Our First Audio Memories are Deeply Rooted
According to the research article “Auditory Development in the Fetus and Infant” by Graven and Browne (Newborn and Infant Nursing Reviews, 2008), the auditory system becomes functional at 25 weeks gestation, but it needs sound—sound beyond that from the mother— to be able to develop the ability to process and understand complex systems like language and music. Unlike vision, which each individual possesses at birth and develops somewhat independently, hearing requires external stimulation to fully function. People and things making a range of vibrations that oscillate at a range of frequencies indeed has a physical bearing on the developmental capabilities of the cochlea and the auditory complex. In short, our ears are able to hear more when there’s more to listen to in the womb and in early infancy. Left in a deprivation chamber during its formative years, an infant’s developing ear would not know how to hear a range of frequencies when he or she emerged.
Therefore, whereas vision is narcissistic, a completely personal interpolation of outside data, hearing is a shared, communal experience. One may be able to see something in plain sight without telling anyone else in the room about it, but every one in ear shot will be able to hear something said aloud. The vision is yours, but the sound belongs to everyone.
With that said, the parents and caregivers responsible for the sound development of the infant have a big responsibility, even if they don’t know they’re taking on this task. Furthermore, the human’s first audio memories are stored in the limbic system, responsible for generating emotional responses, located adjacent to the auditory cortex in the temporal lobe. Any remembered sound therefore should automatically trigger an emotional response, however small, meaning that the parent’s provided sonic environment also has an impact on emotional development in the child (it’s thought that this is why music from adolescence, when emotion is at its most vibrant, generally triggers the strongest emotional response from its listeners). Just as educational baby toys tend to showcase a wildly varied chromatic range of bright colors and different shapes, so too should the baby’s listening environment encompass a broad palette of sounds.
In 1963, former jazz bandleader turned commercial electronic sound engineer Raymond Scott put out a winsome series of three LPs in conjunction with the Gesell Institute of Child Development (now known as the Gesell Institute of Human Development), an organization committed to incorporating psychological observations on childhood development into the educational process. Entitled Soothing Sounds for Babies, each album addressed a different age group and contained minimalist electronic music, mostly made on instruments of Scott’s own creation, to be played for children in an ambient capacity (wherein they could either be listened to intently or ignored completely). The Gesell Institute and Scott, predating both Karp and Eno, noted that infants responded to the vibrations of a ticking clock and a music box much like they reacted to the vibrations of being jiggled around. Not only could be music be used for sedative purposes, the album’s booklet alleged, it could also be educational in and of itself, even at these early stages.
Scott’s work on these albums is brilliant. At times glistening and pretty, at others incessantly irritating, it’s essentially baby avant-garde, a peer predecessor to Terry Riley and Morton Subotnick. “The Happy Whistler” chugs along with the same motorized gait as Kraftwerk’s “Kometenmelodie 2”, but rather than glide into a glorious new Europe it goes for a glorious joy ride around a fantasy island, no agenda other than to gaze in quiet awe at the surroundings. The dueling notes of “Tic Toc” are so reductionist that they make Basic Channel sound like John Williams, but after a while they become captivating and entrancing, regressing the listener back to a state of elementary enjoyment. “Nursery Rhyme” is a bizarre take on several public domain children’s tunes that would be ripe for an IDM remix. “Tin Solider” is so gleefully reverb-laden that it might as well be parenthetically cited as the “(Dub Mix)”. Then there are the sublime lullabies in “Sleepy Time” and “Little Miss Echo”, which foreshadow Kraftwerk, Cluster, and Boards of Canada.
If Scott’s music seemed to anticipate many future styles, it also prefigured electronic music’s eventual role as functional, music that treated the science of the body as an instrument to be tuned just as an any other mechanical component. If electronic dance music would later be appropriately formulated to rhythmically exorcise the confounding and conflicting data of a work-pleasure/oppression-freedom state, Scott’s engineered guide brought the infant comfortably into a state of cybernetic sonic sustenance, both as controlled and predictable as the womb (through the unchanging series of backing loops) and as variegated diverse as the world outside of it (through the whimsical playing atop those loops). Contrary to popular belief, ambient music like Scott’s offers its own tensions, but between inertia and motion, boredom and intrigue, or being and nothingness, rather than just pressure and release, as in Western popular music and pre-Satie Eurocentric classical.