8.21.2015

Baby Songs

Today my daughter, Penelope, turns four months old. Many life-changing things have happened since that day — for instance I am currently writing this post with my left hand alone, a skill I've become somewhat proficient at, as my right hand is preoccupied with calming an infant whose sleep regression threatens to startle her awake.


Milestones like this allow the opportunity to consider the passage of time. Time with an infant is complicated, demanded, constrained, but also expanded, inverted, and even negated. (Parents will understand what I mean.) As music is a temporal art form that moves through time, it's interesting to note what being a new father has done to my perception of and dealings with music. I'll keep my musings limited to music directed at Penny, to infant music, specifically the what and the why.

What: We sing to Nelly. (Yes, she has at least three names and a variety of nicknames.) What we sing most is a variety of nonsense songs with simple, metrically regular melodies taken from just about anywhere (SpongeBob, Protestant hymns, Spice Girls, Mexican folk songs) or improvised. The words, when they make sense at all, are topical and specific to the moment ("Who's got a wet diaper? It is you! Who's got a wet diaper? It is you! etc."). I also find delight in singing songs from a variety of sources that I have come across and enjoy for a variety of historical, linguistic, or musical reasons. True to my form, they are mostly not in English:

  • Italian arias like A. Scarlatti's "Già il sole dal Gange"
  • Eighteenth-century German Lieder such as Zelter's setting of Klopstock's "Das Rosenband"
  • Knipper's "Polyushke Polye"
  • Selections from Schumann's Liederalbum für die Jugend ("Frühlingsgruß" and "Schlaraffenland")
  • The medieval chant "Ave Maria"
  • French marching songs like "Au jardin du mon père"
  • Selections from Gay's The Beggar's Opera ("Oh, what pain it is to part")
  • And several Gàidhlig songs such as "'Illean bithibh sunndach," "Fear a' bhàta," and "Tha mi sgith".
Why: What is our purpose for singing to our four-month-old? Cognitive development? Language acquisition? Enculturation and socialization? There are a lot of literatures and opinions out there about what music for infants should be about, what is appropriate and what is not. As a music scholar I find it all rather daunting, and as a parent I find it downright overwhelming. So I've come to my own personal conclusion that the reason I sing to my infant daughter is simply because I enjoy it. It's fun! Singing marks the passage of time with an immediacy and vivacity that we usually don't notice in the daily humdrum of life.  Singing is about making time intentional and noting its preciousness. It pauses "ordinary time" and enters into "special time."

It's also communicative. This may seem counterintuitive; I do realize that Penny understands neither the nonsense songs, nor the foreign language songs, nor the English ones for that matter. She can't speak. But because she can't speak, it's all music at this point: melody and rhythm and consonants and vowels. And what I believe comes across through music's sheer musicality is simply a parent's affection for their child. Without words to get in the way, I believe that Nelly can somehow, on some level, be aware of my fatherly affection for her. This is why instead of singing songs that have at some point been categorized as "children's songs," I sing songs that I enjoy, like Gàidhlig folk songs or Soviet era pseudo-folk songs. I enjoy these pieces, they fill my heart with joy, and by singing those sorts of songs to my infant I practice sharing a deep part of my soul with her. In pouring forth my voice, I expose her to my vulnerability and enthusiasm and desire to connect at simple yet deep levels.

I'll end by saying that Penelope has recently begun to "vocalize;" she sings back to us. Sometimes her songs communicate specific desires or needs, but other times she seems to be singing for the sheer fun of it. At these moments she sounds like a tiny, shrieking Nazgûl, but I'm guessing something more joyful is in her heart.

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