The Science of Sleep

The Electronic Lullaby

by Timothy Gabriele

27 January 2011

Photo found on Blog TO (blog Toronto).com  

Fascinating Soundtracks for a Child's REM Journey

The ultimate heirs to Scott’s project emerged in the form of post-psychedelic futurist projects throughout Europe, particularly Germany. Starting out in a state of feral freakout, “krautrock” eventually retreated into a state of childlike wonder, exploring cosmic (or kosmische) spaces through brightly hued synthetic tones and womblike atmospherics. LSD undoubtedly had something to do with this, as the acid trip not only plunged the mind into an abstract system that defied the systemic gridwork laid down by the culture (as is apparent in the earlier, noisier sonic experiments of krautrock), but also allowed its users to reacquaint themselves with the world, as if they had never seen or heard it before.  In other words, acid was a way to both experience life as an infant does and to transform what was once common into something strange, exciting, or terrifying. 

As a result, krautrock/kosmische music contains a great number of potential lullabies, like Kraftwerk’s heartbeat-driven “Radioland”, Faust’s “Party” sketch pieces, Ashra’s unearthly and beautiful “Deep Distance”, and the whimsical pre-school delight of Roedelius’s Jardin Au Fou album.

Research shows that the most prominent feature of music that infants regard and remember is a piece’s contour, which is the musical shape of a sound as derived from variations in pitch.  Since babies most easily recognize music when it is arranged in a rhythmically simple pattern of varying pitches, most traditional lullabies (“Hush Little Baby”, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, “Away in a Manger”, “Rock-a-Bye Baby”, “Beautiful Dreamer”, et. al.) are composed as a series of ascending and descending scales.  Lullabies pace up and down in pitch that’s predictable, though rarely in a dull fashion. They are also generally constructed as a sequence of surrogate notes, avoiding the glissando or sliding contour that characterizes most baby talk.  When adults talk to infants, they use variations in pitch too, making language and music even more indistinguishable. In the infant’s limited attention, speech may be easily drowned out in the cacophony of atmospheric noise unless it becomes fun and musical.

Most modern popular music is rooted in syncopation, chromaticism, and excitable rhythmic propulsion.  Thus, it defies the ultimate goal of lullabies and atonal “womb” music, which is sleep. Sleep, like sound exposure, is incredibly important for physiological hearing development.  According to Graven and Brown, infants particularly need rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is crucial to the creation of long-term synapses in the temporal lobe where auditory memories can be stored. The objective of a lullaby, then, is quite literally to trigger the creation of dreams.

And beyond music boxes, mobiles, and untrained singing parents, the only contemporary music involved in dream creation at the moment is electronic listening music. While much of this music harbors the repetition, simplicity, and contour needed to chaperone an infant into slumberland, few do so with any kind of consistency, making it the job of the parents to design the setlists.  Albums containing one or two nursery-ready electronic berceuses often seat these songs adjacent to dark and brutal nightmarish dirges (see the occultish tendencies of the Ghost Box groups, who blend the dynamics of the BBC Radiophonic workshop’s concurrent soundtracks of children’s shows and sci-fi/horror programming).  Aphex Twin’s ambient work has been known to do this in part. His compositional pieces pair pristine treble-heavy cherubic melodies (which are coddled in affective FX and gentle sequencing) with rough, scratchy, and infinitely dense beats and sound effects, making these cuts somewhat resistant to sleep. 

One excellent 2010 album that really does the trick though is The Soft Wave by San Francisco musician Alexis Georgopoulos, also known as ARP.  For my daughter, The Soft Wave’s dull bass sounds, borrowed from the second half of “Autobahn” are practically narcotic, a divine spell that assures baby that sleep is indeed the best course.  What’s more, The Soft Wave is a great transition between “womb music” and lullabies, as illustrated in the albums opening opus “Pastoral Symphony I: Dominoes II: Infinity Room”, which is a sweetly contoured hymn that bounces along at gentle BPM, but is laced with fuzzy drones and wobbly tremolo sequences.  The next track, “White Light” is actually fairly dissonant, but hopefully not enough to wake up your child, who should already be asleep after the nine-minute suite of “Pastoral Symphony”. The romantic modulations of “Catch Waves” then will be fascinating for the child’s REM journey, the Debussy-like piano playing being positively dreamlike. ARP’s lone singing track, “From a Balcony Overlooking the Sea”, also works well on its own as a lullaby, its twilight luminescence not unlike Eno’s own lullaby-esque “Everything Merges With the Night”.

Electronic music’s tradition of minimalism anoints it as the exclusive sleep aid accompaniment for newborns.  It also gives children a head start in auditory development, leading them, hopefully, down a path of adventurous listening. Traditional folk lullabies have been sung for hundreds of years, predating the use of recorded audio, but perhaps it is possible for new traditions to emerge.  In the age of access, it’s possible that Raymond Scott, Kraftwerk, and ARP may become as essential tools for infant soothing as “Rock-A-Bye Baby”, a song from the 1700s, and may offer something that will stimulate and challenge both child and parent.

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