In early 1997, before my son (pictured above) was born, my then-wife, Tina, heard about something called Beethoven For Babies. If you followed the instructions of Beethoven for Babies (so the program promised) your child would have a good chance at developing an aptitude for math and science BEFORE THAT CHILD WAS EVEN BORN...
My attitude was along the lines of, well, what could it hurt? But if you're going to play music for an unborn baby by putting headphones on a pregnant, swollen belly, then why not give the little guy some variety? Play him all kinds of different music?
Follow The Program EXACTLY
No, my wife said, putting her diminutive foot down. The program said to limit the music playing to Beethoven to produce the best results.
OK, I said, offering a compromise (why I was even bothering to argue about this topic made no sense to me, maybe I just liked taking contrary positions or having arguments, this is almost certainly one of the reasons we're no longer married) what about some other CLASSICAL music besides Beethoven? How about a little Mozart?
Mozart! she responded, to the best of my recollection. Do you want our child to be a manic depressive?
Maybe later she conceded Mozart was considered good music for NEWBORNS and people with the onset of dementia, or maybe later that's what has been discovered with people who are into this kind of thing. I don't recall, but I do know my wife stuck firm to the idea that only BEETHOVEN would be played for little Alex before he was born.
Amazing Results Even BEFORE Birth
Some months before Alex was born--prematurely, and he had to spend some time in an incubator which was probably more traumatic for his parents than for Alex--my wife swore the Beethoven was already having an amazing effect upon our unborn child.
"He's playing games with me," she said. "Counting games."
Explain what you mean, I asked. My wife said she'd been "timing the kicks" as per prenatal health care instructions. You're supposed to take a stop watch and make sure the baby kicks a certain number of times within a few minutes. She said the baby was "timing the kicks" and even "playing games," refusing to kick until just before the time ran out. Since the ticking watch was balanced on her belly, the baby (she said) was "counting" or had a sense of the time.
He's DOING that? I asked, amazed.
I even tried to MAKE him kick, she explained, trying to stimulate him to kick but he'd REFUSED, then kicked right before the time ran out. And another time, he kicked quickly a few times right after time ran out. It's like he's playing a game.
And, of course, she attributed it to all that Beethoven. A few times she even tried to play Beethoven on her viola, her most precious possession. She worried and fretted out loud that her imperfect rendition of Beethoven could have a negative effect on the program, but (to the best of my admittedly vague recollection) she tried and tried to get the songs right. Particularly since the baby was "applauding" with kicks.
An Odd, Early Hint Of Future Math Ability
Some months after Alex was born (and I did mention that traumatic period of time he spent in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, and I can hardly THINK of his babyhood without flashing back to those awful weeks) I noticed a strange affinity baby Alex had for numbers.
He'd be having a tough day (babies are always having a tough day) and crying about whatever babies cry about...crying because they are TIRED (so counter productive!) or over a lost binky, or a slightly delayed diaper change, or sun shining too brightly, or a burp that started out OK but turned into a dramatic gastrointestinal mishap.
"You just need a nap," I'd reassure him. "There, there."
But Baby Alex didn't just want a nap. He wanted some noise in the background to go with his nap. He wanted some music. But one day I couldn't get the musical thing-a-ma-doodle to play, so I turned on the television, hoping I'd find something soothing. I slowly went through the channels, trying to find something Alex would respond to positively. I almost skipped past the weather channel, figuring it was a non-starter, but Alex reacted strongly.
No, that was the one. He wanted the WEATHER CHANNEL.
And I don't mean the exciting modern day Weather Channel with footage of hurricanes throwing pieces of houses around like matchsticks, but rather a local weather channel with an announcer endlessly droning detailed data for whoever needed that stuff...farmers and pilots of small planes mostly, I suspect.
Whatever, I shrugged. Who can account for the tastes of little babies?
My infant son was calm, listening to the droning male voice talking about barometric pressure, highs in the low to mid 40s, up to half an inch of precipitation tomorrow...sucking peacefully on his pacifier.
The kid is going to grow up to be a weather man, I thought. Well, that was just fine. That's a good paying profession and it helps people. Maybe he'd be a weather man on MARS. In the early days of my child's life, me and my spouse often talked of the amazing future he would witness, and how our child might one day set foot on MARS. So a weather man on Mars? That was fine. Hope for an amazing future for one's child springs eternal, but often enough a parent just hopes and prays their children don't turn to crime and drug addiction.
Over time, my little child's attachment to having the weather channel playing in the background during nap time (or at least at the beginning of nap time, before he fell asleep) was notable. If you tried to give Baby Alex something different for television background noise, including soothing classical music, he would fuss.
My wife thought our child's fixation on the weather channel was the calm, droning voice, which was truly verbal Haldol.
"A slight cold front moving in from the Northwest, impacting highs and lows through Thursday..." God, how can you listen to that for more than a few minutes before losing consciousness? I mean, WHO CARES? Tell me if it will be sunny when I want to have a picnic, or if there will be an ice storm, and I'm satisfied. But if my child wanted a detailed listing of barometric pressure, well, anything to make the little guy happy.
