WolfBrown: On Our Minds

Lullaby and Good Life…

December 20th, 2012

Over the last year I have been working with Carnegie Hall’s Musical Connections program that brings extra ordinary music to people in need throughout New York City. One strand in that work, inspired by composer Tom Cabaniss, is the Lullaby Project. In a women’s prison, at a homeless shelter, and at public hospitals working with young and single mothers, musicians meet with new parents to write lullabies for their babies. The point is to give shape to hopes, fears, and dreams for those new lives created — not only the child, but the mothers, fathers, aunts and grandmothers. Inside a single workshop and recording session we have seen some remarkable changes: young women speaking up, grandmothers passing on wisdom, young parents bonding, imprisoned mothers realizing they have the means to be in touch with their children. So when I imagine the study I would do if cost and time were no object, I want to test the hypothesis that music can create moments of intense and sustained exchange that strengthen our social, emotional, and even our somatic state, even in the most adverse of circumstances.

The study would begin before birth with caregivers writing a welcoming lullaby; it would last throughout childhood, with adults and children composing and trading songs. With limitless resources, we would video record parent-child interactions around these songs. We would track mutual gaze, vocalization, attention, even the flow of neurotransmitters in those moments of intense exchange as compared to daily activity. There would be a YouTube channel for parents to share the lullabies they (and their children) compose. The program would offer homeless families a ‘musical roof’ they can take anywhere, returning veterans a way to reconnect with children, and imprisoned parents the chance to stay a beloved part of their children’s lives. We would look at those families who have and those who lack this musical resource and gauge the consequences.

As long as I am fantasizing, let me assure you the results will be amazing. On the one hand, we will have evidence that musical exchanges can help to strengthen some of the most vulnerable relationships as they begin. On the other hand, pediatricians will realize that songs are powerful diagnostic tools for examining attachment, emotional health, and language development. Simply put, song charts will replace height and weight charts. The World Health Organization will announce that the musical capacity to invent on someone else’s behalf and the capacity to respond with delight are powerful predictors of lives that will be well-lived.


December 20th, 2012

While researchers in the commercial sector long ago developed methods for gauging consumer tastes and preferences for different product attributes, research on preferences in the arts sector is still nascent. In light of our recent work over the past year investigating tastes across disciplines (primarily theatre, music, dance, and opera), it is clear that many audience members have little idea how to describe what they like and don’t like. The “I just know it when I see it” answer is not sufficient, and can be misleading.

Although we have begun to re-organize our understanding of preferences in the performing arts, we have yet to truly break down the walls around visual arts preferences. I would propose one possibility: install a heatmapping survey system that allows museum visitors to express which works of art in a gallery or exhibition are most appealing, striking or moving. Using interactive touchscreen devices, visitors would review images of each work, and simply touch the parts of each image to indicate which elements were most compelling. Heat maps and “hotspots” would be visible to visitors as they enter the museum, and on the website. Museums might even consider promoting a “hotspot of the week.”

Fusing sight and sound

December 20th, 2012

Our work in the classical music field deepened greatly over the past year, leading to more questions and a few revelations. One of those revelations, which arose from several studies of the music preferences and concert-going habits of younger adults, is that for many, music is fundamentally a visual experience as well as an aural one. A hypothesis, I suppose. For a generation that grew up with music videos and now YouTube, the piling on of sensory stimuli is hardly news. The inter-relationships between sight and sound are constantly negotiated in film, dance, and theatre, but presenters of live jazz and classical music are often less comfortable in this nexus. I dream about a study that brings more clarity to the relationships between live music and visual stimuli of different sorts. As part of the study, lighting artists and filmmakers — drawing on the full panoply of new technologies — would be commissioned to create original visual elements for specific pieces of music. What works artistically, and what doesn’t? For whom is the live music experience enhanced by visual elements, and for whom is it degraded? Is visualization of music a long-term opportunity for building demand?

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