September 11, 2022

Wellbeing: Music is the Space Between Notes

The Britannica Dictionary includes within the definition of the word space, the concept that space is to separate (things) by particular periods of time. While the space between notes is a separation, it is also deeply connected to what went before and what comes after. It is more than the absence of sound. Debussy understood that music is just as much about what doesn’t happen, as that which does.

In education we are seeing an increase in anxiety amongst our very youngest children. Might there be a connection between this rise in anxiety and the way our lives have become like a frantic piece of music, which is lacking in space? Each day arrives with crashing cymbals, loud horns or a relentless melody. Technology has crept into the very fabric of our lives, re-wiring our brains to need constant stimulation. The music of busy lives never gets to resolve and our babies and children seldom experience the place of rest.

The temporal form of music consists of sound and silence. It is the composition of tones, pauses and timbre arranged into rhythms and harmonies that creates space between notes. The notes are able to fully express themselves, to resonate and reverberate. Space is crucial for human beings and it is important to recognise that it has a purpose: it provides rest, facilitates inner healing which includes our immune systems, improves memory along with energy levels and returns us to a state of calm. This space needs to be created and protected. As teachers, if we facilitate a symphony that is constantly racing towards some great crescendo, young children will not get to experience the natural rhythm of work and rest. Cooke (1959) agrees saying music creates a continual flow of tension versus relaxation.

Neuroscience has shown us that a brain without space and rest becomes an anxious brain, living in a constant state of readiness. When adults stop and listen to babies and toddlers, the gift of space allows the child to fully experience the sound, the breath and the pause. Their growing brains are able to process, to renew, create and experience joy. “A child needs to watch, listen and wait and wonder,”(Wylie, 2019). Space within music creates anticipation, a sense of calm, time to ‘be’ and a sense of awe and wonder. It also enables the function of re-uptake to occur within the synapses in the brain which in turn creates a more powerful positive impact from the brain chemicals dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins (Berger, 2002).

A nine month old baby sits on his mother’s knee. The mother and the baby face each other in silence, paused and waiting for the music to begin again. Their breathing becomes synchronised and a sense of calm settles upon them both. They look at each other, marvelling at just being together. In that moment of space between notes the mother truly sees her baby and the baby feels truly seen. The baby smiles, and gurgles excitedly, anticipating the next notes. Then the music begins again.

Silence, rest and waiting can have a profoundly positive impact upon our under-fives, as we make music together. As teachers, It is a challenge to allow this musical space and it is all too easy to want to hurry things along, ‘clock watching’ because we are trying to make each moment count. In learning to hold back, there is a realisation that musical silence contains healing power. How hard it is not to jump into that moment of bare space. We can allow music to facilitate this healing, rather than trying to provide it ourselves.

It is similar to the way in which a symphony is broken up into movements. After each movement there is a period of silence where the listener can contemplate, anticipate and allow the brain to process. Great composers know instinctively how to use space to create a piece of music that is spiritually uplifting. We rise and fall with the ebb and flow because of the space between notes.

In our busy early childhood centres we need to be aware that deliberately creating and embracing musical space can connect, heal and calm little growing brains.

Michelle Wilson

Berger, D. (2002). Music Therapy, Sensory Integration
and the Autistic Child. London: UK. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Cook, D. (1959). The Language of Music. Oxford, UK. Oxford University Press.

Bio: Michelle’s introduction to music was growing up in a household with a Mother who was a piano teacher. She went on to play the piano and cello to a high level. Michelle has worked as a Primary Teacher for over 20 years and recently led a Pastoral Care & Wellbeing Project. In 2019 she gained her Post Graduate Certificate in Musical Play Therapy from the Julie Wylie Institute of Musical Play and now works for Julie as lecturer and advisor as well as facilitating an Engagement Pilot with 18 schools. Michelle lives on a lifestyle block in North Canterbury with her husband and two daughters.


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