One day something awful happened. It was a different voice on the weather channel! In fact, it was a chipper young female voice. I could tell she was trying to reign herself in and dryly announce the weather data, as instructed, but her voice was animated and very, very different than the other announcer's voice.
Oh my word, I thought. My baby son is going to lose his mind over this!
I saw Alex notice the difference. His little mind seemed to mull it over for a second, his face pensive, a bit apprehensive...
Here comes the wail! I thought, bracing. Here's where Alex goes banana cake bonkers and there's nothing daddy can do to fix things...
Baby Alex smiled a little and seemed to snuggle in for a good listen. I looked at his face. Happy. Content.
I turned toward the television and immediately noticed a row of numbers. Temperatures or barometric pressures or precipitation, whatever, but the screen was a mass of numerical data and the female announcer was reading it aloud.
Oh, my word, I thought. IT'S THE NUMBERS. It's not the soothing voice at all, it's the NUMBERS our baby likes!
I shared my discovery with my wife, to the degree we could talk about ANYTHING at all by that time. (I take the blame, mostly, for the record) And to the degree I can recall these events of almost two decades ago, I seem to recall we agreed. The baby's fascination with the weather channel seemed based on the numbers, not the soothing voice.
An Incredible, Almost Eerie Affinity For Math
From the very beginning, our son had an affinity for math. He started out strong and kept progressing, to the point he was taking college level math in high school and, incredibly, tutoring other kids in math.
I even came to depend on his mathematical ability. My son could calculate a 15 percent waitress tip faster and more accurately than I could. From me, he quickly learned about how "mile markers" were used on the highway and taught his mother who, by that time, was my ex-wife.
There were incredible manifestations of just HOW MUCH that kid liked math and how good he was at math. Once, at a rural courthouse in Minnesota, Alex noticed a book of local tax assessments. I had to take care of something in the same building, something that was going to take a while. My son told me to just leave him there at the tax assessor's office to look at the big, fat book of numbers.
Please, he said. Please, please, please.
"That's going to keep you INTERESTED?" I asked. He nodded, enthusiastically.
When I came back a while later, it turned out the people in that office had given Alex a tour including incredibly detailed explanations of how taxes are calculated and assessed, and my son was soaking up that (boring crap) like a sponge. Later, in the car, my son Alex was regaling me with tales of how much certain taxpayers owed. I had to visit that local courthouse a number of times and I would drop off Alex at the tax assessor's office, which had "adopted" him.
They told me, in a grave and serious tone, my son was some kind of prodigy. I said I knew it. And I had to find ways to give my son what he needed in life to keep developing his abilities...which were so radically different than my own English major interests that it was like my son's real father must be a math-loving space alien.
Five years ago, in a story I wrote up on my Adventures of Johnny Northside blog, my son found a cast off book that showed how to calculate mortgage rates and payments. Of all the books in that box of cast off books--and there were many--THIS was the one book my son wanted.
A Little Visitor To The Hallowed Halls Of Mathematics
When my son was about ten years old, and we'd hang out all the time on the campus of the University of Minnesota where I was going to school and working as a teaching assistant, one day we saw an announcement about a prominent professor of math from an Ivy League school who would be giving a presentation.
"Can we go to that?" my son asked. "Please, please?"
It's "Open To The Public," I answered, reading the announcement in the Minnesota Daily. Sure, we can go. But if you get bored, let me know, and we'll go do something else.
Something told me my son wouldn't be bored but...a ten-year-old child? At a lecture directed at grad students? At ESPECIALLY BRIGHT grad students? But I would try so hard to keep my son happy with what resources I had, often limited. When he was little, if he wanted to throw rocks in a river for hours, that's what we'd do.
At the math lecture, we took a seat off to the side. I told my young son not to be intimidated. These students were so much older than him, but when they were his age they were smart, and good at math just like him. Where they were now in their lives, one day he would be. All he needed was time and good teachers.
I couldn't follow the lecture very well. I remember how all the students went "Ah!" at one point. At that same exact moment, my son sharply drew in his breath. Like he was following the points in the lecture.
At the conclusion, students and even faculty stood in line to shake the professor's hand and share a word or two with him.
"You want to wait to shake his hand?" I asked. My son wanted to meet the professor, yes, but he didn't care about shaking hands. "Be polite and offer your hand to shake like the other students," I said. "And then he'll talk to you for a moment. That's how it's done." I was working so hard in those days on getting my son to shake hands like a little gentleman.
You will go up there with me? he asked, hopefully.
Of course, I told him. But then if he wants to talk to you, I'll let you do it yourself.
But you will stay near? he asked, nervously.
I won't leave you, I assured him. I'll be right next to you.
We waited. We must have waited half an hour. Dead last, we finally approached. The great man looked at me, and I shook his hand and explained I was a teaching assistant here at the U...
Oh, yes, he said.
...in Journalism, I finished, laughingly. Sir, it is actually my son, here, who wanted to attend your lecture. Math, it's his thing. He loves math and wants to be a mathematician.
