Symphony In Utero

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Aug. 17 2001 8:30 PM

Symphony In Utero

Mozart for the second trimester.

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There is no top 10—just yet—of CDs designed for mothers-to-be and their imminent offspring, but if there were, it would list Mozart at No. 1, closely followed by Bach. Spurred by Don Campbell's 1997 book The Mozart Effect, which popularized the notion that Mozart makes you smarter, record companies have released hundreds of classical compilations for infants and toddlers that promise to enrich playtime, lull children to sleep, and add IQ points along the way. In 1998, citing research touting classical music's capacity to develop brain connections, "especially the ones related to math," then-Georgia Gov. Zell Miller arranged to give every new mom a recording of something called Build Your Baby's Brain Through the Power of Music.

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But there is no reason to wait until your child is actually born: The trend now extends to dozens of CDs for parents to play to their unborn children. Prenatal music classes are offered in New York, Houston, Los Angeles, and even Hong Kong. At least two products—Tummy Tunes and the WombSongs Prenatal System—help expecting mothers deliver music to their fetuses directly by attaching speakers or headphones to their bellies.

The alternately proto-scientific and spiritual literature that comes with this stuff is galling, especially to anyone tempted to try out an old-fashioned song like "Frog Went A-Courting" in bed at night in anticipation of baby's arrival. The Web site Make Way for Baby!, for example, hawks an album that "offers you piano music of Bach, Beethoven, Hayden [sic] and Mozart for you and your inner child." While this is a novel, if overly literal, use of the term "inner child," it remains difficult to imagine, say, Beethoven's inner child—inner Faust is more like it. At GeniusBabies.com ("Why Have a Smart Baby, When You Can Have a Genius?!") parents can buy the Embryonics Learning System: From Womb to Classroom!, which lets you "Talk and Sing to your baby every day with microphone attachment." Sadly, if the baby you're carrying can't hear and feel you singing, you may need more help than a microphone can give you.

Perhaps most notably, though, the popular Mozart for Mothers-To-Be CD tells us that "Mozart was a child prodigy, a brilliant musician, and one of the most beloved composers of all time. But, at one time, he was—just like all of us—a sweet, innocent, ordinary, baby." This is the essential fiction at the heart of the prenatal music movement, or at least its commercial propaganda: Mozart, one of the least ordinary people ever, in fact possibly the very least ordinary, was a baby just like we once were. Mozart for Mothers-To-Be does not point out that the only Mozart compositions young Wolfgang ever got to hear were his father's, until he began to write his own, when he was 6. Despite the occasional disclaimer—one prenatal music teacher writes that "the goal is not to make the next generation into little Einsteins, Mozarts, or Madame Curries [sic]," this last being something that might well be worthwhile—the clear implication is that genius is within our grasp if only we play our CDs right.

The surprising thing about these prenatal compilations is that they can make Mozart or Bach seem almost minimalist. Mozart for Mothers-To-Be, for example, is composed entirely of slow movements, many of them plucked out of their original musical contexts. Deprived of the surrounding faster movements, these pieces just sound numbing. Proponents of this approach will tell you that this is a calculated response to obstetric research—in particular, a much-cited 1977 study by Michele Clements that demonstrated that second-trimester fetuses found Mozart and Vivaldi pleasing and the more grandiose, slamming sections of Beethoven, Brahms, and rock music agitating. But Mozart and Vivaldi have their frenzied moments, too. Their suppression can make prenatal CDs seem like an elaborate, automated lullaby.

Parents can learn a number of things about this research that will help them create a musical life with their children, if they dispense with the dream of making their own Mozart. Last month, psychologists from the University of Leicester, working with a BBC documentary team, showed that 1-year-olds not only remember but prefer music that was last played to them throughout the final trimester of their mothers' pregnancies. (Their preferences were indicated by a relaxing heart rate.) Fetuses begin to hear in their fifth month and after seven months they are able to recognize music decently, although the liquid and tissue that surround the fetus affect incoming sounds quite a bit. (Click here for a brief but very helpful discussion by the brain researcher Norman M. Weinberger of the state of prenatal musical research.) Interestingly, music repeated for the fetus seems to engage the fetus's attention and even affection. In the University of Leicester study, mothers chose their own tune for their fetus to hear—and children remembered UB40 as well as they remembered Mozart or Vivaldi. Fetuses whose mothers were exceptionally fond of the same soap opera, another study found, preferred its theme song, in the week after birth, to other music they were played the same week.

Parents who sing to their babies in utero, who drum lightly on big bellies, or who listen, without the benefit of special equipment, to Le Nozze di Figaro or the St. Matthew Passion—or, for that matter, to Louis Armstrong, Schubert, or Springsteen—are introducing their children to the rhythmic and melodic contours of the world they will soon join. I am certainly not immune to this line of thinking, although I was a few months late by current standards. After my wife and I brought our daughters home from the hospital, I played some of my favorite music for them—Mozart's 20th piano concerto and the Armstrong pieces "Tight Like This" and "St. James' Infirmary" for one, the Schubert string quintet and an Ellington CD for the other. And there is no doubt in my mind that music, as Weinberger concludes in an article in Arts Education Policy Review, "has benefits to intellectual development that transcend music itself." The sad, absurd claims of prenatal music CDs and their often bland composition should not obscure the tangible, painstakingly developed effects that listening to and making music have on us, from the moment we can hear.

Aaron Retica is a writer and father in New York.