The Science of Sleep: The Electronic Lullaby

The womb is a regular fallback cliché for the music writer, particularly one fumbling for a description of murky psychedelic sonics. Floating there, comfortably perched in a vat of amniotic fluid, the fetus’ ear, not yet fully developed, is encased with liquid, surrounded by a protective layer of vernix, muffling the roughly 80 to 90 db chronic din of blood pumping through the mother’s arteries. As lazy a musical shorthand “Womblike” may be, it’s apropos to the situation the developing child finds him/herself in while nestled in the womb- rhythmic, chaotic, dissonant, and consistent.

In Dr. Harvey Karp’s The Happiest Baby on the Block, Karp outlines what he calls the “colic cure”, five separate soothing methods which, when used patiently and in the correct combination, will calm a newborn during the first three months of life, or what he calls the “fourth trimester”. Karp argues that during the “fourth trimester”, an infant is still adjusting to the shock of being outside of the womb where all sustenance was provided for him/her. Not yet ready to be born, newborn babies receive comfort when their parents or providers replicate the set and setting of the womb by swaddling the infants tightly, positioning them on their side or stomach, jiggling them around, offering them a pacifier or finger to suck on, and simulating the sounds of the womb. For the latter, there are a number of methods one can use to reproduce a gestational sound environment. Shushing loudly next to the baby’s ear usually works, though some babies often require a little more persistence, which can be achieved by using a white noise generator or a nature sounds machine like the Sleep Sheep. Other household devices, such as a vacuum cleaner, microwave fan, or anything Matthew Herbert might incorporate into an album tend to do well, too. Also, there’s music.

Since electronic or programmed music tends to be the music of soundscaping, it offers the perfect venues for womb simulation. Ambient and experimental electronic music regularly incorporate sounds like running water, hums, drones, buzzes, noise, Tibetan throat singing, and other low frequency tones, all of which value (electro) acoustic space similar in rhythm and overtone to the prenatal environment. The DVD version of Karp’s book contains a special feature that’s simply several minutes of a single loop. This loop is supposed to be a close approximation of what might actually be heard in gestation, though it could just as easily be a locked groove from a new release on a sound sculpturing record label like Raster-Norton, Editions Mego, or Type. Newborns, it seems, are predisposed to noise music, specifically that of a fuzzy, warm, and liquid timbre. It’s only later that we begin to favor harmony and melody.

All of which leads to the question of whether noise music or noisy music is just a regression, an infantalization. Sure, many have remarked on how the more confrontational aspects of the ear-shattering post-power electronics demiurges like Prurient, Masonna, or Macronympha are entangled in puerility, but the violent tantrums of this kind of rapacious sonic provocation engage more with juvenilia and adolescence than infancy or fetal development. Atmospheric music, particularly in its modern drone-feedback-overtone incarnation, tends towards the ill-defined, the separation between notes, instruments, user and content, bleeding together as if sharing a fallopian connection to one another.

Brian Eno’s original idea of ambient music as “wallpaper” and Erik Satie’s referral of his proto-ambient pieces as “furniture music” indicate a tendency in the sound itself to provide a means of shelter for the listener, to reproduce a home using aural space. It’s not for nothing that Eno’s own Discreet Music was allegedly administered in hospitals as a maternal aid to facilitate labor, its comforting tones providing assistance for breathing exercises during the stressful period leading up to delivery — it’s sound as security

Is the comfort food of protracted texturized sound an attempt to place the body without organs back in a state of complete dependence? to simplify musical space’s organizational tensions to a minimalist network of needs and fulfillments? It’s hard to tell if babies can distinguish soundscapes or ambient tones from structured notational music at their earliest stage of hearing development since they are experiencing both for the first time concurrently. For the infant (as is the intention with many an experimental composer), all music is sound and all sound is music.

My daughter was born in July of 2010 and she has given me a lot of time to think about her relationship to sound and music, particularly during the first few months when she would hijack my body, normally immersed in headphones and stationed behind a computer screen, for hours while I tried to exact a proper response that might calm her desolate howls. It was a small wonder every time she would quiet for Windy and Carl, Gas, Loscil, Grouper, or just my own singing voice reverberating through the backdrop of a running sink (babies are the opposite of eco-friendly). But lest I thought she had the coolest musical taste ever for someone so tiny, a winning formula could rarely be repeated and it was clear that what she was craving was extrinsic to the music itself.

Wondering what my daughter’s life is going to turn out like, I think about how much is already decided and how much my wife and I are deciding for her in these first few formative months. I’ve already exposed her to a range of sounds and music, particularly when driving her back from daycare, though it’s unclear if any of it will stick or whether my tastes will hybridize with the inevitable influences of her peer group. There’s no doubt my daughter will grow up with at the very least a peripheral exposure to things that radio and TV wouldn’t dare champion, but it’s hard not to think that her reactions to all this stuff will be more of a reflection of her relationship with me as sole representative of bizarro noises than a neutral judgment on the sounds. Failure to rouse a spirit of adventurousness in musical taste could very well spell a failure in parenting, if this is truly the case.

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.

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.