A Discovery

I have been putting in the work this week on our Soundtrack in Video Art assignment.  During the course of this, I had reason to find a recording of a newborn’s cry.  (Not having a baby to hand, I did sadly have to source this from elsewhere – though I’m going to be an auntie again soon, so if my new nephew obligingly arrives before my video art deadline, I will grab my own recording and substitute it in!)

One experiment I did as part of this was to take all my significant symbolic sounds (of which this is one) and try dropping them into the sampler Kontakt‘s mapping editor.

The idea was to give myself some way of creating a ‘tail’ for the original sounds, perhaps a continuation of them absorbed into the wider ambiance, or mutated over time beyond recognition.  I expected to find that once I’d played with the waveform a little, I could isolate and make musical one particular, recognisable quality from the original sound.

But when I placed the sound of the baby’s cry in, a phenomenon happened that I found both fascinating and disturbing in equal measure.

Here is the original sound:

Now, I am a mother.  I know that babies cry – a lot, at first, some of them.  It is not easy, being a baby.  Being born is a terrible shock and the human brain is hopelessly immature at birth.  I read once that if humans were born when elephants are in their equivalent relative points of brain development, we would be giving birth to fully verbal, running, playing, food-eating pre-schoolers.  However, the huge apprenticeship that is early infancy, childhood and adolescence is also vital to us being so clever as a species!

The cry of a baby is its one big weapon.  It is relying on that sound – well, that and looking cute to our nurture-programmed brains – to stop us from leaving it under a bush somewhere to perish.  And as such, it is not easy to hear.

On the other hand, we become rather accustomed to hearing it, don’t we?  And we assume that because they cry all the time, babies don’t really mean it the way adults do.  And no doubt in some ways this is true, but we must also not forget that immature neurology.  When a baby’s needs are met through their relationship with their carers, time and time again, as nature expects them to be, and when loving adults respond positively to their attempts to communicate, the brain starts to tailor its development towards becoming a well-regulated adult.  Although a layman, this seems to me to be pretty much the most important process in human experience and functioning that there is out there.  But before this happens, the brain is all over the place and it must be terrifying when, even for a minute, this absolutely dependent being finds itself without the response it needs.  The parenting book What Every Parent Needs to Know… by child psychotherapist Margot Sunderland is one book I have read that discusses this process in clear language. (Sunderland 2007)

So, in that moment (and how else do the very young live but in the moment?), for that un-refined, un-developed being, I think the distress is perhaps as genuine as any more sophisticated person would feel – even if it’s over quickly and perhaps better understood retrospectively as the person learns, with adults to guide them.

Now I get back to my cry.  Here is how it sounded, one octave down (so the frequency is halved and the wavelength doubled):

What fascinated and disturbed me was that this cry became a man.  A man is crying.  You can hear the infancy in the cry, I think – it could be a someone with a lower mental than chronological age – but still, the sound of human distress (adult human distress, to my ears) is unmistakable.

So I took it down another octave…

This to me, sounded like an animal in distress.  A new character, but what was consistent was the feeling behind it.

So I took it down another octave…

This to me sounded like a fictional animal, some kind of giant, perhaps, in pain.  But still, the universal sound of distress.

Next I tried it up an octave (twice the frequency and half the wavelength).  It sounded like this:

To me this sounded like a small animal, a bird, perhaps, or a rodent, defending their young from a predator.  The faster speed added an anxiety to the distress.

Finally, I put it up one more octave…

The sound of protest and fear was even more apparent to me in this version.


It could be that, because I have small children, my senses are more attuned to this.  But I think there is a strong possibility that the animal communication, the affective, the messages in a sound, are a universal thing.

SUNDERLAND, M. (2007) What Every Parent Needs to Know: The incredible effects of love, nurture and play on your child’s development. DK: London.

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