Born to Love Opera

Can Aria and Song Help a Developing Baby?

Thursday, May 02, 2013 - 02:59 PM

When is an opera lover considered viable and able to function on his or her own?

Many researchers recommend playing music for babies to increase their brain functions and I certainly subscribe to that. My customary gift to new parents is a collection of CDs that includes Bach, Mozart, Bellini, Rossini, some lullabies and a selection of arias and symphonic music from across the centuries. Sometimes it is the parents who listen to this music to calm themselves down on nights when baby just won’t stop crying. I prescribe this music primarily for the newborn, but ideally it is something parents and children will share through their lives together.

One of the recordings I like to give is "Beautiful Dreamer," a collection of lullabies sung by Marilyn Horne. I am sure it is a great album from start to finish but cannot rightly tell you—I always doze off by the fifth song.

Opera in Utero

But what about music played before ethe baby is born? It seems that fetuses in the third trimester have good hearing even in the environment of the womb. They not only hear the mother’s heartbeat and the whooshing sound in the amniotic fluid in which the fetus dwells, but sounds from outside.

I can hear you asking, “What could Fred Plotkin possibly know on this topic?” So allow me to present my credentials. About 20 years ago, I knew many women who were becoming pregnant and asked me, as someone who knows about food and nutrition, what they should eat to maximize the outcomes of their pregnancies and to be mindful that the fetus requires distinct nutrients in different months during gestation as various organs and systems develop.

I conducted considerable research and consulted with the medical director of the New York City department of maternity services. After successfully feeding a control group of 16 women who gave birth to wonderful babies, I proposed a book of recipes I developed for preconception, gestation, post-delivery and breastfeeding. The title was The Nine Month Cookbook

My sympathies to any new author whose book winds up in the marketing department at certain publishers. The geniuses at my publisher decided that no one would understand the title of my book and it was renamed Eating Healthy for a Healthy Baby. Never mind that the title is ungrammatical. Chain bookstores (remember them?) thought the book was about nutrition for infants rather than women who were expecting, so it seldom was placed on the pregnancy shelves. And yet the experience gave me an awareness of, and fascination with, what happens during fetal development.

According to Seth S. Horowitz, author of The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind, the ears connect to the brain in the third trimester of gestation, enabling the fetus to hear. This includes outside sounds such as the mother’s voice but also, it seems, music.

My friend Tom and his wife recently welcomed a new daughter. He told me that when she heard Salome, in utero, she responded with lively kicks. I remarked that I would worry if she eventually displays an unexplainable wish to snap the heads off of her dolls. Tom told me that she also responded, in the womb, most musically to Beethoven’s Ninth symphony, being agreeably engaged for most of the piece and then becoming more active during the great choral finale. And, apparently, this music particularly engages her as a toddler.

There are considerable differences of opinion about how old a child should be before being taken to an opera, a subject I addressed a couple of years ago. I was taken to my first opera when I was not quite three. Apparently, my father prepared me not so much for the music as for the experience and responsibilities of being an audience member. One needs to think realistically about your child’s ability to stay still and focused. This comes through training and experience. I have worked at some opera companies on early childhood opera education. Some few children are absorbed by opera from their first contact with it while others may never quite click with the art form. For most, though, it takes continued exposure.

Opera's Effect on Premature Babies

I began making notes for this article well before the April 23 broadcast of WNYC’s Soundcheck, which included a segment on how music therapy helps premature babies in neonatal units.  It should not surprise you that music therapy is found to have positive results on the vital signs, feeding and sleep in premature infants.

Host John Schaefer interviewed Dr. Joanne Loewy of the Beth Israel Medical Center’s Louis Armstrong Institute of Music and Medicine about her findings. She remarked, “We’re living in a gadget society with iPods and iPads. You walk into any baby store and there’s a million CDs, so parents think, particularly when doctors endorse CDs, that they just throw on a CD and let the baby go to sleep. What they don’t realize is that their bodies are valuable instruments. A recording can’t change meter of respiration or heart rate.”

I have no doubt that live musical performances, preferably without amplification, would have a salubrious effect on a developing fetus or a newborn, whether premature or carried to term. Dr. Loewy has collaborators who perform in the intensive care unit where premature babies are cared for. They take music, classical and otherwise, and play it at cadences that the babies can connect to and breathe with or have their little hearts beat to.

I wonder whether regular exposure to certain types of music, particularly opera and song, could favorably affect developing fetuses. I have always been impressed by the fact that, in the classical music of India, there are ragas (musical works) for different hours of the day. Morning ragas gently stimulate a certain kind of focus while evening ragas can be energetic or meditative. I would love to hear from Indian readers about whether they have noticed how their nation’s music has affected developing fetuses.

