Learning Through Relaxing Music: Singer, Songwriter, and Teacher Barbara Milne Proves that Early Education Can Be Musical Education

Mike Lawson • Features • May 8, 2019

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Parents everywhere sing to their little children at bedtime. It’s a loving ritual that eases the transition from waking to sleep. But educator and singer/songwriter Barbara Milne has taken tender melodies in new directions, exploring the potential that bedtime music has as a learning tool.

In her family, and in her career, bedtime became a time for learning as well as soothing.

Milne is best known as the lady who sings the “Apple Apple” song. It’s a phonics-learning song that she wrote years ago for her own child. Observing how much her daughter absorbed from music that was played at bedtime, Milne composed and recorded songs to teach her little girl fundamental preschool concepts.

“I had taught for seven years,” Milne recalls. “I knew that when she got to kindergarten, Taylor would have to learn the ABCs and the phonemic sounds of the alphabet. She would need to know how to count to 30, the days of the week, the months of the year. So I wrote songs for these skills, recorded them and included abundant repetition. I thought it would relax her and help her learn at the same time.”

A natural impulse to stimulate her little girl’s learning subsequently grew into a thriving musical/educational business. With the encouragement of close friends and the help of Barbara’s husband, Bill Milne, the songs found their way into the Discovery Toys product line, and into thousands of homes and classrooms. Over the years, the Milnes have been gratified to hear from countless parents whose children have experienced learning breakthroughs thanks to the “Apple Apple” lady. Now the Milnes are collaborating with educational company Helio Productions to create new products and apps that use Barbara Milne’s music for bedtime and early learning.

Did you grow up wanting to be a teacher or a singer?

No, but I loved music from the time I was a child. Our family sang a lot. I was always in choirs through school and church. I didn’t really think about going into education until college.

Did certain teachers make a big difference for you in terms of encouraging your singing?

In our junior high music class, I had a high score on a musical aptitude test we were given. My teacher recommended that I join choir when I entered high school. My high school choir teacher was also very supportive.

And then you continued singing in college?

Yes, I joined the choir at University of Southern California, and I met my husband through singing. We were partners in a “Songfest” performance in the Hollywood Bowl. It was a program put on by fraternities and sororities at USC. Fifty-three years later, we’re still partners!

Was your style of teaching very musical from the start?

Yes. I sang to my students all the time. I was constantly creating songs to teach geography, history, science, math and more. I found that music made learning and remembering a lot more fun!

How did you start recording your own songs?

I stopped teaching for a while to raise my daughter, Taylor. I always sang lullabies and nursery rhymes to her at bedtime. So, I thought, If she can learn so easily, I’ll try recording my own music with favorite nursery rhymes and my own songs that included different skills she would need to know later in school. As her language developed rapidly, I wondered, “Is she sleep learning? How is this ‘bedtime learning’ working so well?”

So, I went to the library. The research at that time concluded that we don’t learn effectively when we’re asleep, but our brain is very powerful before we go to sleep and when we’re waking up. I found some fascinating Bulgarian research on increasing the brain’s power up to 50 times by creating a special environment; the experimenters played quiet music, dimmed the lights, and rhythmically read a language that they wanted to teach while the subjects relaxed in lounge chairs. This method could increase learning as much as 50 percent. As I read all this, I thought, “Wow! This is so similar to what I’ve been doing every time I put Taylor to bed!”

So, I made more music. When I thought of something Taylor needed to learn, I wrote a song about it. For example, she would say to me, “Mommy I want a cookie,” and I would say, “Do you mean, ‘May I have a cookie please?’” So, I made a song about manners. I even had one about being polite when your mom is on the telephone! It’s a great song!

You and your daughter are living proof of the importance of music in early learning.

There have been so many studies done to show that there’s a correlation between music and memory. We’re born with 100 million neurons and 100 thousand genes. The genes determine a great deal of our future, but those 100 million neurons are powerful too! They’re waiting to be attached; they need to be stimulated and connected in order for learning to occur. That’s why many babies growing up in orphanages that lack stimulation can have deficits in multiple areas of life. When young children receive abundant love and stimulation from birth, they benefit enormously.

Infants can learn auditory abilities early and easily… even prenatally. We have great testimonials from mothers who put my music on their bellies when pregnant. They tell us how they’ve soothed their tiny fussing baby by playing my gentle songs. It’s almost as though the babies relate that music to the comfort of their mommy’s womb.

Who was the first person to suggest you make your music available commercially?

My two best friends, Ellen and Kathleen. I gave them copies of my music and they played it for their children. Their daughters loved this relaxing music and were really learning in the car and at nap and bedtime.

Ellen was especially instrumental in proving the teaching power of the “Apple Apple” song. I originally wrote it knowing that, academically, it was so valuable because it teaches the phonemic sounds of the English alphabet accurately. The sounds are enunciated slowly and clearly with soft guitar music. But then when I started listening back, I thought, Oh my gosh, that song is so inane. I don’t think people will ever buy this music with that song on there!

Then I was at Ellen’s house one day and heard her two-year-old daughter, Debbie, singing, “Mommy, mommy, m, m, m. Table, table, t, t, t.” Well those words weren’t in my song. I thought, How great!

That’s exactly what we want when a child is learning to spell and read. Debbie was connecting the letter sound with the words in her world! So, I decided to keep it. Little did I know how that song would become so famous and help millions of children and adults with English as a second language start the process of speaking and reading! To this day, people come to Discovery Toys and ask for a CD that has an “Apple, apple a, a, a” song on it.

How do you like the “Apple, Apple” song now?

I love it! If I had millions of dollars, I would figure out a way to put that song into every underprivileged home in America! When I was working on my masters at Cal State Fullerton, I studied how children from underprivileged environments start school with a huge deficit. By the time they get to kindergarten, they’re so far behind in language ability and reading experiences. Most never catch up. There is certainly proof that some can definitely do well if they get the right input and consistent support.

I understand you’re in development on some apps that use your songs. Maybe that will level the playing field to some extent, because apps tend to be inexpensive, and everyone has a phone.

Absolutely. They’re wonderful. We’ve been striving to make them both educational and quite entertaining. The children learn and earn rewards. All of that makes the songs even more valuable.

You’ve been recording new songs as well, for another project. Tell us about that.

There’s a story behind that: Bill has a fraternity brother, an angel capitalist, who connected us with Helio Productions and their CEO John Fyke. His son was struggling to learn his spelling words. So, John had the idea to project the words onto the ceiling so his son would be looking at his spelling words when he went to bed at night. It worked! His son had huge successes that led to the birth of his company. Helio makes the Helio Children’s Educational Nightlight System. They developed many lessons for different grade levels covering a variety of subjects. Through their development, they found they needed an auditory element to their product. Thus, the merging of our two companies!

It’s exciting to find new ways that your songs can be used to educate children.

None of this would ever have come to fruition without my husband. I had all these ideas, and I realized they were worth sharing. I wanted to get them out  there to help more and more children, but I was unsuccessful accomplishing that on my own. Bill’s business expertise turned everything around. I created the music, and he got it to market. A great partnership!

Editor’s Note: Music is magic. My adult daughter with autism, Kelly, stopped speaking at the age of two, and for over a year said nothing. Early intervention with Barbara Milne’s music gave her back the ability to speak, and ultimately, even sing.

Journalist Barbara Schultz has been writing about music production and performance for 25 years.

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