All about ‘Adopting a Musical Approach’

Adopting a Musical Approach is a project devised by Cat McGill, and funded by Arts Council England, the Folk Camps Society, and some awesome Kickstarter backers.

It’s a project designed to help adoptive families primarily, but the songs and games devised throughout the course of the project can of course be enjoyed by any and all children! To find out more about the project please have a read of the information below, or contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

What exactly are you going to be doing?

During the project Cat will compose and record an album of new music aimed at primary-age children and families. She’ll be doing a UK-wide tour in summer 2019, and putting on ten FREE performances which will be open to anyone who is interested in coming to hear the songs. (Tour dates can be found at catmcgill.uk/projects)

What’s so special about the songs?

Cat is using her psychology background to craft a set of songs that will serve a specific purpose. For example, one song might be designed to help a child with making choices, another might be to explore feelings around moving to a new family. In much the same way as you might use stories to explore a concept with a child, Cat believes that song can be a valuable tool for learning - with the added benefit that music often seems to find it’s way to the deepest parts of the brain in a way that we don’t entirely understand yet. 

It sounds like the songs will be pretty boring...

Cat says “Yes, I can see that! However, I can assure you they’re definitely not going to be..! The songs aren’t going to have any impact if no-one wants to listen to them because they’re too boring - so for example, the song I’m writing about choice is all about making sandwiches, and choosing from silly sandwich fillings. I’ve recruited a production team who will feed back on the songs throughout the process - plus of course they will all be vetted by my two children!”

Communicative Musicality

Music is an innate part of being human - we are all musical by nature. For this project Cat is tapping in to the most natural, instinctive part of human musicality - the way in which parents communicate with their babies. Infant Directed Speech (IDS) - which you’d probably call ‘babytalk’ - has been shown to have musical properties that are consistent across different people, and across different cultures.

When you talk, even though you’re not trying to ‘sing’, your voice will naturally go up and down - there’s an element of melody to it. When you talk to a baby, you instinctively modify your voice - you’ll talk at a higher pitch, and you’ll emphasise the up and down (melodic contours) in your speech. A psychologist called Stephen Malloch called this ‘Communicative Musicality’ - to describe the musical way in which parents and babies communicate with each other.

But why do we do that?

Research in to IDS indicates that there are particular melodic patterns of speech that carry specific information - regardless of the words that the adult is using. When we talk about this, we use the word ‘contour’, to describe the shape of the melody - so for example a rising contour is a melody that starts off at a lower pitch and then gets higher. Scientists have repeatedly found that parents use a rising contour in order to get their child’s attention - but when they already have it and want to keep it, they use an up and down wave shape. Questions usually have a rising contour, except for questions that use wh- words, which have a falling contour. All of these things and more have been found in different studies across the world.

The really fascinating part is that none of this is deliberate. Parents all over the world use these exact patterns in their speech to babies and children, without even realising they are doing it. So therefore we have to conclude that these musical patterns are really important for development - of communication skills, social skills, and potentially even the relationship between parents and children.

How is this relevant to the songs you’re writing?

For the songs in this project, Cat has taken these melodic, information-carrying elements of IDS, and incorporated them in to her songs. The idea for this was born out of learning how to parent her own adopted child - adoptive parents are encouraged to ‘fill in the gaps’ of a child’s development, to give them the experiences they may have missed out on. Children who have suffered neglect in their early years may well have missed out on some - or all - of these vital early interactions we’ve been talking about. Some children may like to pretend to be a baby, and have their adoptive parents address them in babytalk, but for others this might not be appropriate, or they may not feel safe enough to do it. Cat hopes that by incorporating the key elements of IDS in to her songs that this will allow the children to benefit from the exposure but in a much less threatening way.

This sounds fascinating, I’d love to know more!

Well that’s great, because as luck would have it, Cat has written a book about the project! There is a chapter dedicated to each song, explaining how the song was constructed, and how you can take it from being a bit of fun to listen to in the car to being a really useful tool for supporting communication and social skills.

The book and CD will be officially released at the end of August but you can pre-order now using the link below:

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Now available to order:
AAMA CD - a 14 track CD of songs written especially for adoptive, foster, and special needs families.
AAMA the book - an accompanying book explaining the science behind the music, and how to turn these songs from a bit of silly fun to a useful tool for supporting your child’s communication and development

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© 2019 Cat McGill