Ep. 36 – Allison Davies – Music On The Mind
- What is sensory overload? What is survival mode? What causes these brain conditions and how do we escape their impact?
- What is the difference between sensory overload and sensory processing disorder?
- Fun and easy ways to use music to support and sooth the regulatory needs of our children.
In this episode, neurologic music therapist Allison Davies describes MUSIC as, “the mother tongue of the brain” and an antidote to the bombardment of sensory information flooding our world. This interview is filled with accessible ideas for a practice Allison calls “musical parenting” – using music to ease and support the dysregulation of our children’s brains and bodies.
Allison DaviesFor Allison Davies, music kept her alive. From early childhood, the melody, rhythm and repetition of sound offered her solace and sanctuary. Unsurprisingly, Allison pursued a Masters in Music Therapy, where science revealed the rationale behind her childhood instinct; music's power to regulate our bodies and brains.
Allison combined her study of music with her own experience as an adult on the autism spectrum, to create a specialized practice she calls Brain Care. She now teaches educators, parents and allied professionals to use music as therapy for attention deficits, as well as sensory processing and executive functioning difficulties. She works across fields of early childhood education, juvenile detention, adult mental health and senior dementia care.
Transcript: Ep. 36 – Allison Davies – Music On The Mind
Rachel Cram – Well good morning Ali
Allison Davies – Hi. How are you going?
Rachel Cram – It’s so amazing to talk to you across the world and it still stuns me that today for us it’s Monday afternoon, it’s Tuesday morning for you. It’s winter for us, in fact we had buckets of snow and it’s summer for you. We’re kind of in this time space continuum.
Allison Davies – Isn’t it crazy. I’ve just done the getting the kids ready for school. I’ve been hustling them into their uniforms and getting them out the door and feeling hot and overwhelmed.
Rachel Cram – And I’m about to head out to pick mine up. So that’s how it works. Well Ali I’m so excited to talk to you today. You have such an interesting focus of study and work, very cutting edge I would say. And to ground us more into who you are as a person, there’s a question I often ask our guests, inspired by Aristotle. He said, “Give me a child at 7 and I will show you the adult.” I’m wondering is there a story or experience from your childhood that has shaped the adult that you are today?
Allison Davies – Yes, there absolutely is. You know, I was brought up listening to a lot of music and in fact a book was published in Australia last week and the cover photo has the headline, “Ali grew up listening to blues and rock and roll albums,” and I thought that was just the coolest headline.
Rachel Cram – That is pretty cool.
Allison Davies – And it also said, “Her first words were out of a Fats Domino song,” and that is the story my parents tell. They made me Fats Domino cassette tape when I was one and I used to listen to it til’ I’m sure that tape broke. Everything was about listening to music as a kid. And then I got to a point where I realized that when I was listening to music, I felt like I could live. And this is a really really strange thought to have as a child, and this only now as a woman who’s, in more recent times, been identified as autistic. I can see now how music was helping me to regulate, even from my very young ages.
I felt like I could think when music was going. I could make sense of what people around me were saying or doing when music was going. I could feel like I was in control of my emotions. So, obviously I didn’t know this at the time, but the music was helping me to regulate my emotions and was allowing me to stim, like I move my muscles in ways that allow me to concentrate and focus. And so I had this real overwhelming sense of, there’s something about this that is actually keeping me alive. And that’s a quite profound thought to have as a child but I didn’t know that that was anything other than what everyone probably felt. But that’s certainly paramount into me then becoming a music therapist.
Rachel Cram – So your parents were watching you and did that seem, not obsessive but that you were fixated maybe by your music? I know people on the spectrum are sometimes preoccupied with certain subjects or tasks, do you think music was that for you?
Allison Davies – Yeah. Yeah. It’s what the experts call, ‘your special interest’.
Rachel Cram – Right, I knew there was a proper term for it.
Allison Davies – Yeah, well, the thing is, when our children love music we support that and want that. If I had lined up trains in a row, then people would have gone, “Okay, something’s up here.”
Because I didn’t have any external anxiety that people could see behaviorally, I know now that one of the things I’ve always done is to fawn, which is a survival mode response where you say, “Okay, yes, sure” and you do the things you’re asked to do. And it’s out of a survival response because you know that life will be easier if you just do what you’re told and hold it all in and say “yes” and be polite.
And so all of those things lead to autism not really being observed or seen, especially in girls. And not to make this a binary thing because it’s absolutely not. But that was my situation at least.
Rachel Cram – Well, your interest in music has evolved into a gift to so many children and adults, in a practice you call Brain Care. You studied with the Academy of Neurological Music Therapy and now you have your own practice supporting children and families, many of whom are on the spectrum. Can you give a brief description of what it is that you do? What is a neurological music therapist, maybe in a 30 second explanation.
