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Music for Babies, or, How I'm Reconciling Fatherhood with My Record Collection

Listening to Mozart may not make you smarter after all.
Charlie Bertsch

Issue #47, January 2000

Listening to Mozart may not make you smarter after all. It turns out that the influential study from a few years back -- the one responsible for all those Mozart for Babies CDs on the shelves at Borders and Barnes and Noble -- may have overestimated the transformative power of music. This comes as good news to all those parents too tired to worry about their infant's musical education. But I found it interesting because my wife and I -- and, believe me, we're tired too -- have spent a good deal of our precious time thinking about the music our 10-month-old daughter Skylar listens to. Long before she was born, we were already playing her apre-natal tape of our voices and holding headphones to my wife's abdomen while playing some of our favorite CDs.

We even tried to get Skylar, who was lodged in the breech position (head up, instead of down where it's supposed to be), to turn around inside the womb by using music as a lure. Interestingly, some of the advice we read recommending this unorthodox procedure suggested that we bombard her with loud, "unpleasant" music like heavy metal in order to move her into the proper position, the theory being that she wouldn't want her head anywhere near the headphones. This sounded abusive to us, so we played soft music in the place we wanted her to move towards. In fact, we were so disturbed by the idea of using loud music as a punitive measure that we took pains to only play her songs without driving beats or discordant tones.

This meant censoring a large percentage of our music collection -- X, Stereolab, Public Enemy and anything else that seemed likely to upset our unborn child. Of course, this concern hadn't stopped us from going to see a few live shows earlier in my wife's pregnancy. But that was before Skylar had acquired a personality in our minds, before she seemed to be making her likes and dislikes apparent to us with her fetal movements. In retrospect, it's surprising how easily we were taken in by the presumption that babies are programmed to like some forms of music better than others. As communications theorist Jonathan Sterne puts it, "there is absolutely no scientifically grounded evidence that the western harmonic series is inherently more pleasing to the ear." The countless warnings that bombard parents-to-be had clearly taken their toll on us. Nevertheless, I did find our caution unsettling. When we started playing her jazz, alternative country, and classical piano through the headphones, I became acutely conscious of the fact that we were only presenting her with part of the story. Although I was happy to be communicating with her, I felt strange. I had the distinct sense that she was an authority we were trying to impress.

Authority Song

The incongruity of this perception inspired me to reflect on my past. I realized that my impending fatherhood was forcing me to confront my anxieties about authority. Children are torn between the desire to break the rules and the compulsion to play by them. As they grow up, the pressure to resolve this conflict increases. By the time they have become adults, most people have learned to compartmentalize their everyday lives. They limit their rule-breaking to times when it is socially sanctioned: during coffee breaks, after work, on the weekend. And they play by the rules when it really counts. But this solution doesn't solve everything. The wall between work and leisure is in constant need of repair. Periodically, the desire to break the rules will surface inappropriately. The real challenge of adulthood is to cope with these dangerous moments, so that they do not damage what we really care about. As I contemplated my future as a father, I saw my past in a newlight.

I realized that I had been able to cope with my self-destructive impulses by being playful, acting as if I were not actually living my life but preparing to live it. Although I may have played by the rules most of the time, I did so playfully. I felt detached from my actions, particularly in my dealings with authorities and I liked the feeling. As I became older and more reflective, I began to rationalize my detachment by regarding it as a political act. The reason I could be playful when people around me were feeling pressure is because I could see through the powers that be, recognizing that they ruled, not because they deserved to rule, but because they had learned to use the rules of the game to their advantage or, in some cases, had actually made up those rules to begin with. I didn't worry too much about details of my "resistance." This was a rationalization, after all, tenuously connected to the realities of my life.

These days I view my detachment differently, acknowledging that, even if my playfulness was politically sound in theory, it had has much to do with the privileges I experienced growing up: middle-class parents with an interest in the arts, a good education, and few of the experiences, such as harassment by the police, that make a playful disrespect for authority seem like a potentially deadly attitude. But it was the experience of becoming a parent that really brought this point home. Why was I so uncomfortable with the idea that my wife and I hadto put up a façade even before our daughter was born? Because I was confronting the reality of having to become an authority myself in spite of the fact that many of my favorite cultural artifacts -- and my records in particular -- were anti-authoritarian, if not in an explicitly political sense, then at least in relation to the authority of the marketplace.

Although I recognize on a rational level that it's a mistake to presume that dissonance, white noise, and hard-driving beats are inherently more radical than other elements of music, I still feel that way deep down. For some reason -- and I think that being an American male must be part of the equation -- my instincts tell me that culture is at its most rebellious when it refuses to meet people halfway and scares most of them off as a consequence. The idea that I might have to give up so much of my music as a parent worried me, not only because I would miss the music itself, but because I would lose an important part of my identity. This is why our selection of pre-natal music affected me so deeply even though it wasn't as dramatic as the action of parents-to-be who give up beer or bungee-jumping. For the first time I sensed the extent to which having a baby would change our lives. My wife and I wouldn't just make room for Skylar in our busy lives. We would have to become different people, hiding things that we used to leave out in the open. We would have to become authorities.