Whatever music I would choose, it would always be at a very gentle volume. I am certain that our noisy world affects both mother and developing fetus much more than has been studied. One piece I would regularly play for a fetus and its mother is the trio, “Soave sia il vento” from Mozart’s Così fan tutte, which inevitably instills peace and serenity. The same goes for “I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair."

My earliest musical memory, one that dates back as far as I can recall, is Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto. When I was a small child and this piece was played, I would immediately start moving to the music. I remember that it made me intensely happy, and it still does. I also recall being rocked gently to sleep while hearing Louis Armstrong sing “A Kiss to Build a Dream On." As I type these words, I realize that two of the very first works in my Proustian recollection of music in my infancy were played on the trumpet. And yet the instrument never became one I sought to play or look for in other settings.

True story: In 1986, when I was performance manager at the Met, an opera singer who was due to give birth came to hear Joan Sutherland in I Puritani, simply because she could not imagine missing a chance to hear the great diva in one of her last roles at the Met. This young woman went into labor during the second act and, as I helped escort her from the auditorium, she asked me whether a baby had ever been born at the Met. My response: “Not to my knowledge, but I am pretty sure some have been conceived here."

Please take a moment to recall your earliest memories and list them here below in the comment section.


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Comments [6]


I'm a pregnant opera singer and babies do respond to music in the womb. My voice teacher had a mini end of year recital for his students in a chapel which included me singing as well. My baby would not stop moving to the other singers before it was my turn to sing which was rather unrelaxing before needing to perform several songs. :) After returning to my seat the baby returned to moving to the other singers following me.

My growing baby has already been exposed to a month's worth of Carmina Burana rehearsals and Joan of Arc at the Stake rehearsals as well as my personal repertoire. My baby has also been exposed to a mix of rock and popular music on the radio in the car and a mix of musicals when I'm home alone for fun. It will be interesting to see what my baby will respond to musically after he or she is born.

Jun. 27 2013 06:34 AM
Agnes from New Jersey

I have two early childhood memories that definitely lead me to became a classic music lover - and an Operavore. I was about age 3-4, sitting next to my uncle on the bench of a pipe organ, while he, the church organist demonstrated how this magnificent instrument worked. I did not know at that time that it was Bach he played, but later in life when I first heard Toccata and Fugue in D-minor, it hit me like thunderbolt. About the same time I was fascinated by a soprano singing Ave-Maria in the church, again many years later I learned that it was the Bach/Gounod version which still makes me want to cry upon hearing. I do not have children but if I had I would expose them to great music at a very early age. Thanks for another great article.

May. 05 2013 06:06 PM
Nikhil from Lodz, PL

I can't say, unfortunately, about how Indian classical music has affected developing fetuses. However, I do remember my earliest years in a rented 1st-floor home in South India, listening to the land-lady below giving singing lessons almost everyday, mostly in the late-afternoons and evenings. I listened to the ragas not really knowing what they are, but just followed on the singing coming up and through the window.

Now, as a baritone training in Poland, I sometimes can hear if my colleagues are a wee-bit off note, and this annoys them for they don't seem to hear the difference. Interestingly, sometimes when working with my prof., I find him correcting my own intonation by suggesting that I may be singing in between the black and white key!!

Either way, thinking of those times when I could always hear these ragas floating to me through the window, I always feel a sort of late summer sunshine in my mind.

Thanks for the nice article Mr. Plotkin!

May. 05 2013 03:06 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Interesting column and thanks. When I was growing up, we had something called RADIO. Our family was of an Italian background and the radio station we listened most of the time was the Italian one. The music was great. This was a time when even the pop music was beautiful and some of the Neopolitan songs wound up on the concert stage. Operettas and light classics were also transmitted. I grew up loving this music and it carried into my adult years. We also had the Saturday at the Met broadcasts and the NBC Symphony on TV. I think the popular culture at that time was better and not overflowing with the vulgarity we have now.A confession I must make, I do love the Rolling Stones and Willie Nelson.
Best wishes

May. 04 2013 11:12 AM
m greiner from fl

A fetus absolutely responds. Three of my children played various instruments. 2 played guitar(rock) and one played classical using french horn, piano, flute and organ He also was an amazing baritone. I started with the 1812 overture and I think the fetus kicked to the beat...

May. 04 2013 11:09 AM
David from Flushing

I would question how much a fetus hears from outside its mother's body. With her heart thundering away would lesser sounds even be considered meaningful? In any event, judging from the adult population, most fetuses prefer rock to opera.

May. 04 2013 07:40 AM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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