Allison Davies – Okay. Well I specialize in understanding how the brain responds to different elements of music. So how the brain responds to melody, how it responds to rhythm, sound volume etc. And I share that knowledge with parents and early childhood educators and teachers and other allied health professionals, so that they can use music as a tool in their practice or in their classroom or at home to support the brain to regulate.
Rachel Cram – And that’s what we’re going to dig into today because it’s fascinating. Now, you just mentioned fawning as a survival mode response from your childhood and I have a quote here from a recent parenting article where you wrote, “Almost all the problem behaviors we try to manage, hitting, biting, refusal, avoidance, meltdown is a direct result of survival mode; of a brain that needs support to function at its best.”
Allison I know this is key to your work, biologically what is survival mode and what moves us into that place?
Allison Davies – Okay, so survival mode is what happens in our brain when our body feels unsafe or our brain feels out of control. So when the world, the sensory environment, the world around us becomes either unpredictable or unknown or frightening, our nervous system detects that and puts our brain into a state of survival mode. And when our brain is in survival mode our body experiences anxiety. So anxiety is a physiological experience. We feel nauseous. We feel our muscles tense up. We feel our heart rate and our respiratory rate rise. So the nervous system, it’s gone into a heightened state of arousal. And when we’re in survival mode, it’s usually expressed or portrayed in the world in a variety of different ways. And they are either fight, flight, freeze or fawn. So when we fight, this is something that we see a lot, especially in children with what we call behavioral problems. That’s when they’re hitting and they’re biting and they’re kicking and they’re stamping and they’re slamming the doors and they’re running away. And throughout generations of parenting we’ve treated that as bad behavior, “You should know better. You’ve got to learn not to do that. That is not okay.”
What we know now about the brain is that when we are in survival mode our brain does not know the difference between a real threat and a perceived threat. So we could literally be in the ocean and there’s a shark right next to us and our brain goes, “Okay, your life is in danger” and we go into a full response in accordance to that.
We could also be in a classroom with 20 kids and someone slams the door unexpectedly and our brain has the exact same response because the brain can’t differentiate between what’s real and not when it comes to danger. All it knows is, these are the red flags and I’m going to put you in this state to respond, should you need to.
So we know so much about the brain now that we didn’t know 20 years ago. So what we know about the brain now tells us that this happens and when we are in survival mode this is how it’s going to play out. So the behaviors that we are sort of blaming children for or blaming their parents for are not the problem. The behaviors are literally the byproduct of the child or the person being in a state of survival mode.
Musical Interlude #1
Rachel Cram – Well, our senses do seem to frequently mistake slamming doors for sharks. And anxiety is a huge problem for children and adults. Our senses seem to be overwhelming us into fight, flight and freeze or fawn, that’s a new term for me, much more often than necessary. You talk about sensory processing disorder and I think that you even have that disorder to yourself is that correct?
Allison Davies – Yes.
Rachel Cram – I’m wondering what’s the difference between sensory processing disorder and sensory overwhelm?
Allison Davies – OK. This is a great question. So, just imagine that you’re in a car. You’re trying to drive somewhere. It’s busy. You might be in four lanes and cars everywhere and you’ve got to get the right exit. And the kids are in the back arguing and making a noise and all you need is silence so that you can work out the right exit. Well that’s a really good example of what it feels like to have sensory processing disorder if you are noise defensive. So people with sensory processing difficulties or sensory processing disorder have different sensory profiles. Noise isn’t always tricky for everyone. However noise is a very very common one.
Rachel Cram – And do you often have several of your senses that get overloaded?
Allison Davies – Yeah,
Rachel Cram – But it can be in different combinations. So what would yours be?
Allison Davies – My personal sensory profile is that I’m very sensitive to noise, so very noise defensive, and to touch. So I wear very very flowing clothes that I can’t feel and I don’t often wear shoes and socks. And I don’t brush my hair. I cut my head very very short so I can’t feel it.
Rachel Cram – Does the seam in your socks really bug you and the tag on the back of your shirts?
Allison Davies – Oh yes. Oh yes.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, and when you’re a kid it’s hard to express probably what it is that bugging you but you are irritated.
Allsion Davies – And as a kid you don’t have autonomy over that as well because you probably have a school uniform or you have an expectation that you have to wear shoes if you go here or your hair has to be brushed. All of these kinds of expectations that we have for our children often really exacerbate it.
So someone who has sensory processing disorder is going to have sensory difficulties all day long in ways that put them in survival mode. It’s really debilitating and I think personally, my sensory processing difficulties are absolutely the most difficult part of being autistic.
