Soprano Lucy Knight performs in Musical Rumpus's Opera for Babies - Fogonogo.

Baby opera was humanity’s first art form.

For all sorts of reasons opera – even comic opera – is usually no laughing matter.

Tom Sutcliffe, Believing in Opera, 1997

Ask any professional musician the secret of good music and they will tell you that above all else, music is about emotion. This perhaps particularly true of opera, where the main instrument is the human voice and the main topic the human condition. Through music and drama, story and spectacle, opera aims to explore the highs and lows of life. Anger, joy, love, grief, jealousy and despair are all portrayed in exuberant spectacle. Richard Mantle, director of Opera North, calls it ‘the art form that comes closest to expressing pure emotion’. Writer George Bernard Shaw said, ‘Opera is when a soprano and a tenor want to make love but are prevented from doing so by a baritone.’ Opera is deliberately intense and emotionally manipulative, although, as arts broadcaster Tom Sutcliffe observes, opera does not do comedy well. The pressure is too great and the stakes are too high.

Opera is technically, logistically and economically forbidding. Many fans of opera are unapologetic that it is the most extreme example of human art. Oliver Mears, director of opera at the Royal Opera in London thinks that ‘opera is important because it is totally unfeasible’. He adds that ‘in scale and cost it is the most excessive of all art forms, and in the totality of its artistic claims, is the most ambitious’. It is surprising then to learn not only that people make opera for babies, but that baby opera might have been the birth of all human art.

Musical Rumpus have been making operas for audiences of babies since 2011. Supported by the Spitalfields Music charity, their shows have been seen by around 15,000 babies in east London and beyond. I knew about them, but for a long time I had no idea what was involved. When I stumbled into the world of baby music myself, I decided it was time to find out. I know nothing about opera, so I took along my friend Sam Wass who, prior to becoming a baby scientist, was an opera director in Berlin. The last time I had been to anything resembling opera was a school trip to see Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance when I was twelve. My two abiding memories were that yes, indeed, comic opera is no laughing matter and that despite it being incredibly loud, I fell asleep. Therefore, even though it was opera for babies, I felt a bit intimidated and was glad Sam was there for moral support and to poke me if l looked drowsy.

Sam and I joined the tiny audience for Musical Rumpus’s latest show, Fogonogo, an opera about a volcano. It was the eighth show the company have created and the seventh collaboration between composer Sam Glazer and writer and director Zoe Palmer. Just like grown-up opera, baby opera is a full multimedia experience, with set, staging, costumes and orchestra, albeit on a much smaller scale, as the budgets and the subsidies are as diminutive as the audience. The cast consists of just two singers – we saw a performance by Lucy Knight, a soprano, and Peter Braithwaite, a baritone. The orchestra on this occasion had two musicians: Sam Glazer played the cello, accompanied by Rosie Bergonzi, a percussionist. The venue was modest too, one panelled-off corner of the public library in Stratford, east London. Buggies were parked and babies and their carers all found places to sit. The audience was small in number – around 20 babies, although previous shows have had as many as 50 babies, and then it really is a rumpus.

Musical Rumpus perform Fogonogo, in Stratford, East London, 2017

The numbers are usually kept low because the shows are intimate and interactive. In the show we saw, babies were seated in circle around some blue mats representing the sea, with small orange platforms as islands. From the start the performers were down on the babies’ level, moving gently, and sensitive to their reactions. The babies are mostly content to sit and watch, but there are always several infant actors wandering into the performance and handing props to the performers. But even the babies content to stay sitting with mummy or daddy are not left out; the performers take care to connect with every little person in the audience. The babies are part of the show: Zoe calls them ‘our gurgling, wriggling, crawling, chorus’ and their responses are incorporated into the performance. It means no two shows are the same, and this can be quite daunting for classically trained musicians. Zoe told me about working on a baby show with jazz singers in New York. They ‘got it’ much faster, happy to improvise around their infant accompaniment.

Fogonogo starts slowly, but the intensity builds. This is a show about a volcano, after all. Sam Glazer is very conscious that baby opera should explore the full range of emotions. Over the hundreds of shows he has done, he has become more confident that the music should not be unrelentingly happy. It should be sad. It should be scary. The babies will respond. They will engage. As Andrea Bocelli says, ‘To sing opera, one needs two things: the voice and the passion – and above all, the passion.’ Peter and Lucy both get to show off the power of their voices and the music becomes increasingly dramatic, even slightly frightening at times. By my count they are singing in at least four different languages: English, French, Italian and Volcano. The babies lap it up. Many are active participants; others are quietly transfixed. Zoe tells me that, in her experience, tears are very rare. For all of them, the music provides the thread through the performance, holding their attention and inviting them into the action.

