What every infant should hear

So Boston Globe staffer Jeremy Eichler has enlisted his infant son Jonah as a test subject for early musical perception and education. Why limit the kid’s choices to Mozart and Schoenberg? How ’bout some good ol’ American prime Louis Armstrong, introducing the concepts of improvisation and swing? 

There’s nothing wrong with turning children on to European classical music — I spent the weekend at my cellist-daughter’s music camp, profoundly proud of her pace-setting role in a conductor-less rendition of Mozart’s Symphony 25. But to raise a child without letting them in, early, on the evidently still-secret pleasures and powers of jazz is a shame. 

While Mr. Eichler finds that two-month-olds develop preferences for consonant and dissonant music, that eight-month-olds can appreciate Balinese gamelan scales, and that University of Nevada, Las Vegas researcher Erin Hannon believes ” infants start life with the ability to perceive complex rhythms but that they lose this skill unless it is called upon in their environment,” he needn’t go so global as Bulgarian wedding clarinetist Ivo Papasov (who is excellent) to locate a variety of boldly unfurling melodic phrases and meaningful variations, employing compelling rhythmic complexity in digestible narrative structure, performed with sweetly impassioned joy. Armstrong’s “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” is another great example.

As Smithsonian National Museum of American History music curator John Edward Hasse has written:

From 1925 to 1928, bandleader and trumpeter Louis Armstrong led a recording group, known as the Hot Five and Hot Seven, through nearly 90 recordings. These tracks are now considered among the most seminal, enduring and influential recordings not only in jazz but in American music . . .His big, beautiful tone; his rich imagination as a soloist; his perfect sense of time; his deep understanding of the blues; his projection and authority; and the force of his musical personality. . .The essence of jazz–making something new out of something old, making something personal out of something shared–has no finer exemplar than Armstrong.”

Armstrong had a great fondness for young people, and even recorded a entertaining album of Disney themes, but that’s not the point. His music is delightful, engaging and enlightening on many levels, not least the “purely” musical. I believe kids don’t need only repetition in their music, but do enjoy singable themes that they can take off on, given that freedom. I think kids like the forward-tilting propulsion, syncopated and driving, that marks so much great American vernacular music — jazz, blues, bluegrass, Western swing, rock ‘n’ roll, soul, hip-hop and other popular forms. I think it’s wise to introduce children to America’s cultural icons, and the notion that real-life people, rather than untouchable artists from a hallowed canon, produce music. 

Besides Armstrong and Fats Waller, my daughter heard music across genres from an early age — records by Bob Marley, the Beatles and early Billie Holiday, live concerts by Andrew Hill and Sonny Rollins, her mother Kitty Brazelton’s chamber music and avant-garde rock band Dadadah, works performed at the Bang on the Can Marathon, Bernadette Peters in Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun” and even Charles Wuorinen’s 12-tone opera “Haroun and the Sea of Stories.” That last one didn’t move her: “Dad,” she protested after 15 minutes, “this is not music!” Would an exclusive listening diet of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg given her better entry into that rarefied sound world? Perhaps — but then what she would have missed! 

Eichler reports, in his article, on this conclusion of Henkjan Honing of the University of Amsterdam: “Mere explusre makes an enormous contribution to how musical competence develops. But it’s the variety that counts.” So to stimulate the very young’s listening skills,  Bach is good, yes, Beethoven too, certainly Stravinsky (watch your toddler dance to “The Rite of Spring“) and even Wuorinen has written suitable pieces (I’m thinking of “Grand Bamboula” and maybe the electronic Time’s Encomium). But if you’re responsible for helping a tyke hear what’s possible, pleasurable and prophetic, don’t stop (or necessarily start) with the symphonic, and be sure to give ’em at least a dollop of Pops.

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  1. says

    My kids (all 6 of them) grew up with Sun Ra on their little night-light portable player; there’s nothing like wandering into the room where a toddler is on the floor with his trains and he’s humming “Fate in a Pleasant Mood” — this was not my belligerence, foisting my tastes on them, no not at all. This was discovered by trial and error, and with 6 kids, I had a lot of trials.
    What I discovered was that the Swing Beat was particularly effective in calming children, whether that’s King Oliver or Oliver Lake, even when it is deeply folded (eg Sun Ra’s Magic City). As the playroom ambient music, the relentless bam-bam-bam beat of pop could lead to edginess (ok, so does Skies of America) and (if there were more than one child) certain musics could either induce or salve conflicts. I used all sorts of things, from the Ramones to Alice Coltrane, plainsong chants to Luc Ferarri; I was inspired by the research done by Pythagoras who, as we all know, had a band that worked as “Riot Control” for his local police.
    Now … knowing that I can get an earlier dozing of the bedtime infant or a more cooperative play from a gang of preschoolers is very different from effecting any actual Change in the children. There too, I maybe don’t have nearly as much data as I do with the muzak-experiments, and obviously it is unethical to keep one as the control while I tinker with the others 😉 but I do know that so far, of the 5 who have entered school, without any special encouragement or external assistance, all have exceeded the school’s requirements in all subjects :)
    An effect of Sun Ra on Early Childhood Development? As Sonny often said, “One never knows, does one.”
    HM: I’m curious: Among six kids, what kinds of personal differences did they exhibit in reaction to the same music (at same and/or different ages?) It IS too bad that keeping one of the little ones “pure” as a control is so frowned upon, because when they’re allowed to develop on their own they get all, uh, complicated (in my single experience, anyway). And I think Fats Waller articulated that particular dictum prior to Mr. Ra, which is no reason to discount its veracity. Is it. (And yes, I can imagine Sun Ra’s solo piano (Satellites and Moonbeams) as well as the farthest out electronic blasts (like on Atlantis) and otherwordly singalongs (“We Travel The Spaceways, From Planet to Planet”)
    could sooth/thrill/chill/hypnotize the receptive tyke.

  2. says

    Personal differences? Well, I have a theory about siblings: They all develop orthogonal to the others. If you have two, they are polarized on every issue, if 3 you get a volumetric exploration, with 6 you experience the higher dimensions of human personality 😉 As for the music, it is true that even at a very young age, while they all preferred true and real “Swing”, some liked Benny Goodman or Fletcher Henderson, others preferred Thad Jones; I measure that by the song where they actually fell asleep, so it could mean they stayed awake for the PREVIOUS song and then “Ah, the good stuff is over, let’s split this joint: time for a nap” — in the early days they’d have music in sequence, in modern times we have Random Play Mode.
    But I did worry that I’d be creating a whole family of children who equated Swing music with a dreary sense of falling asleep. That didn’t happen, tho. Instead I found the post-teen kids had Miles Davis tucked next to Smashing Pumpkins and the pre-teens had Tiny Grimes in their walkman, and none of them expressed any desire to learn to play anything more ‘jazzy’ than Sonic Youth.
    But it’s early. When I was young I was raised on old-school Country, and while I rebelled against it well into my 20’s, when I finally overcame my fear and, like Bill Frisell, let my roots show, people would comment on how NATURAL I sounded; I didn’t even really realize just how much of the microtonal nuance I had absorbed. My theory is that its like learning a second language, if you never heard the phonemes as a baby, you have real trouble both hearing and making those sounds as an adult.
    so they’ll thank me later. I’m sure of that :)
    HM: The rest of us music lovers thank you now.