Rachel Cram – Ali, I’ve heard you give an example of a cup for this and I’m wondering if you can share that example because I thought it was such a good visual.
Allison Davies – Yeah. So, picture you or your child’s brain is a cup. It’s an empty cup. And all day long little drops of water are being dropped in that cup. And so we’re just accumulating all of these little things that are too much or too unknown or not predictable or new and are a little bit difficult for our brain to make sense of or process or integrate. And these little drops of water dropping into the cup are filling up and up and up. And when the cup fills up so it’s at the rim, that’s when it overflows and that’s when we can no longer cope and we might have a meltdown or we might stop talking or we might smash something. And this is why when children are coming home at the end of the day, that’s when they just unleash because their cup has been filling all day long and then it gets to the point where it overflows. And that’s where it all comes out externally. All that survival mode comes out, either in fight or flight, which means that I might run away or freeze where they might just shut down completely.
Rachel Cram – So, that’s sensory overload or sensory overwhelm, when the experiences in our days cause our cup to overflow. So, it becomes what might be considered a disorder when the overflow seems constant, is that right?
Allison Davies – Yeah absolutely. So we all experience sensory overload or at least in the western world. Because in this post industrial revolution world there’s just too much going on and we can’t process it all quickly enough. And so all of this sensory information just builds up in our brain without being integrated or processed or actioned or made sense of. And we all experience that feeling like, I just need all the noise to stop. I just need the lights off. I just need no people touching me. We all experience that.
Sensory processing disorder, in fact sensory processing disorder actually doesn’t have a clinical diagnosis yet, at least in Australia. However, it is accepted by everyone, all the professionals, all the parents, everyone who experiences this will agree that sensory processing disorder literally does impact your daily life or your child’s daily life in ways that are really quite debilitating.
So it’s really really difficult for children, for example, to be in a classroom. It’s really really difficult for me to go to the supermarket. It’s difficult for me to be in a workplace. This is why I work from home and I run my own company now. And that is because I’ve never been able to stay in a job because of the sensory impact. So my noise cup and my touch cup are really tiny. So I only need a little bit of touch every day or a little bit of noise everyday until that cup is overflowing. And so the cup is like the threshold. Does that make sense? Does that analogy work for you?
Rachel Cram – Yes it does. That makes great sense.
Allison Davies – Yeah, so, even things like I wake up and I hear my husband breathing or I hear the birds out the window. And the birds are beautiful and I love my husband and all of these sounds aren’t sounds that should be making me anxious. And they don’t make me anxious in my head as such in terms of thinking or being worried. What they do is they put my body into survival mode straight away and I start the day already in that state. And so this how debilitating it can be for autistic people or people with sensory processing disorder, as opposed to the whole population of the world who are experiencing sensory overload, and let’s not minimize that because we hate that feeling, but it doesn’t necessarily impact their entire life.
Rachel Cram – Well you are becoming famous in my mind for your work with helping children and families grow their sensory understanding; you call it Brain Care. And as I’ve been immersed in your work over the last two weeks this thought came to my mind. I spend so much time working with my kids on things like brushing their teeth or getting their hair brushed in the morning; the hygiene of their bodies for example. And in listening to you, you’re talking really about the hygiene of our brains. How we care for our brains. And it’s really challenged me to think of, “How much time do I spend working on my brain and my kid’s brains, in comparison with something that seems far less significant, like their hair. Is it braided and tidy for school or not? And this is so important. This work is so important. We want our brains to function at their best. And you described music as the mother tongue of our brains.
In a recent article you shared a story about the neurologist Oliver Sacks, who discovered so much about music and the brain. The movie Awakenings, with Robin Williams and Robert De Niro I think, is about him. Would you want to share that story about his discovery of music’s power on our brain?
Allison Davies – Sure. So Oliver Sacks had this experience where, I think he was bushwacking, and he had an accident or he injured his leg and he couldn’t walk. And he found that when he started singing, his legs could move and he could walk right out of there and go and get the help that he needed.
I’m so pleased that this happened to Oliver Sacks because he is a person who thought in amazing ways. And he recognized that and studied it and wrote books about it. And now we know so much about how the body is impacted by music and how the brain is impacted by music. For example, people with Parkinson’s disease, there’s so much work now with using music as a way of helping them with their gait and helping them as they step in walk and keeping them stable. So this works happening all over the place. But that’s a really beautiful example of how powerful the relationship between music and the brain really is.
I say music is to the brain as breathing is to the lungs. I really feel that it’s that important. And we really don’t acknowledge the power that rhythm and melody and music has on our brain. In fact research shows us that when we experience music, which means to either make it, listen to it, or even thinking about music, even singing in our head and remembering music and imagining music and thinking about music. Even that lights up more of our brain all at the same time than anything else.