American writer Ellen Dissanayake believes that something not too different from Musical Rumpus could have been the origin of music, art and even love. She thinks music and other arts evolved in tandem with our need for intimacy and belonging. In a wonderful book entitled Art and Intimacy she provides a deeply humanistic perspective on the evolution of art and culture that puts mothers and babies centre stage. ‘It is not surprising that societies all over the world have developed these nodes of culture that we call ceremonies or rituals, which do for their members what mothers naturally do for their babies: engage their interest, involve them in a shared rhythmic pulse, and thereby instil feelings of closeness and communion.’ (Dissanayake, 2000).

Ellen Dissanayake sits in her Seattle, Wash., home Dec. 11, 2008 with a carved female figure (nokwi) from the Kwoma people of Middle Sepik River area of Papua New Guinea, that was used in a yam ceremony and then discarded, which she acquired in 1981. Dissanayake is an independent scholar and author whose work focuses on the anthropological exploration of art and culture.
Ellen Dissanayake with Kwoma carving. Photo by Ingrid Barrentine.

In an earlier book, Dissanayake had proposed the notion of Homo Aestheticus (Dissanayake, 1994). She thinks art makes us feel good and feel bigger than ourselves. Art aims ‘to recognise an extra-ordinary as opposed to an ordinary dimension to experience; to act deliberately in response to uncertainty’. It was counter-revolutionary idea. Rather than looking for explanations of art and aesthetics in psychology or philosophy, she considered its evolutionary benefit. With a background in ethology and 15 years living in Sri Lanka, Nigeria, and Papua New Guinea, she felt she had escaped the narrow Eurocentric perspective of most art theorists, who take their meanings from contemporary European culture and its phases and fashions over the last few centuries. She thinks modern theorists’ obsession with the meaning of words blinds them to a deep history of 5 million years of social living and preliterate culture. As a result, she gets very angry with all the relativism of postmodernism and literary theory, which claims that art gets its power because it is a signifier of nothing beside itself. Dissanayake does not stand for this: ‘Nothing? Fire is hot. Hunger is bad. Babies are good.’

Art and Intimacy takes things further. It argues that the arts are not tools of sexual competition but expressions of empathy and community. The book was born out of a year Dissanayake spent in Edinburgh at Colwyn Trevarthen’s lab learning about the ‘primary intersubjectivity’ created as mothers synchronise with their babies. Dissanayake proposes that the arts extend this to larger groups. She dismisses the sex-obsessed perspective of most evolutionary psychologists, who, she notes, are mostly male. If music and art are tools of courtship, this is minor, secondary role. The main evolutionary value of art, music and story is as shared experience. And, just as a mother’s attunement with her infant is beneficial for the baby’s well-being, art is good for our psychological well-being.

In Dissanayake’s account, the origin of art is social, not symbolic. It is found in activity, not imagery. As a highly social species we have a capacity for mutual engagement and for kinship and belonging. Even before we had language, it is likely that we sought and shared meaning by other means, and this is art. The dynamic, interactive nature of music serves this purpose well. We would have been able to sing before we could speak. Dissanayake thinks mothers’ musical engagement with infants is much more than the ‘soporific bliss’ of lullabies. It captures, holds and sustains the infants’ attention and explores reciprocity and the full range of emotional states. Anxiety, fear and anger all have life-preserving functions. The songs of mothers provide infants with a real experience of these darker feelings, balancing them with joy, surprise and love.

The songs, ceremonies and rituals of our ancient ancestors created community. So David Pountney, former head of the Welsh National Opera is on to something when he says that ‘opera is the embodiment of an essential human instinct: telling stories through music. It links modern, liberal intellectual and artistic culture with our primitive ritualistic origins.’ And yet, amazingly, baby opera brings us even closer to that ancient truth. Just as the feigned tickle of a baby might have been humanity’s first ever joke, a mother’s emotional songs to her baby might have been our first artwork.

Extract from my book The Laughing Baby – a popular science book about the delights of being a baby.

