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Lullaby and Good Life…

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.

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