Musical Interlude #2
I’m Rachel Cram and you’re listening to family360 and our tuneful interview with Music Therapist Allison Davies.
Our next release is with author and social justice educator Tim Huff. We’re talking about compassion through the lens of homelessness, and his decades of work on the street of Toronto. Join us!
And now back to our conversation with Allison as she shares simple, playful ways to impactfully incorporate music in our heads, homes and parenting.
Rachel Cram – Can you expand on what different components do for our brain? Does rhythm do something for us? Melody do something else?
Allison Davies – Yeah it does. And I’ve been working on trying to work out exactly what music is for a long time. I really think that music is like an umbrella term for a whole bunch of musical elements. So rhythm and melody are probably the ones we’re all most aware of. And then there’s volume and tempo and vibration and frequency and silence. One of the most important parts of music is silence.
Rachel Cram – Can you talk about a few of those things? I listen to this as a parent and thinking about it as therapy, it can be tempting to think, “Well I’m not musical. I can’t sing well. I don’t play an instrument. So I’m kind of cut out of this loop” and I know you’re about to just totally kibosh that statement.
Allison Davies – I am.
Rachel Cram – I think breaking it down into those components. Something like silence. We can all do that. Rhythm, we can do those things. So what do those different components do and how do we use them as parents?
Allison Davies – Yep. All right. So can I talk about those components and how the brain responds to them and then talk after that about how everyone is musical?
Rachel Cram – Okay. I love that idea. Do it.
Allison Davies – Cool. Alright. So in a nutshell, if we were going to try and make it really easy and simple, I would say that melody impacts emotion and rhythm impacts physical movement. So let’s start with Melody. What we know is that when we experience melody our limbic system becomes really active. That’s a part of the brain that’s in charge of emotions and feelings and anxiety and also long term memories. And this is why often people who don’t retain their long term memories, for example I’ve done a lot of work with people with dementia, and that’s why when you start singing a song, all of a sudden, they can sing the entire song even though they can’t speak anymore.
And when we hear a song from our past there is a feeling attached to it. This is why we use music. You know we listen to sad love songs to make us cry when we need a good cry and we listen to songs from parties that we went to as teenagers when life was free and exciting to make us feel free and excited. So we instinctively use music to evoke emotion.
Rachel Cram – And we want that for ourselves.
Allison Davies – Yes. I mean yes. Because emotion is quite literally energy in motion. It has to move. What we tend to do, because there’s this unwritten rule in our culture that we should keep those emotions inside, especially when we’re at work or especially when we’re doing this or especially when we’re doing that. And so we end up with like 20 minutes a day where we’re allowed to express freely probably. And there’s all these rules about how we should hold our emotions in and not express them.
Children are so good at not doing that. We should be taking a leaf out of their book. Crying when we need to cry. Feeling something externally when we need to feel it externally because that is what moves the emotion through us. But what we tend to do is we hold it on the inside. We fixate on it and just like the cup analogy, it becomes more pent up and pent up until it overflows. And that’s when we yell at our husband or yell at our kids or pretend to everyone else in the world we’re fine but we have a week where we’re just curled up in bed. We are all doing that. We are all doing it because we aren’t allowing our emotions to move. So, crying at the movies, crying in the love song. I do that stuff on purpose. I literally watch America’s Got Talent auditions and stuff like that because they do it.
Rachel Cram – Those do it. We’ll do movie nights with our family and everything can have gone wrong. I can be in quite a sterile, gotta get it done feeling. And we’ll sit down with our kids in front of America’s Got Talent and some little girl will come on and start to belt out some song. And all those feelings of frustration are gone. And you’re just sobbing like, “I just love my family so much,” because the music does that.
It just stirs something in you. It takes your emotions to a completely different place.
Allison Davies – It totally does. And so all of it is done like that so that we the viewers will feel an emotional connection. So we’ll continue to watch the show. And so those things, they are incredible tools for releasing emotion or allowing emotion to move through us. We always have bits of sadness in us. We always have bits of anger or all sorts of emotions in us and just allowing them to move that way is a really healthy thing.
Rachel Cram – I have all these questions building my head on how we use this as parents but I’m going to wait until you get through all these components of music first and then I know you’ll cover that. So you’ve talked about melody and emotion, what about rhythm?
Allison Davies – Well, rhythm is really impactful because our motor cortex, which is the part of the brain that is in charge of all our conscious movements, it has a really really strong relationship, or I guess you’d call it a strong neural pathway, with what we hear. So what we hear, then determines how our brain tells us to move. This is why when we go to a hip hop concert we don’t float around and twirl. We jump up and down. Like we literally could not interpretive dance at a hip hop concert if we tried to. And this is why when we listen to fast music when we’re driving, we speed. Or when we listen to angry music while we’re driving we speed. The way we move is impacted by what we hear.