2020-01-09 13_43_28-(1) The Happy Song. Science Has Designed a Song to Make Your Baby Happy. Make yo

We created a song that makes babies happy

Plenty of research has looked at adults’ emotional responses to music. But research with babies is more piecemeal and eclectic, perhaps reflecting the difficulty of asking them what they like. Researchers know that babies can hear and remember music even while they are still in the womb. And one curious study found that newborn babies prefer Bach to Aerosmith.

Most systematic work has found young babies have clear preferences for consonance over dissonance and can remember the tempo and timbre of music they’ve heard before. Babies prefer the female voice but like it even more when it takes on the qualities of “motherese” (the high-energy singsong tone we all naturally adopt when talking to babies). But their emotional responses to music is a bit more of a mystery. What kind of music makes them calm and content? And what makes them happy?

I am an expert on baby laughter and was intrigued when the C&G baby club approached me and music psychologist Lauren Stewart to create “a song scientifically proven to make babies happy” that they could give away to parents. We thought this was an interesting challenge. However, our first proviso was that they shouldn’t use the word “prove”. Our second was that they had let us do real science. They readily agreed.

The first step was to discover what was already known about the sounds and music that might make babies happy. We had some experience. My previous work on the Baby Laughter project had asked parents about the nursery rhymes and silly sounds that appealed to babies. Lauren’s previous research has looked at “earworms”, songs that get stuck in your head. But we discovered surprisingly little research on babies’ musical preferences. This was encouraging as it meant this was a worthwhile project from a scientific point of view.

The next step was to find the right composer: Grammy-award winner Imogen Heap. Imogen is a highly tech-savvy musician who just happened to have an 18-month-old daughter of her own. She was also intrigued by the challenges of the project. Few musicians had taken on the task of writing real music to excite babies while still appealing to parents. Musician Michael Janisch recorded a whole album of Jazz for Babies, but that was very slow and designed to soothe babies. Most music written specifically for babies sounds frankly deranged.

We met with Heap and gave her a set of recommendations based on what we had discovered from the past research. The song ought to be in an major key with a simple and repetitive main melody with musical devices like drum rolls, key changes and rising pitch glides to provide opportunities for anticipation and surprise. Because babies’ heart rates are much faster than ours so the music ought to be more uptempo than we would expect. And finally, it should have an energetic female vocal, ideally recorded in the presence of an actual baby.

Setting up the experiment

Fortunately Heap had her daughter, Scout, to help her with the composition. Heap created four melodies for us to test in the lab, two fast and two slow ones. For each of these she created a version with and without simple sung lyrics. Some 26 babies between six and 12 months then came to our lab with their mums and a few dads to give us their opinion. Amazingly most of the parents and 20 out of 26 babies seemed to share a clear preference for one particular melody. In line with our predictions this was a faster melody. Even more amazingly, this was the tune that had started out as a little ditty made up by Scout.

We knew which song the mums liked because we could ask them. We also asked the parents to tell us what their babies preferred best, because they are the experts on their own babies. But we also filmed the babies’ responses and coded the videos for laughs, smiles and dancing.

Now that we had a winning melody, Heap needed to turn it into a full-length song and it needed to be funny (to a baby). The secret was to make it silly and make it social. Around 2,500 parents from the C&G baby club and Heapäs fan club voted on silly sounds that made their babies happy. The top ten sounds included “boo!” (66%), raspberries (57%), sneezing (51%), animal sounds (23%) and baby laughter (28%). We also know babies respond better to “plosive” vocal sounds like “pa” and “ba” compared to “sonorant” sounds like “la”. Heap very cleverly worked many of these elements into the song.

Next it needed to be something that parents could enjoy themselves and share with their children. Happiness is a shared emotion and the success of nursery rhymes is that they are interactive. Heap carefully crafted the lyrics to tell a joyous tale of how we love our little babies wherever we are – from the sky to the ocean, on a bike or on a rocket. The transport theme permitted lots of plosives “beep, beep” and bouncing actions.

Our baby music consultants came back to the lab and listened to two slightly different sketches of the full song. This time we found that slightly slower seemed to work better (163 vs 168 beats per minute). Perhaps because it gave parents and babies a little more time to respond to the lyrics. We also found that the chorus was the most effective part of the song and determined which lyrics and sound effects worked better or worse.

After one final round of tweaks from Heap, we went for a different kind of test. We assembled about 20 of the babies in one room and played them the song all together. If you ever met an excited toddler or young baby, you will know that two and a half minutes is a long time to hold the attention of even one child, let alone two dozen. When The Happy Song played we were met by a sea of entranced little faces. This final bit wasn’t the most scientific as tests go but it definitely convinced me that we had a hit on our hands.

