisy Bear (part of his larger Cranky Bear series) sees Bear wakened from his hibernating sleep in the Jingle Jangle Forest. One by one, the other animals offer Bear the chance to try their instruments (on which they are, seemingly, quite proficient). Bear bangs and bashes on the drums, strums wildly on the guitar, and screeches on the trumpet.

The ‘quality’ of sound produced by Bear generates a mass exodus of animals. Eventually, sheep wonders:

Have you ever tried a microphone? It’s just a simple thing.

You only have to hold it up, clear your throat and sing!

Accompanied by the jungle band, Bear’s earlier cacophonous sounds transform into a vocal performance that leaves the audience calling for more.

The Very Noisy Bear (2016)

The Very Noisy Bear is a reminder that instruments can be played in different ways. Each one can produce sounds in a variety of tones (some pleasing; some … not so much). Reading Bland’s Bear book, you can make as many ‘unmusical’ sounds as you like. You’re limited only by your imagination.

You don’t need a formal qualification to introduce music to children. Just like Bear, if you have a voice, you have an instrument – play away!

Links and Sources

There are a number of ways to delineate the basic elements of music. I have used the elements listed by Amanda Niland in Music and Children (2015), a book written for Early Childhood Australia.

The books mentioned in this blog post are all suitable for children in the 0–3 age group. As children grow towards pre-school age, the range of music-themed books expands and the storytelling incorporates a further musical element – harmony.

Meerkat Choir (2017)

You can start exploring the harmonic aspect of music with Nicki Greenberg’s madcap Meerkat Choir (2017).

If you want to move on to orchestration and the emotional riches of music, try Clare McFadden’s Crichton Award-winning The Flying Orchestra (2010, 2017).

The Flying Orchestra (2017)

Image sources:

  • ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’, from Merrily, Merrily: A Book of Songs and Rhymes. Nursing Mothers Association of Australia: Hawthorn, Vic., 1979
  • Old MacDonald Had a Farm by Matt Shanks (text and illus.). Scholastic Australia: Gosford, NSW, 2020
  • We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen (text) and Helen Oxenbury (illus.). Walker Books Australia: Newtown, NSW, 2015
  • Where Is the Green Sheep? by Mem Fox (text) and Judy Horacek (illus.). Walker Books Australia: Newtown, NSW, 2006
  • The Very Noisy Bear by Nick Bland (text and illus.). Scholastic Australia: Gosford, NSW, 2016
  • Meerkat Choir by Nicki Greenberg (text and illus.). Allen & Unwin: Crows Nest, NSW, 2017
  • The Flying Orchestra by Clare McFadden (text and illus.). University of Queensland Press: St Lucia, Qld, 2017
  • Conga Dance by Amanda Tarlau (text) and Jane Chapman (illus.). Scholastic Australia: Gosford, NSW, 2016
Conga Dance (2016)

Girls in Boarding Schools: Navigating the Self and Others

What is it about adolescent schoolgirls living under one (educational) roof that makes for such a hot bed of meanness and spite?

When I read Rebecca Starford’s Bad Behaviour, I immediately heard echoes of Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom. The two books were published over 100 years apart – Richardson’s novel in 1910 and Starford’s memoir in 2015 – but despite their differing time frames and genres, the books share common ground. Both focus on Australian secondary school-aged girls who have been sent away from home to further their education; both squeeze those girls into austere, regimented, potentially hostile, living arrangements where ‘mean girls’ rule the roost.

Let me begin with some scene-setting…

The Getting of Wisdom

In writing The Getting of Wisdom, pseudonymous author Henry Handel Richardson (born Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson) drew on her own youthful experiences as a boarder at Melbourne’s Presbyterian Ladies’ College (PLC). As Ethel Richardson, she began her single-sex boarding school years in 1883 and remained at PLC from ages 13 to 17. While The Getting of Wisdom was published as a novel, Richardson wrote that the book ‘contained a very fair account of my doings at school and of those I came in contact with’ (Myself When Young, 76). Readers can safely assume that the anxieties, doubts, fears and hostilities that beset the novel’s protagonist, Laura Rambotham, represent those experienced by Richardson.

Bad Behaviour

While Ethel Richardson/Laura Rambotham’s relocation is from country Victoria to 1880s ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, 14-year-old Rebecca Starford’s is from late 20th century suburban Melbourne to rural Victoria. Starford chooses not to name the school in her memoir and I am opting to follow suit here. (A few strategic minutes spent with a search engine will reveal the school’s identity.) Suffice to say that it is one of Victoria’s pre-eminent private schools and is among those that have a rural campus at which students spend a portion of their schooling midway through their secondary education.

Stale bread and hospital food

In many ways, Laura and Rebecca’s boarding school lives, separated by time and place, mirror each other.

Sometimes, the mirrored experiences are of no great significance. Both, for example, reflect on the quality of their meals. On her first night in the boarding house, Laura is offered bread that does ‘not look particularly inviting’. She is inclined to reject it until her dinner-time neighbour suggests she’d ‘better take some’. Laura then sees that ‘there was nothing else’ (40). On her first night, Rebecca is offered a meal that ‘smells like the food served in hospitals’, complete with stale bread (15, 16).