And this impacts how we work in a classroom, how we work in our family. What auditory information do we have in our environment and how is that affecting the way our body is moving.
Rachel Cram – OK, so you’ve looked at melody with us and how melody affects our long term memory and mood. You’ve talked about rhythm as being the motor part of our brain.
Allison Davies – Yeah, I’d like to quickly talk about silence and repetition and then that will lead into our next thing. But I’ll make it quick.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, ok. So silence, talk about that. I don’t think that’s necessarily a component we consider when we think about music.
Allison Davies – Yeah, I mean silence is so important. To be able to sit in the silence of what you’ve just heard or what you’re about to hear is quite a profound experience and that’s something that we need to teach our children more about. We just need to plant the seeds so that when they realize how nice it feels to sit in silence, they will then instigate that for themselves. And so that’s just a really simple thing where we have to just say little things with our children when we’re doing a nursery rhyme, like, “Oh doesn’t that sound nice after we’ve just sung this?” And there it’s done. You’ve planted the seed of silence, the silence of music.
Rachel Cram – Oh, you know, you just don’t think about these things during the day. That is so important. It’s so important for children to appreciate silence as something that helps them to regulate their own anxiety from the noise of the day. Even if they can’t articulate it like that. It’s helpful for us as adults as well.
Allsion Davies – Yeah
Rachel Cram – Ok, you’ve covered melody, rhythm, silence, let’s look at another component of brain care, repetition.
Allison Davies – Yeah, yeah, let’s do that. So repetition is one of the best, most powerful ways that we can allow our brain to start to feel in control. Now this is so important because we are in survival mode because our brain does not feel in control. If we sing or chant or drum or listen to drumming or listen to music that’s repetitive or listen to the one song over and over and over and over, our brain starts to go, “Hang on. I’m pretty sure I know what’s coming next.”
And then that thing that it predicts does come next and all of a sudden the brain goes, “Hey, you know I’m really in control right now. I know what’s going on.”
And so our brain feels safe. Predictability, even if our world seems unpredictable, we can create a sense of predictability through repetitious music and the brain will respond to that and go, “Oh I predicted that. The same thing’s just happening. I can rest. We’re safe right now.”
Rachel Cram – Now Ali, I know you love chanting, that’s a big part of your brain care and you use this kind of repetition a lot.
You have a song that went viral on Facebook. I’m wondering can you sing that song for us because I think it’s a great example of how simple a song can be. It doesn’t need to be a complex melody, it can be one that you borrow as you do in this song but it can be so effective. And I think the reason, well I’m sure there’s lots of reasons why this went viral for you, but I think in the midst of pandemic, this song offered a repetition that was so needed. Obviously, because it’s had over four million views in the last months.
Allison Davies – Yeah, want me to sing it to you?
Rachel Cram – I’d love you to
Allison Davies – Ok, it goes,
Every little cell in my body is happy
Every little cell in my body as well.
Every little cell in my body is happy
Every little cell in my body is well.
I’m so glad every little cell in my body is happy and well.
I’m so glad every little cell in my body is happy and well.
Musical Interlude #3
Allison Davies – And that’s it. And then you just repeat repeat repeat repeat repeat. So this is the classic example of the importance of repetition. And I did not expect this to go viral. It makes sense as to why people responded so significantly to it. And to this very day I receive emails from people who tell me stories about how this changed their anxiety. Nurses are singing it in hospitals while they do surgery and all sorts of amazing things. And it makes sense because it’s a simple melody. It’s a simple one phrase that just goes over and over. So our brain isn’t trying to process and make sense of the lyrics or analyze it. There’s no analyzing to do with this song. Anyone can sing it.
So it’s taking us out of a state of survival mode. Even though nothing in the real world has changed, just the repetition of the song and the melody which is regulating our emotions and the act of singing it, which is then controlling our breath, all of those together combined, make a very powerful therapeutic experience.
Rachel Cram – In the early childhood community that I direct our staff uses music all the time throughout the day with children. In fact when COVID came down, for a while they were saying that we couldn’t sing in classrooms because they were worried about spreading the virus. And we looked at each other and thought, ‘How can we even run a class to keep children safe if we can’t sing?’
And we use songs like you just demonstrated, just simple ones that teachers make up all through the day to help children transition and to calm kids. When you talk about musical parenting, is it using music like that? Is it using songs throughout the day, music throughout the day, to help with our child’s brain and how it’s functioning?
Allison Davies – Yeah, that’s exactly what musical parenting is. And to really understand this though, we need to take a step back and look at our own sense of musicality because we have become conditioned to believe that we are either musical or not musical. And that is a myth.
