Art Instincts

"Your baby must be sooo musical!"

My husband and I are both professional musicians. As a result, people often assume our son, Galen, must have unusual musical gifts of his own.

Many are likely making small talk, sending some harmless flatteries our way. Galen is only 17 months old. It's still far too soon to say whether our progeny is a prodigy!

That being said, having him has definitely made me think in new ways about the role and purpose of music, and of art in general, in our lives.

So when people assume Galen must be musical, I usually reply with the biggest musical takeaway I've come to as a new parent: all babies are.

Music Soothes the Savage Beast

Before becoming pregnant, it had never crossed my mind that our first sensory experience as human beings in utero is rhythm. Galen was hearing my heartbeat from the time he'd been cooking for about 18 weeks. He recognized the timbre of my voice from about 7 to 8 months gestation. And speech itself has a rhythm. All babies show a preference for their mother tongue the moment they emerge into the world.

Because songs slow down speech, they likely help babies learn language. And singing calms not only the child, but also the parent doing the soothing. This creates a positive feedback loop of bonding and good vibes.

I, and all parents, have experienced this countless times. Singing to Galen is so soothing. It's one of my favorite parts of the day. I can feel it lowering both of our heart rates. (My personal challenge: not getting choked up when singing "Red River Valley," or Billy Joel's "Lullaby.")

The "Mozart Effect" has never been proven to make children smarter. (You know what will? Studying and practicing an instrument.) The real Mozart Effect has nothing to do with intelligence, and everything to do with calmness and appreciation of art. Personally, I don't think those benefits are any less meaningful than an IQ bump. 

While in utero, Galen seemed to love Beethoven and music of the French Baroque. I admit that it gave me a lift whenever I felt him kick during a rehearsal or concert. But I doubt this reflected his sophisticated taste thanks to early occupational exposure!

Throughout his young life, Galen's favorite song has been Old MacDonald. Philip and I have amused ourselves during particularly fussy car rides by exhausting the animal kingdom. ("And on that farm he had a... errr... platypus. E-I-E-I-O!")

Singing is our secret weapon. Need to soothe him to sleep? Sing. Grouchy and fussing? Sing. Crying uncontrollably? Sing. Sometimes, Galen will lie still, listening, and trick us into thinking he's fallen asleep. The second we stop singing, he lets us know he wants us to continue. This can take the form of an adorable, soft vocalization, or of suddenly flailing limbs around with excitement. 

We love what we know

What works particularly well: singing from the roster of songs we know Galen loves.

I've often noticed how bananas audiences go the moment a band plays their most famous song. I doubt this effusive response happens because that particular song is "the best one." I think it's because people know and recognize it. Certainly, the fact that others are going similarly bananas has an amplifying effect. (But more on the pro-social stuff later.)

There's a profound pleasure, satisfaction, and calm in our recognition of the known.  I've seen this same response in Galen from the time he was just a few weeks old.

... and what we don't know captivates us

That being said, Galen loves hearing songs and music that are new to him. He will sit just as quietly, just as transfixedly -- but with a different quality of alertness and interest about him.

Sitting and listening is natural

In my darkest moments as a classical musician, I'd wondered if the pastime of sitting and listening to music had run its course. Perhaps my own love for it placed me in a strange, niche group. Nothing -- or rather, no one -- has put my mind at rest on this topic quite like Galen.

Babies are notorious for their infinitesimally short attention spans. I see this in action every day. And yet, Galen is compelled to "sit and listen" to music of his own volition on a daily basis. This is not something we have taught him to do. 

As any parent knowns, there is nothing passive whatsoever about a baby. Even in sleep, they're all growth, absorption, and the forging of connections. I have never been so convinced that "sitting and listening" is an activity in the truest sense of the word. 

Music is deeply pro-social

I've written many times about the pro-social quality of music. Intuitively, we all feel the social implications of music -- and all the arts, for that matter -- to be self-evident. Consider, for instance, the very idea of a national anthem.

I learned recently that babies moving in sync with others are more likely to help them. Rhythmic synchrony amplifies our responsiveness and empathy towards others.

From a recent episode of Hidden Brain, a favorite podcast:

"In her 2014 study on toddlers, Laura Cirelli discovered that 14-month-olds who felt they were bouncing in sync with a dance partner were more likely to help that partner pick up an object that was out of reach. Music and rhythm creates connection because, as Cirelli says, synchronous movement is its own kind of language—a language of affection. 'When we are moving with other people [and] singing familiar songs, these are cueing us, babies and adults, to think about the relationships we have with these people.' "

I've also seen that singing during undesirable clean-up rituals, like putting toys away and washing hands, is a very effective way to increase cooperation with the task at hand.