Now that we have a song that is both new and highly baby friendly, Lauren and I have a range of follow-up studies planned. We are planning to use the song in a range of experiments looking at how parents introduce their babies to music and hope to look more in depth at babies’ physiological responses to happy music.

This article originally appeared in the Conversation, Feb 2017
https://theconversation.com/we-created-a-song-that-makes-babies-happy-72309

Imogen Heap and Caspar Addyman playing The Happy Song to the babies who helped create it.

Music to make babies laugh

Music to make babies laugh

How two psychologists and an army of babies helped Grammy winner Imogen Heap to write her new happy song for babies.

Being a new parent is an emotional rollercoaster. It is an even wilder ride for a baby. Baby experts often focus on coping with lows. As someone who studies infant psychology I think the highs are no less interesting. So for the last four years I’ve been researching baby laughter. Can I guarantee to make a baby laugh? Well, I’ve been working on it.

I conducted a survey of parents all over the world and have run various studies in the lab. I’ve come to see infant laughter as the flipside to all those tears. Crying and laughter are both social signals that let babies communicate with us. Crying is a signal of frustration and discomfort, laughter signals success and satisfaction. Laughs accompany each tiny triumph and each little “Eureka!”. This makes infant laughter a wonderful window into infant learning. In fact, laughter may be a tool babies use to learn about the social world.

It’s clear that a crying baby needs your help. What is less obvious is that a laughing baby is rewarding your assistance and holding your attention in order to learn from you. The biggest mystery in anyone’s life is other people. This is even more true for babies. They crave quality interactions with adults. Laughter is their secret weapon to get it. This is why laughing babies pull in hundreds of millions of views on YouTube. It also why one of the best ways to make a baby laugh is to take her seriously.

Now, if only more people would take this research seriously I might have funding to do it. Fortunately, last year I started a new job at Goldsmiths, University of London; a place with a reputation for encouraging radical ideas and creative approaches to research. (I always suspect that having blue hair may have helped me get the job.)

Shortly after I arrived I gave a talk to my new department about my research. Straight after the talk Prof. Lauren Stewart came up to me and suggested we collaborate on something. Lauren is a professor of the psychology of music and was interested in how babies respond to music. Music is laden with emotion and so it would be fascinating to learn more about its effect on young babies. I readily agreed but couldn’t find a suitable project.

Then by weird and happy coincidence in April last year C&G baby club called Lauren up saying they wanted help to create ‘a song scientifically proven to make babies happy’. At first we were wary. Brands have a fairly poor track record when it comes to using science. However, I had previously had a very positive experience doing research funded by Pampers. I had seen that baby brands cannot afford to lose their credibility and so have to be assiduous in what they do and what they claim. We met with C&G baby club to discuss their intentions. Our first proviso was that they shouldn’t use the word ‘prove’. Our second was that they had let us do real science. They readily agreed.

Once these ground rules were established the first step was to discover what was already known about the sounds and music that might make babies happy. We had some experience. My previous work on the Baby Laughter project had asked parents about the nursery rhymes and silly sounds that appealed to babies. Lauren’s previous research has looked at ‘earworms’, songs that get stuck in your head. We discovered surprisingly little research on babies’ musical preferences. This was encouraging as it meant this was a worthwhile project from a scientific point of view.

The next step was to find the right composer. With the help of FELT music consultancy, Grammy winner Imogen Heap was recruited as the composer. Imogen is a highly tech-savvy musician who just happened to have an 18 month old daughter of her own. She was intrigued by the challenges of the project. Few musicians had taken on the challenge of writing real music to excite babies while still appealing to parents. Musician Michael Janisch recorded a whole album of Jazz for Babies, but that was very slow and designed to soothe babies. Most music written specifically for babies sounds frankly deranged.

Plenty of research has looked at adults’ emotional response to music (such as the recent brain imaging study of Tinie Tempah). Research with babies is more piecemeal and eclectic, perhaps reflecting the difficulty of asking them what they like. Researchers know that babies can hear and remember music even while they are still in the womb and one curious study from 2000 found that newborn babies prefer Bach to Aerosmith. Most systematic work has been conducted by Laurel Trainor at McMaster University and her colleagues. She has found young babies have clear preferences for consonance over dissonance and can remember the tempo and timbre of music they’ve heard before. Babies prefer the female voice but like it even more when it takes on the high-energy sing-song tone of ‘motherese’. More accurately known as ‘Infant Directed Speech’ as it is a style we all naturally adopt when talking to babies.