All humans have been musical and they’ve used music together daily as they work, as they walk. They’ve used it in ceremonies, communally in groups.
We are all musical. We can all access melody. We can all make rhythm. We can clap our hands. That’s music. We don’t have to be able to sing like Beyonce. Like you said, early childhood educators, they are the people who are the most empowered in their musicality because they are just doing it. It doesn’t have to be polished. They just do it in the moment. And I believe that that is truly being musical.
Rachel Cram – I think part of this may tie in even with the former comments you were making about how we hold ourselves back from crying. I don’t think spontaneous, raw expression is something that we in general feel comfortable with. We do analyze it to think, ‘Do I look pretty when I’m crying? Do I sound good when I’m singing?’ How are other people responding to me in these moments? It’s vulnerable. It’s quite a different way of thinking
Allison Davies – Yeah it really is. I think this is unique to our place in history right now and the way we think. We’re very cognitive. We tend to think that when we use our voice it should be in very cognitive, well-thought-out sentences. Even when our kids are little, we’re even telling them to stop blowing raspberries and making burp noises. We are suppressing how people use their voice from such a young age.
Rachel Cram – Well we actually use the phrase, and this is a little bit appalling now I’m thinking about it, we actually often even use the phrase in early childhood education, we’ll say, “Use your words”. Which I think kind of bypasses those spontaneous things of, “Uses your grunts, your moans, your shouts, your weeps, your singing voice.”
Allison Davies – Yes yes. ‘Use your words.’ There’s so much to unpack there, which is a whole podcast episode in itself. ‘Use your words,’ and you know what, if I can go back to the brain for a minute. The part of the brain in charge of our language, so there’s these two little spots right next door to each other in the left side of our frontal lobe. They are in charge of all our ability to speak and to understand spoken word or to retrieve the right word for the thing that we want to say. Now the prefrontal cortex does not even develop in children until they’re at least 6 or 7. And so those parts of the brain in charge of language are not necessarily even developed yet. And so we are asking young children to use their words when they are in an emotional state. And we are asking them to use their words they literally neurologically might actually not be able to access words yet. It’s like asking someone who’s had their legs amputated to walk. We expect so much of children. Again the reason this is happening is because we’ve only learned about the brain in the last 20 or so years. So we did not know this stuff in previous generations. And so we are conditioned to what we should say or what we should expect or how we should help children or support children. And it’s often not in alignment with what we know now because of modern brain science. So a lot of things like, ‘use your words,’ is a product of what we used to believe was truth.
Rachel Cram – So when in the day do we use this kind of music? Are we waiting for our child to show some kind of dysregulation, or do you do prior to that? Do you do it in the morning? When do you start this?
Allison Davies – Yeah. This is the most important thing to understand because what we want is not to just come in with the soothing music when our child is upset. We don’t want to just be doing a lullaby before bedtime when they’re really amped up and they can’t get to sleep. We want to be using music and moments of musical expression or musical experience all throughout the day. I’m talking about having moments where we use our voice musically.
Rachel Cram – Can you give some examples?
Allison Davies – Yes. So an example might be talking to our child when they wake up in the morning in that really soft lullaby melodic voice. Good morning darling. You know just speaking like that. And that also might make some people cringe and if that does make you cringe you don’t have to do it. Like none of these things, if they’re not going to feel comfortable for you they’re not going to be right. But there are so many ways we can use music.
If we have children that are bouncing all around us and jumping on the bed we might sing. Good morning. Good morning. Good morning morning morning in time with them bouncing on us and then all of a sudden we are co regulating. Even though we are lying in bed, we do not want to be jumped on, we are validating our child in that moment by singing in time.
It might be that we connect through silence. It might be that your child comes in in the morning and you just lie there together in a moment of silence.
Rachel Cram – Do you have anything for a middle school boy who hates getting up in the morning?
Allison Davies – Yeah, so once your children are twelve or thirteen they’re adolescents. And adolescents have their own identity. One of the foundational parts of their development of identity is their musical identity. And so they get to an age where it has to be their music, their way, and that needs to be really respected. And this can be tricky for some parents because they really don’t like their children’s music choices. And this is because we have such a developed sense of musical identity.
So it’s really important to be respectful of the music that our children and our teenagers in particular listen to. So for them it might be, pop the playlist on, let them listen to their music. It might be a dance party in the kitchen. If they’re too old for that and they think that’s a bit uncool it might just be letting them put their headphones on and have their music while they get ready.
Rachel Cram – I like that. OK with that then you’re saying use it before they become dysregulated. What about when they’ve already gone there?
