Forget Iron Maiden for Babies, or Mozart -- Raymond Scott Still Has the Best Lullaby Record
Last night, as I put our 23-month-old twins to bed and flipped on A Child's Gift of Lullabies, or Sleepytime Lullabies, or Sing Me to Sleep, or Rockabye Baby! Lullaby Renditions of Fat Joe, or Baby's Dental Drill from the Pure White Noise series, or whatever the heck CD is sonically drugging our insolent toddlers, I considered the Herculean task set before the real-life version of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz. You know, should the apocalypse ever nudge aside our general sense of complacency and make the conservation of the recorded sounds we typically take for granted an exigent necessity. I say Herculean because music preservationists would be endlessly combing through the fallout from the modern parents' fetish for baby lullaby CDs.
I wish I could definitively tell you how much the lullaby market is worth annually, that each year moms and dads spend more money on lullaby compilations than baby vitamins and vaccinations. (I searched for figures and such, but the Internet let me down.) What I can tell you is when I visited Amazon and punched in "lullabies" under the music section, there were over 8,600 results. What I can also tell you is that Twinkle Twinkle Little Rock Star -- a company that transforms popular songs into sweetened, easy-to-swallow tablets (or, tunes that sound like they were banged out on the snot-encrusted xylophone currently resting at the bottom of your kids' toy box) -- recently announced that the latest artist getting the lullaby treatment is Iron Maiden, which means the market has probably reached a tipping point.
Mothers have been soothing their children with lullabies since time immemorial. However, in the last 15 years or so, the lullaby's primary function has been re-imagined. They are no longer limited to mollifying cranky children. Lullabies must also positively impact tiny baby brains, particularly in the areas of intellect and creativity. In 1993, University of California at Irvine researchers found that 10 minutes of listening to Mozart's "The Sonata for Two Pianos in D major, K. 448" produced a brief but significant increase in the performance of a spatial IQ task. Two years later, the same researchers expanded the study. Three groups were given three separate listening experiences: silence, the same Mozart piece, and a minimalist composition by Phillip Glass. Only the group listening to Mozart exhibited a significant increase in spatial IQ score.
This phenomenon was dubbed the "Mozart effect," and though further scientific studies showed that the Austrian maestro's melodies or those from other classical composers did not necessarily increase intelligence in babies (music instruction, not music listening, more likely produces such an effect), the market for kiddie-centric classical compilations exploded. Take the cleverly titled Mozart Effect series, developed by The Children's Group. The company's web site declares that its lullabies will, among other things, "improve body movement and coordination" and "strengthen intuitive thinking skills." Imagine that. Songs that not only pacify your sleep-resistant rugrat, but also significantly increase the chances that they will one day possess the ability to juggle meat cleavers or be really awesome at chess.
Raymond Scott's music never came with such boastful claims. If there's anyone to blame for today's preoccupation with baby lullabies, it's Scott. In 1962 and '63, the New York-born composer produced the three-volume series Soothing Sounds for Baby, done in collaboration with the Gesell Institute of Child Development, an organization dedicated to understanding how children grown and learn. The institute's scientists had recently discovered that a baby's hearing was more developed than initially thought. Scott was commissioned to create music that would placate young ears. Adolescent ambient, if you will; music that adhered to the parameters laid out by Brian Eno decades later: sonic environments intended to induce calm and a space to think, as well as accommodate several levels of listening attention without enforcing any particular one.
Scott was the rare artist who occupied two worlds: He operated within the boundaries of mainstream music, but also subsisted in its margins, permitting him to move freely and purposely from genre to genre. "When I listen to Raymond Scott's music," said DJ Spooky in the documentary Deconstructing Dad, "I really can see the 20th Century's DNA kind of unpacked." In the 1930s, the Raymond Scott Quintette specialized in esoteric jazz; during the '50s, he was the bandleader for the popular television show "Your Hit Parade," a precursor to Casey Kasem's "American Top 40." In the 1940s, Warner Bros. began licensing his music for cartoons. If you've ever watched an animated short and caught a scene involving an assembly line -- like, baby animals moving down an assembly line, having their diapers changed by deftly moving robotic hands -- the music will inevitably be Scott's "Powerhouse."
During the '60s, he created sequencers/synthesizers dubbed the Electronium. It featured a multitude of knobs, switches, and patch panels, and embraced that suburban aesthetic of ensconcing appliances in walnut paneling. Images of the Electronium evoke those enormous mainframe computers, complete with big dials and spinning tape reels, found in the laboratories of cartoon mad scientists. However, Motown founder Berry Gordy didn't find it geeky; he purchased the instrument and appointed Scott label director of Electronic Music Research and Development.
For Soothing Sounds for Baby, Scott uses nothing listed above -- jazz, Top 40, or Motown -- as a jumping-off point, which makes the music sound so impossibly conceived. "Kraftwerk for infants" is how I once heard a fan describe it. Soothing's electronic melodies are skimpy and straightforward, conjuring up the image of a child playing a piano with just one finger. The accompanying rhythms are repeated throughout the song, their pace often matching normal human heart and respiratory rates. Saying this music is meant to evoke the womb would be disingenuous; Soothing aims higher. It conflates the comfortable with the uncomfortable -- for every reoccurring clang and thud that could be a child tapping a metal toy against a radiator or striking a spoon against an overturned bowl, there's two that sound downright weird and extraterrestrial -- isolating listeners from their immediate environment, like being enclosed in a big, silvery bubble in which you're free to close your eyes and savor drifting away. Playful but with a sense of purpose, Soothing is just as satisfying for adults as it is for children. (Yes, my twins dig it.)
Soothing Sounds for Baby sold little upon its release, and even today, continues to fly under most parents' radars. The album features no gimmicks, no xylophones, no Mozart effect contrivances. Nonetheless, when it comes to original baby lullabies, Raymond Scott's are without equal.
Dad Rock is a column in which Ryan Foley attempts to look at pop music and pop culture from the precipice of middle age. If he ultimately leaps, it's because tiny hands ruined his Galaxie 500 vinyl. Accusations that he's raising five insufferable hipster children can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.