Experiment: Does Raymond Scott’s “Soothing Sounds for Baby” actually work?

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Little information exists about how and why Soothing Sounds for Baby was created, leaving a lot of questions unanswered.

We do know that the three LP set, released in 1964, was Raymond Scott’s last recorded album after a strange career as a popular TV bandleader on NBC, composer, and reclusive electronic music pioneer. We also know that Soothing Sounds for Baby was a dud; it sold only a few thousand copies.

Despite the implications of the retro schmaltz album cover it was given on its 1990s CD reissue, we also know that Scott and his collaborators, the Gisell Institute of Child Development, were serious about the album’s purpose: to scientifically create an “indispensable aid to mother during the feeding, teething, play, sleep, and fretful periods.”

But who approached whom? Why did the Gisell Institute, a well-respected child development research organization, think that Scott’s echoey looped electronics were the ideal form of aural infant sedative? What were their methods? In the institute’s basement, were dozens of babies in Skinner boxes subjected to Scott’s music while men in white lab coats with detached expressions and clipboards took notes?

And why did the institute conclude that electronically-generated music—-still considered in the early 60s to be dark, weird, and best for either giant-monster-crushes-skyline type films or academic avant garde wankery—-was the best choice for soothing developing children? A booklet was included in the original LPs written by the Giselle Institute explaining that babies like “new sights and sounds” and that the album was intended to be “pleasantly stimulating.” However, the book is bereft of any research conclusions on Scott’s music’s effect, or at least these conclusions haven’t been mentioned online by those who have seen the booklet. (Attempts to find the original booklet online were fruitless.)

But the ultimate question is simple: does it work?

Dead Electric decided to undertake a long (well, 15 minutes), rigorous (well, involving beer) experiment (well, highly unscientific) to test Soothing Sounds for Baby’s effectiveness on a real live baby.

The Subject:

 

Name: Niko

Age: Three months

Sex: Male

Materials and Methods

Materials:

  • Baby
  • Control songs: “Silent Night” by Jingle Cats; “Wind on Small Paws” by cEvin Key, industrial musician/founding member of Skinny Puppy; “Sonata in E Major” by Scarlatti, as interpreted by Wendy Carlos’s on The Well-tempered Synthesizer (control)

Methods:

The experiment was conducted in three cycles, each cycle consisting of the Subject being exposed to two minutes (ish) of Soothing Sounds for Baby and two minutes (ish) of a control track. Sequence: Scott, Jingle Cats, Scott, cEvin Key, Scott, Wendy Carlos.

Experimenters observed the Subject from a distance of several feet, avoiding all touching and affection in order to eliminate other possible interfering variables.

Results

Initial results to exposure of both “Lullaby” and Jingle Cats were almost identical, though data show a slightly more positive reaction to “Lullaby.” The Subject spent the first cycle squirming in that beetle-turned-on-its-back kind of way, looking alternately confused and amazed, and occasionally even cooing.

However, when cEvin Key’s industrial track “Wind on Small Paws” was initiated, the Subject became highly agitated, cried, and moved erratically. When followed by Scott’s “Nursery Rhyme,” the Subject again became calm.

Wendy Carlos’s “Sonata in E Major” proved particularly stimulating for the child’s mood, with smiling, delighted cries, and more cooing. Unfortunately, however, the experiment’s protocols were violated at this point by the Experimenters, who gave up the pretense of detached scientific observation and started touching and playing with the baby in time with the music because that Carlos track is really damn good.

Conclusion

Results are inconclusive and require further study. Data pointed to the Subject being calmed by Scott’s “Nursery Rhyme” after being exposed to “Wind on Small Paws,” but further tests are needed to determine whether it was Scott’s music that resulted in the Subject’s calmer temper or whether babies just really hate cEvin Key.

Positive reactions to Soothing Sounds for Baby when compared to the control song on the first cycle suggest a marginally significant effect, but the data was insufficient to draw a firm conclusion. The findings of these studies neither affirm nor contradict those of other researchers, who in this case were two random people on Twitter who said it worked. Furthermore, a larger sample size (>n=1) is needed.

However, the experiment yielded an unanticipated finding: one of the Experimenters, when writing up the results, listened to “Little Miss Echo,” a song from the 12-18 month album of Soothing Sounds for Baby. The Experimenter, aged 35, was not only soothed, but determined it to be among the most objectively beautiful pieces of pre-Moog electronic music created. Further testing of Soothing Sounds for Baby on subjects of all ages is recommended.