Listening to Beethoven and the Beatles with My Newborn

Obviously having a child brings a lot of change, but one thing that’s stayed the same – when I get up on weekends, I still listen to a record or two and enjoy my apartment while my wife gets herself up a little later.  With a big difference though: now, while my wife gets some much-needed rest, I’m accompanied by my 5-week-old son.

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Sam listening to the start of “Sgt Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

I’m under no illusions about any sort of cognitive (or emotional) effect this listening has on him.  Baby Mozart notwithstanding, so far as I know, he just doesn’t have any sort of developed mental capacities that will lead this music to “make him smarter” or whatever.  I have it on good authority that most studies that show it helps newborns or babies in utero to hear great music are not actual science..

That said, it feels like I’m fulfilling a really deep and joyful obligation in listening to these records and CD’s with him.  As liberal of a parent as I intend to be, one who intends to allow my child to make his own choices, not to push him into any particular narrative, there’s something that feels biologically necessary about listening to Beethoven and the Beatles with him.

Beethoven

I remember quite clearly the first time I put on a record – which I’m pretty sure was Beethoven’s 3rd (“Eroica”) symphony.  He had just been sitting there in the bassinet while I was eating breakfast, but when the music started, he got this faraway look in his eye.  Really just a sense that something different was happening.  He opened his eyes wider and was quiet and less fussy for a few minutes.

What that made me realize was just this: that’s what music does for me too.  It’s just something new, something that holds my attention for a time, and arrests my other thoughts and motions while I attend to it.  All the efforts people (including me) make at music criticism tend to pass too quickly over this truth.  Good music unexpectedly captures us and distracts us in new ways.  Everything else seems secondary to that.

One more thing about Beethoven – when Sam’s there, I notice different parts of the music than when it’s just me.  Previously, I’d favored the minor-key works, like the 5th symphony, the 3rd piano concerto, or the 9th symphony’s first two movements.  With Sam sitting there, all of the sudden, those great, swelling, major-key moments (like just a few minutes into the Beethoven violin concerto, or the entirety of the 5th piano concerto, the final [“Ode to Joy”] movement of the 9th and so on).

Before, moments like that felt like overkill, like classical pomposity.  Now I listen to them and sincerely entertain thoughts like “Beethoven wrote these moments because he knew how incredible it was to hold a newborn your arms” (though Beethoven himself had no children, I think anyway).  Those moments create a sense of infinite and glorious possibility I had never experienced just a few weeks ago

The Beatles

The only CD’s I still own are the 2009 remastered Beatles albums, in the big black box.  I tend to put them on while Brooke is making dinner and I’m left to bounce the little guy, or hold him in my lap and keep him from spitting his pacifier out.

So far, we’ve listened to Sgt Peppers, Magical Mystery Tour, Abbey Road, and Rubber Soul.  I’ll get to the earlier stuff (and also the white album) soon.  Whereas with Beethoven, the point is to hold him and perhaps hum a melody or a theme, with the Beatles, I’m driven to sing – every word of every song.  I do my best to look him in the eyes, and maybe dance with him.

Again, songs I don’t always enjoy come much more into focus, like “Octopus’s Garden,” “Fixing a Hole,” “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” all of which are, quite obviously, childish.  I always knew that, but didn’t see it as a good thing until now.  Of course then there’s the medley at the end of Abbey Road, but I always liked that.

And though I was excited to listen to the medley with him, before we got to the end (and “The End”), he had a screaming fit and had to eat…

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