We met with Imogen and gave her a set of recommendations based on what we had discovered.The song ought to be in an major key with a simple and repetitive main melody with musical devices like drum rolls, key changes and rising pitch glides to provide opportunities for anticipation and surprise. Because babies’ heart rates are much faster than ours so the music ought to be more up-tempo than we would expect. And finally, it should have an energetic female vocal, ideally recorded in the presence of an actual baby.

Fortunately Imogen had her daughter, Scout, to help her with the composition. Imogen created 4 melodies for us to test in the lab, 2 fast and 2 slow ones. For each of these she created a version with and without simple sung lyrics. Twenty-six babies between 6 and 12 months came to our lab with their mums and dads to give us their opinion on these 8 short pieces of music. Amazingly most of the parents and 20 out of 26 babies seemed to share a clear preference for one particular melody. In line with our predictions this was a faster melody. Even more amazingly, this is was the tune that had started out as a little ditty made up by Scout.

We knew which song the parents liked because we could ask them. We also asked the parents to tell us what their babies preferred best, because they are the experts on their own babies. But we also filmed the babies’ responses and coded the videos for laughs, smiles and dancing. We tried measuring changes in the babies’ heart rates and using a motion capture system to see if they were moving in time with the music. Unfortunately, this hit quite a few technical difficulties and there wasn’t time to solve the problems on our very tight schedule. This was worthwhile as pilot work and will be a really interesting area for future research.

But now we had a winning melody, Imogen needed to turn it into a full length song and it needed to be funny (to a baby). The secret was to make it silly and make it social. Around 2500 parents from the C&G baby club and Imogen’s fan club voted on silly sounds that made their babies happy. The top 10 sounds included “Boo!” (66%), raspberries (57%), sneezing (51%), animal sounds (23%) and baby laughter (28%). We also know babies respond better to plosive vocal sounds like “pa” and “ba” compared to sonorant sounds like “la”. Imogen very cleverly worked many of these elements into the song.

Next it needed to be something that parents could enjoy themselves and share with their children. Happiness is a shared emotion and the success of nursery rhymes is that they are interactive. Imogen carefully crafted the lyrics to tell a joyous tale of how we love our little babies wherever we are — from the sky to the ocean, on a bike or on a rocket. The transport theme permitted lots of plosives “Beep, beep” and bouncing actions.

Our baby music consultants came back to the lab and listened to two slightly different sketches of the full song. This time we found that slightly slower seemed to work better (163 vs 168 beats per minute). Perhaps because it gave parents and babies a little more time to respond to the lyrics. We also found that the chorus was the most effective part of the song and determined which lyrics and sound effects worked better or worse.

Imogen and Caspar premiering the Happy Song to the babies who helped create it.

After one final round of tweaks from Imogen, we went for a different kind of test. We assembled about 20 of the babies in one room and played them the song all together. It was perhaps a silly thing to do but as Imogen and I sat on the sofa in front of a colourful and chaotic room full of parents and babies and pressed play we were cautiously optimistic. If you ever met an excited toddler or young baby, you will know that 2 ½ minutes is a long time to hold the attention of even one child, let alone two dozen. When The Happy Song played we were met by a sea of entranced little faces. This certainly wasn’t very scientific as tests go but it definitely convinced me that we had a hit on our hands. You can hear the song here. Please tweet me (@czzpr) and let us know if it makes your little ones happy too.

Thanks to all the mums, dads and babies who helped with the project. We couldn’t have done it without our small army of tiny music consultants. Nor without my two assistants Omer and Kaveesha who came to us through the excellent Nuffield Brilliant Club which arranges internships for A-level student in real working science labs. It was a frantic summer but we are very happy with the final song. You see a short video about the process here:

Now that we have a song that both novel and highly baby friendly, Lauren and I have a range of follow up studies planned. We are planning to use the song in a range of experiments looking at how mothers introduce their babies to music and hope to look properly at babies physiological responses to happy music. Meanwhile, I am finishing a popular science book called the Laughing Baby. It is all about how to make babies happy and why that is so important. You can preorder your copy here https://unbound.com/books/the-laughing-baby

Caspar Addyman is a Lecturer in Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London. He previously spent 10 years working at Birkbeck Babylab. Caspar is a specialist in baby psychology with a particular interest in positive emotions in infancy. His book The Laughing Baby is published by Unbound in April 2020.