Back then I was thinking metaphorically about the culture we would have to conceal from our daughter. I remember this with amusement because now, with months of childproofing our apartment behind me, I realize that this is one case where the distinction between literal and figurative meaning is hopelessly blurred. It's remarkable how many parental tasks fall into the category of hiding. In the middle of writing that last sentence I paused to pursue Skylar into the kitchen, knowing that if I waited for even a few seconds she would be in the cat's food. So I had to hide it, much to the cat's displeasure. Earlier in the day I had to hide the facial tissues she was shredding, the newspaper she wanted to shred, and the pen she was intent on exploring with her mouth. But the sense of discomfort I experienced while playing her pre-natal music has given way to an easy familiarity with my role as a parent who hides things from his child.

When I told a friend of mine with a 3-year-old that we were going to be having a baby, he responded cryptically. "Being a parent makes you into a hypocrite." I pressed him to explain, but he just told me to wait and see. I think I know now what he meant. The most obvious example of this hypocrisy come from the parents of teenagers. Think of the Baby Boomer who admonishes his kid for smoking a joint when he spent the better part of his own teenage years stoned. But the double-life which is the essence of the hypocrite begins long before that for most parents, before the child is born, in fact. And when it doesn't, the chances are good that the parents in question are prioritizing their own pleasure over their child's welfare.

In other words, this is one case where hypocrisy is probably a good thing. After all, how many children really want to know about their parents' experiences with drugs or sex? There was a popular school of thought in the 1960s and 1970s that parents should be completely open with their kids, presenting themselves as people more than parents. It is to this line of thinking that we owe the practices of children addressing their parents by their first names, of parents "sharing" their children's drugs, and of parents speaking about their sex lives in their children's presence. I'm sure that some parents were able to raise happy children with this approach to parenting. But for the most part -- and all sorts of research bears this out -- openness of this kind actually confuses children, making them wonder whether they have any parents at all. The downside of traditional parenting was its authoritarian aspect. And obviously this was -- and is -- the cause of a lot of pain for children. By contrast, when a parent's authority is tempered with love and understanding, it has the power to make children feel like they can rely on their parents to help them make good decisions and to pick up the pieces when they make bad ones.

skylar Authority can be hard to come by in complex modern societies like our own, where tradition is no longer able to answer all the questions raised by our everyday experiences. The unquestioned authority of the father in a traditional family unit is largely a thing of the past. And we're clearly better off as a result. But this means that parents must work for their authority. They won't have it unless they act like they have it. Parenting becomes a kind of role-playing, in which you have to interact with your children as a parent instead of a person. Then again, to behave like a "person," a human being in the abstract, instead of as a "parent," a "daughter," or an "uncle," also involves a kind of role-playing. In fact, the concept of a "person" is itself largely the product of the modern world that has made it necessary for us to engage in role-playing.


When I reflect on the meaning of my role as a censor in my daughter's life, I'm betraying the fact that I have to act this role consciously, fully aware that I could choose to do otherwise. It is this realization that has inspired my wife and I to try to balance our role as protectors with our desire to expose Skylar to as much of the world as possible. The last thing we want is for her to grow up in some mental suburbia, where life holds all the excitement of a 1950s sitcom. My wife experienced the dark side of the suburban dream as a child and ran away to San Francisco, finding solace in the early punk community. And, while my own childhood was more ordinary, I always knew that I wanted to get as far away from subdivisions as I could. The ideology of punk appealed to us because it reinforced our ability to say "No" to the status quo, to do things our own way regardless of the burden of expectations imposed on us by others. We want to pass that spirit onto Skylar.

But we don't want to confront her with things before she's ready. The power of the do-it-yourself aesthetic is lost when you start thinking that it's better to tell people how it's done instead of letting them find out for themselves. And that goes doubly for children. Skylar needs to discover things for herself, at her own pace. There's something comforting about having arrived at such a basic decision. The problem is that it's a lot harder to put the theory into practice. For one thing, it's impossible to realize it in any absolute sense. Children learn by watching adults and their parents in particular. It's not like they're stranded on some island in the middle of nowhere like Brooke Shields in The Blue Lagoon. So no matter how hard parents try not to influence their children's process of discovery, they will still be influencing it every minute of the day with the words they use, the place that they live, the objects that fill their home and so much more. It's not just a question of what parents buy for their children, since the children are usually just asinterested in what the parents buy for themselves.