Clapping is also natural  

Salastina has strong feelings about the whole "clapping between movements" thing. Far be it from us to shame anyone wanting to show appreciation for what they're hearing. I personally love it whenever people are moved to applaud -- yes, even if "incorrectly." 

For the past few months, Galen has been clapping not only once songs are over, but once he can tell that they are nearing their conclusion. I find this expression of excitement, appreciation, and understanding adorable.

In a way, it affirms the pro-sociality of music. What his applause tells me? 

"Yay! I really liked that, and this is how I'm going to show you -- therein sharing in the culmination and communion of this little musical moment with you."

(I'm sure he would say it just like that. What was I just saying about the false claims of the Mozart Effect?)  

The feeling I get when Galen applauds has only reinforced my feelings about clapping during concerts. Bring it on!

Music helps us form meaning and memories

Again: something we all intuitively know to be true that touched me when I saw it at work in my own child.

Listening to a hit song from the past can instantly throw us back into memories of that time. When my family returned from three weeks in Europe last week, poor Galen was horribly jetlagged. He had only slept one hour during our twelve-hour flight. When we arrived at home, I took him out of the car, waking him from a little nap. His eyes were bright red, and he looked extremely disoriented. The poor guy was exhausted.

I gently carried him inside and, while pointing, whispered the names of familiar objects. His breathing was shallow and fast, and his eyes were wide. He seemed both overcome and confused. I repeatedly told him we were home, but wasn't sure it was registering. On a hunch, I played a snippet from a musical book a friend had given him as a newborn that is one of his favorites. He immediately burst into cathartic tears. It seemed so clear to us that the familiar sound helped him piece together that he was home at last.

Speech is musical

I’ve written before about the inherent linguistic quality of music. But now that our son’s language skills are exploding, it’s been wonderful to realize how musical speech is in and of itself.

Like music, speech in every language has its own rhythm, pitch, and cadence. This becomes so obvious when I hear Galen imitating words over and over, or practicing the same word repeatedly all by himself. Repetition somehow makes the musicality of speech more apparent. (Think of how musical chanting is!)

Music, art, and language are intrinsically connected cognitive abstractions

I've written before about music as a language. While I'd once made that comparison as a useful metaphor, I now see a very real cognitive relationship between the two. I'd even rope visual art into the matrix.

I doubt it's a coincidence that humans are the only animals who represent objects, concepts, and feelings through abstractions. And I doubt it's a coincidence that these verbal, musical, and artistic abstractions all serve to make meaning.  

Likewise, I doubt it's a coincidence that Galen is able to recognize visual representations in tandem with his growing language skills, and his ability to describe what they are. The two are developing with a remarkable congruence. 

Exhibit A: these days, he will point to the actual moon and/or a picture or drawing of the moon, and proclaim: "MUH!" The same goes for "BAH!" (ball), "CAT!", "HAT!", "KAY-KAY!" (Uncle Kevin), "KEY!", or "WUH-WUH!" (dog). 

The art instinct runs deep

One of my desert island books is Denis Dutton's Art Instinct. While abroad, I couldn't miss the chance to visit Chauvet Cave -- or rather, a perfect replica of the site. Since the original caves are 36,000 years old -- twice as old as the famous caves of Lascaux -- they aren't open to the public. In fact, only a few scholars are allowed into the real caves once per year.

Before their discovery in the late 1990s, scholars had assumed Lascaux represented the pinnacle of prehistoric art. That anything that had come before must have been, somehow, more primitive. Amazingly, Chauvet Cave disproved that theory.

36,000 year old Graffiti that took my breath away

36,000 year old Graffiti that took my breath away

The most amazing thing about the discovery of Chauvet Cave was the recognition that -- 36,000 years ago, when Woolly Mammoths roamed the Tundra that was France -- homo sapiens had enough mastery over their cold and hunger to have the leisure time in which to express their spiritual nature through art.

In other words: these urges are basic, necessary, and fundamental. And they run deeper, and are older, than we ever imagined.

Our tour guide helped us appreciate early man as artist. These painters had clearly considered the viewer's experience, and shaped their art accordingly. For instance, flickering flame would have made the animals on the walls appear to be moving in an animated stampede. And this artistic intention informed the sequence in which the narrative was painted.

She also explained that some of the art had to have been made by women and children. Scholars have deduced this by considering anatomical clues left behind by the art, and its placement throughout the caves.

This experience was incredibly moving. Galen? He fussed his way through the exhibit, only perking up when he saw a Neanderthal skull -- and confused it for "BAH!!" (ball).

This recent experience, and my ongoing experience as a new parent, have had a huge impact on my evolving understanding of what art and music are all about:

Communion. Calm. Cognition. Comfort. Connection.