Allison Davies – So the way we use music when somebody is already in a heightened state is to really match them. So, there is this misconception in the world that if our kids are angry or if they’re heightened or they’re hyperactive then we should put on some zen meditation music and whale sounds and you know calm them down. This does not work. It’s like that saying that, “No one in the whole history of the world has ever calmed down by being told to calm down.” It just doesn’t work that way. So when our children are angry, if we put on calm meditation music it’s probably going to make them more angry because they’re feeling unheard, unseen, disconnected, invalidated. So I tend to use music that matches the mood.
My son is very hyperactive. So he’s in a hyperactive state. I put on the fast music that he loves and then he connects with that and then it’s like stepping down off a ladder together. So I might make a little playlist where the first song is fast. The next song is a little bit slower. The next song is a little bit more chill and then you get to the third or fourth song and all of a sudden, it’s the tempo of the resting heart rate and the body always falls in sync with what we listen to. So all of a sudden the hyperactivity has come down. My hyperactive son is starting to breathe more slowly and I can tell that we have connected and used music in a way that has actually met him where he was at and then gently moved him to a different state of arousal.
Rachel Cram – Ok, so that means getting some good playlists together. Which is fun to do.
Allison Davies – Yeah absolutely. And the beauty about these musical experiences that really do help us to co regulate between ourselves and our children is that you don’t have to have music based skills. The way that we express ourselves musically is so simple and basic. And in fact we do a lot of these all the time without really realizing we’re consciously doing it.
Rachel Cram – I know we are just scratching the surface of your ideas Ali and listeners can join you online at your Brain Care Cafe for continual ideas and support. But before we close, can you maybe just blast off a bunch of ideas we can use right away in our homes?
Allison Davies – Yep, yep.
Rachel Cram – I know transition times are a really tricky time in the day for kids; shifting from one activity or time in the day to another, to the next.
Allison Davies – Oh yes.
Rachel Cram – Like what’s an example of an easy little song that you would create and use during the day. Say when you’re wanting your kids to get their shoes on.
Allison Davies – Oh yeah.
It’s time to pick up our shoes.
It’s time to pick up our shoes.
It’s time to pick up our shoes and put them on the feet.
Something like that. It is repetitive. It is simple. It’s just a two step instruction. So we’re just picking up the shoes and putting them on the feet. So the song does not need to go through a whole barrage of lyrics. It needs to be simple. It needs to be the point and it needs to be kind of funny. So at the end when I say “And put them on the feet.” I might do a funny noise or I might get the shoes and start stomping them around my children or something like that.
Musical Interlude #4
Rachel Cram – OK. What about you wanting to come for dinner and they’re playing Lego and they don’t want to come. How do you get them to the table?
Allison Davies – Oh gosh that’s a tough one because Lego is hard to compete with. You know what. Sometimes I ring a bell. So even if it’s not singing I just ring the bell. And that creates a sound. So I might just have my singing bowl and I’d give it a tap and then they know that this is the transition time.
Rachel Cram – What about something like time to get to the car. You’ve got to get into the car. We’re going somewhere.
Allison Davies – Well, I mean anything works so there’s no right or wrong but in the moment spontaneously, if this was me, I would start singing,
Get in the car.
Get in the car.
Come on, come on, get in the car.
You know there’s no right or wrong with this. And if this feels a little bit tricky for you to just come up with a song and a melody in the moment, one of the most coolest strategies that you can use is called ‘song parody’ and that is where you choose a melody you already know and you just change the words. So you might use the melody to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or the melody to, you know for example, a song they love like Baby Shark. Is it Baby Shark? Yeah, Baby Shark.
So it might be,
Get in the car doo doo doo doo doo doo.
Get in the car doo doo doo doo doo doo doo.
In the car doo doo doo doo doo doo.
In the car.
And then we’re connecting with them because we’re using something they love. It’s funny because we’re changing the words. The words are simple and it’s a very simple instruction of what they need to do next.
Rachel Cram – What’s the difference between get in the car doo doo doo doo doo and get in the car? What’s the difference in your brain?
Allison Davies – Well when we’re singing,
Get in the car doo doo doo doo doo doo doo.” We are experiencing simple melody, so the prefrontal cortex becomes active, which means our executive functions are easier. So functions like transitioning from one space to the next, it actually physically, neurologically becomes easier to do because that part of the brain is now active.
Or following multiple step instructions like, ‘Grab your shoes. Come to the car, Pick up your school bag.’ Those things become easier to do, like physically actually easier to do because we are singing, “Come to the car doo doo doo doo doo doo doo.” So just having that experience of music is literally so significant in how we can follow through with the expectation and how our children can follow through the expectation.