Bearing this in mind, we've decided that, since we're going to be influencing Skylar no matter what we do, that we want to put some thought into how we're influencing her. The most immediate result of this decision is a willingness to expose her to a wide variety of situations. Although she's not even a year old, she has already been on three camping trips, traveled to Los Angeles to see the Vincent Van Gogh exhibition, sat through a number of movies, and traveled all over her native San Francisco Bay Area. When we show her things, we pay close attention to her reaction. If she's interested, we show her more; if she isn't, we move on to the next thing. People are amazed when we tell them that we took her to see a Picasso exhibition at two months. Some of them no doubt wonder whether we are the sort of parents who drag their children from one important cultural event to another, no matter how bored they are. But she genuinely seemed to like the paintings, looking at them intently and even making sounds of excitement. Other times when we brought her to a museum, her displeasure with being there was clear and we took her somewhere else.

The hard part for us isn't the trips we take with Skylar so much as our life at home with her. In addition to the standard tasks of childproofing -- covering electrical outlets, removing choking hazards from any place she can reach, putting our fragile collectibles in storage -- we have to decide whether the art and music in our house is something she should be exposed to. Because my wife is an artist and writer whose work reflects her painful life history, the decisions we reach are often highly personal. During Skylar's first few months in the world a disturbing multi-media piece by my wife called "Fever Dream" was hanging in our living room. And Skylar loved it, because it had patches of shiny aluminum foil and fake fur. But there came a time when we decided that she was old enough that the content of the artwork -- a photograph of a snarling Tasmanian wolf, the looming shadow of a man, a naked woman bound to a bed frame -- might disturb her. So we took it down. But we left up my wife's other paintings of surreally-colored naked women and, at least for the time being, our Frank Kozik poster of a nun with blood dripping out of her mouth.

DJ Dad

Our task has been much easier where music is concerned. The anxieties I experienced before Skylar was born have disappeared with the realization that she doesn't seem to mind any music and actually seems to enjoy the sort of music I imagined having to listen to through headphones. Most child-rearing handbooks will tell you that babies dislike loud music and prefer high-pitched sing-song melodies. Skylar certainly likes the latter. Yet she also enjoys thrashing about and banging her makeshift drum to the discordant notes of Sleater-Kinney and the sonic sludge of Mudhoney. In a few years, when she understands the words that accompany the music, we'll have to decide whether to censor particular songs. For the moment, I can take comfort in the fact that music is a non-representational art form. I'm not only able to enjoy the fullscope of my music collection, but actually enjoy it more than I did before because I see her enjoying it too.

But this freedom to listen to my music inspires an anxiety of its own. Even if there's no proof that you can make your baby smarter by playing him Mozart, it's clear that the culture we consume as small children has a major effect on our development. And the fact that this culture is embedded in memories which we are unable to access directly -- few of us remember much of anything that happened to us before the age of three -- means that the power it exerts over us is largely unconscious. Because this is the part of our cultural programming over which we have the least control, its effects are the hardest to undo. I know that the inexplicable nostalgia I feel for the cars, clothes, and popular culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s is largely the product of its inaccessability to my conscious mind. Did my mother realize how strongly our trips to the fabric store would affect me? I doubt it. And I can only recall them in the most fleeting glimpses, when I'm exhausted or otherwise intoxicated. But I know that the colors and patterns I absorbed in those visits played a disproportionately large role in the formation of my aesthetic sensibility. Now that I'm a parent, I have to confront the fact that what I do not hide from my daughter in her first few years will imprint itself on her mind in unpredictable ways.

It would be impossible to reflect on all of the things to which my wife and I are bringing Skylar into contact. Maybe that's why I obsess on the music we play in her presence. It's one area where I can take the time to be conscious of my responsibility as a programmer. This is where my ambivalence about becoming an authority figure comes full circle. When I play records during the day while Skylar isplaying with her toys, I make my choice with the deliberation of an educator. I try to put together a good mix. If we've just listened to a record of spoken-word collage, I'll follow it with some rootsy rock. Then I'll turn to something classical. One day it might be 12-tone piano music by the likes of Arnold Schönberg and the next day a Mozart concerto. Afterwards, I'll round things off with a little Team Dresch -- Skylar shows a particular affection for music of the so-called "riot girl" subculture -- to liven up the mood. It's like I'm the DJ on some perversely eclectic college radio station. But as silly as this approach may sound, it feels right to me. And if Skylar's drumming sessions or the sounds she beats out on her mini-keyboard are any indication, it feels right to her too. Who knows? It might even make her smarter.

Acknowledgment: An abbreviated version of this piece appears in issue #34 of Punk Planet magazine. I would like to thank Aaron Shuman and Jonathan Sterne for their help on this revision.

When he's not pursuing Skylar around the house, Charlie Bertsch is completing his dissertation, "Bodies ofResistance: Post-WWII American Fiction as Political Theory" in the Department of English at UC-Berkeley. He also does freelance writing onpopular music, politics, and literature. He is extremely happy that college basketball season has arrived and looks forward to Sean Lampley leading his teammates by example: "Go Bears!"

Copyright © 2000 by Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.