Her ‘ostracism was complete’

On some occasions, the echo from the 1880s to the 1990s resonates more deeply. Laura and Rebecca both have a penchant for breaking social conventions. In Laura’s case, it’s telling lies; in Rebecca’s it’s risk-taking. For both girls, these behaviours are usually attempts to raise their status in the eyes of their fellow students; for both, their efforts backfire.

After an overnight stay at the home of the local, married curate, Laura stitches together a fanciful romance. She embroiders her tale elaborately as she shares it with her classmates. ‘For a month or more, Laura fed like a honeybee on the sweets of success … What had hitherto been lacking was now here: the admiration and applause of her circle’ (154). When her deceit is inevitably discovered, she is shunned by her student circle.

Laura’s ostracism was complete. She had been sampled, tested, put on one side. (165)

Rebecca throws herself into dorm raids, ‘bell runs’ and stealing alcohol from staff members. It earns her some notoriety. ‘You’re the worst girl in Red House’, she is told (67), but her behaviour does not, ultimately, win her friends. Her ‘loneliness stings like a cut’ (137).

It’s this striving for acceptance and inclusion within their cohort that binds the two girls’ stories most closely.

‘Instant new friends’

Perhaps not unreasonably, Laura and Rebecca arrive at their respective schools with expectations about new friendships.

Laura imagines that soon after her arrival she will form a friendship that would be ‘the wonder of all who saw it’ and the new friends would go on to become ‘blind to everything but themselves’ (26). In reality, she never gets beyond ‘a surface friendliness with any of her fellows’ (199-200).

Rebecca, too, anticipates a warm welcome:

I had pictured the open arms of instant new friends, laughter and smiles. (14)

Instead, she was met with a ‘deep black loneliness’ (14).

Both girls are drawn into friendships with powerful, manipulative girls. Laura has ‘ample proof’ that Lilith is ‘double-faced’ and ‘not to be trusted’, but Lilith has a knack for attracting intimacy: ‘She could make herself very pleasant when she chose, seem to be your friend through thick and thin, thus luring you on to unbosom yourself; and afterwards she would go away and laugh over what you had told her, with other girls’ (94).

Rebecca, too, makes friendship decisions knowing they are fraught. She is thrilled to be ‘chosen’ by powerful Portia (35) who she knows to be ‘fickle’ (52). When Rebecca is later ostracised by Portia, another student tells her: ‘That’s just how Portia is. She’s got her favourites and then she moves on to someone new’ (93).

Navigating friendship is an all-consuming, vexatious and painful course for both girls to chart.

Wisdom and resilience

With hindsight, Laura and Rebecca grasp hard won truths from their boarding school experiences.

For Laura, who left school with ‘the uncomfortable sense of being a square peg, which fitted into none of the round holes of her world’, it’s that ‘even for the squarest peg, the right hole may ultimately be found’ (234). She makes peace with The Getting of Wisdom’s epigraph: ‘Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding’ (Proverbs 4:7).

Rebecca’s eventual understanding is that she no longer wants to live a ‘half-life’ (229).

I want to be proud of myself and who I have become, and to do that I have to let go of some of the past. (229)

Rebecca casts her mind back to a lesson from Outdoor Education, to a teacher who talked ‘a lot about resilience’ (99): ‘It’s still there, the resilience … I did manage to take it away with me, after all’ (228).

Links and sources

  • Quoted works

Bad Behaviour (2016) by Rebecca Starford. Published by Allen & Unwin.

The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson. Quotes above are from the 1968 New Windmill Series edition (my old school copy). Recent editions include Text Publishing’s 2012 ‘Classics’ edition.

Myself When Young by Henry Handel Richardson (Text Publishing, 2019 ‘Classics’ edition)

  • Adaptations
Susannah Fowle as Laura Rambotham in 1977 film adapatation.

The Getting of Wisdom was adapted for film by Australian writer Eleanor Witcombe in 1977. (Witcombe also adapted Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career (1979) and won AFI awards for both screenplays.)

The lead role in The Getting of Wisdom was played by Susannah Fowle. (Image at right courtesy of Australian Screen.)

Bad Behaviour has been optioned for television by Matchbox Pictures.

  • Author websites

Henry Handel Richardson Society

Rebecca Starford

  • Want more?

Two other similarly themed books include Fiona Wood’s Wildlife (2013) set in an Australian outdoor education campus, much like Bad Behaviour’s Silver Creek, and Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep (2005) set in an exclusive US boarding school in Massachusetts.

Unlike Bad Behaviour and The Getting of Wisdom (and notwithstanding Laura’s relationship with Evelyn in the latter), Wildlife and Prep feature angst-ridden storylines about burgeoning sexual relationships.

  • Image credits

Header image: Ladies’ College, Albert Street, [Melbourne, Vic.]., 1860. Held at the State Library of Victoria.