Rachel Cram – These examples are really helpful in showing how simple and organic this actually is. We use music like this all the time at Wind and Tide and it’s so effective for all the reasons you’re describing. I really appreciate this Ali. Thank you.
Allison Davies – Sure
Rachel Cram – Do you have any other examples of how you use music throughout the day?
Allison Davies – Yeah. Absolutely. So let’s go. I’ve got a whole list of things I can think of. Movement. Having a dance party. It only has to go for a minute. And it’s funny, it keeps us connected, and all of a sudden the movement of music has co-regulated all of us.
Movement is really important throughout the day for everyone. Children need more rhythmic and melodic based movements. So, skipping with a skipping rope. You know those rhymes that you sing as you’re skipping the rope, or the little clippy clapping games where you sort of Miss Mary Mac Mac Mac? You know, that kind of stuff? Those things used to be really really prevalent. The playground used to be filled with kids doing clapping games and skipping ropes and rhymes would go with them. That is so regulatory. That’s the kind of stuff children need to be doing so that they can go back into the classroom and learn and focus.
Rachel Cram – OK. So what are other things you can brew us up from your brain care Cafe?
Allison Davies – I’m going to say using instruments but it does not have to be instruments that need lessons or that only a few people can play. I have wind chimes hanging outside my house. They make a very simple melody and that sound is very subtle and we always have this beautiful, ethereal, melody just floating around our home. It comes to the brain as sensory information. So there are ways that we can use instruments like a little xylophone, a little steel tongue drums, and I have a few instruments in my home just in places where I know the kids will pick them up and play because I had set up my environment to have instruments in really accessible places, not hanging on the wall but literally sitting on the floor in the lounge room.
Rachel Cram – You have a place on your Website called. Oh my musical goodness with a whole ream of these kinds of instruments that people can look at and get ideas from. So parents can go there and check that out.
Allison Davies – Yeah, I do. Absolutely.
Rachel Cram – Ali, you are a wealth of information and knowledge and I know you have so much more to share, so we can follow you on line to glean more of your practical advice.
Allison Davies – Cool. Awesome.
Rachel Cram – What would be a last thought you’d want to leave with regarding music and brain care? Here she goes.
Allison Davies – Take a deep breath. So, I would say allowing yourself to use our voice expressively. It’s okay to whistle. People used to whistle and hum all the time and we rarely do it now. It’s okay to whistle, hum. It’s okay to cry loudly. It’s okay to just make funny noises with our voice. All of that is actually experiencing music. We genuinely don’t need to be trained in any form of music to express ourselves musically. Just sobbing, sighing, howling, making animal noises.
You know making animal noises is a great way of being in a moment of creative expression or creative release. And it’s music based. And it helps us to regulate. And it plants the seeds for our children. If our children see us in the kitchen getting dinner ready and we’re just making funny chicken noises or whatever, you know they bear witness to that and it kind of plants a seed where they go, “Oh, it’s okay to use my voice,” instead of planting that seed that we talked about before where it’s like; use your words or use your voice sensibly. Don’t make silly noises. They see us using our voice expressively and that tells them that, ‘Oh it’s okay to do this.’ And that is going to set them up to be able to use their voice as a regulatory tool right from the beginning. It really shifts an entire culturally conditioned expectation.
It starts in the family home. It starts when we are creating the space for our children to be empowered in their voice and to use their voice. They are more than likely going to experience the regulation they need to be able to use their voice so that they can speak and they can explain their emotions when they’re in a dark place or a difficult place or they’re anxious.
So allowing them to use their voice now and be expressive with it will keep them regulated to the point that language and words and describing their needs might come easier to them.
These are the ways that we instinctively have used music throughout all of time. And these are the things that we now need to remember our okay to do. Not only are they okay to do, like we actually have to do these things because we are living in a time where we are in survival mode. We are experiencing anxiety. Children and adults alike, more than ever before and our children have to know how to regulate.
They need to know that they can experience music or express themselves musically and that it has an impact in their body that changes that horrible feeling of anxiety into a really calm relaxed and soothed feeling. They need to know that. And they only learn that when we do it ourselves. So yeah.
Rachel Cram – You’re good. I’m ready to be done. That was a great ending. We do it ourselves.
Allison Davies – That’s a good ending?
Rachel Cram – That’s a great ending. I’m just going to thank you so much. Ali I thank you so much for your time today. This has been a long and really interesting conversation. You are such a joy to talk to.
Allison Davies – Oh it’s just my pleasure. You know I could talk about this all day long. Thank you so much for having me. It was such a pleasure to speak to you and I really enjoyed it. Thank you.
Roy Salmond – You sound great. Really a pleasure to listen to you.
Rachel Cram – Ok, Ali, thank you so much. That was such a fun conversation. We’ll be in touch.