The great man looked down at my son, who was looking up, eagerly, smiling. He did not physically get down to my son's level like somebody with tender "daddy instincts," but did speak to my son in a gentle tone. No initial handshake was offered by either party.
"I'll let you two talk," I said, taking a couple steps back.
The Ivy League mathematician told my son that was great if he wanted to do math for a living. Mathematicians didn't get rich and most of them worked at a university, which are nice places. The work was not well paid but it was fun. People who wanted to make money and work with numbers, some of them became ENGINEERS. That's a good way to start in math. To become an engineer and calculate real world problems, and make stuff.
My son said he'd like to discover new things in math. And win million dollar prizes. My son was aware, at a young age, of big cash prizes associated with new math discoveries. He'd learned about that from our reading, together, of current events topics. At some point in time my son even learned of the reclusive Russian who solved a million dollar problem, and refused a million dollar prize.
"Here is a problem that might interest you," the mathematician said to my son, and on the blackboard sketched a simple Sudoku puzzle, or something that looked, to me, a little like a Sudoku puzzle. The question, the professor explained, was how many possible solutions are there to this puzzle? And how can you PROVE there are no more solutions than that number?
Now, he said, most people would say there are ten possible solutions...
No, my son interrupted, quickly. I see eleven.
Now, for the first time, the great man physically got down to my son's level and looked him in the eyes. Something in his tone changed. It was like he was speaking to my son like a peer. A peer trapped inside the body of a tow-headed 7-year-old, but a peer.
"You see ELEVEN?" he said. "Show me."
My son showed him. I remember my son saying "there, there, there" rapidly and they were keeping count. Well, sure enough, they reached eleven.
"But here's the thing," the great man said. "How would you PROVE there are only eleven and no more than eleven? How would you show it, mathematically?"
"There are no more than eleven," my son laughed.
"You have to PROVE that," he responded. "Mathematicians always have to prove things. We have to show our work."
The great man said encouraging things to my son. And then, gravely, the professor offered his hand to shake. My son performed the handshake ritual in return. I think it was the first time he ever pulled if off by himself, without prompting...with that Ivy League math professor.
I was happy. And my son was happy. Happiness radiated from him. The great man had spoken to Alex like a peer. Only going to a meal at Village Wok and obsessively counting his shrimp could make this evening any better!
I shook the great man's hand. I thanked him for chatting with my young son. The mathematician said something like, well, the affinity for mathematics comes early and your son definitely has that. He needs to keep developing that ability.
"Honestly," I said. "I attribute so much of this to the fact my ex-wife used to play Beethoven for Babies for him, before he was born."
He'd never heard of that. I took a moment to explain. The great man offered no opinion, one way or the other, except something along the lines of "prenatal development is not my area of expertise."
Perfect SAT Math Scores! (Or Were Those ACT Scores?)
To some degree, my son's grades in math might be seen as subjective. With grade inflation, a lot of kids might get A's, right?
But the SAT test is a fairly objective standard. The ACT is also a fairly objective standard. My son has taken both these tests. In fact, in an attempt to "super score" Alex has taken one of these tests, possibly both of these tests, more than once. I wish I knew more precisely. My "divorced daddy" role was to help pay for some of the tests (over and above paying child support) and to congratulate my son on the impressive results.
With one of the tests--and I confess I don't know if it's ACT or SAT, but it's one of them--my son has achieved a perfect math score.
Not just once. Twice.
To What Degree Can We Credit "Beethoven For Babies?"
Clearly, it's not enough to just play Beethoven for Babies and hope it magically works. My son has been nurtured and cared for by his excellent mother, and I'm an active and involved father, to the degree possible. Without the 17 years of effort AFTER his birth, my son wouldn't be where he is today.
In fact, when I mentioned Beethoven for Babies to my ex-wife, a few months ago, she barely seemed to remember (yes, well, I'm sure she's blocked out a lot of our marriage) and discounted the possibility Beethoven for Babies could have much of an impact, at all.
But I remember that moment when she first told me about what she was doing with those headphones on her pregnant belly. I remember telling myself, at the conclusion of the conversation, that we'd know for sure several years in the future. It was like I set a little mental alarm clock for myself 17 years in the future. And when those college admissions scores came back, the little alarm went off...
Remember when your wife played him Beethoven for Babies before he was born?
The fact my son really likes numbers, the interesting moment with the Ivy League professor, his habit (now thankfully gone) of obsessively counting shrimp in a Chinese dinner (always the SAME Chinese dinner, compulsively) all these things do not add up to evidence of eerie mathematical ability.
No, not even tutoring other kids in math.
But those scores on those admissions tests?
For The Betterment Of Human Civilization
I write about my son rather rarely compared to other topics. I guess my relationship with my son is more personal. From time to time I've written of the adventures we have together, like taking down "sign spam" in North Minneapolis, but the internet is a nasty, brutal and often anonymous place...so even if something involving my son would make a good piece of writing, often enough I choose not to write about it.
So why write about this?
I write because my social responsibility outweighs the negatives. If there is really, truly a way to help babies get smarter before they're even born, society needs to know about it. And society needs to know the detailed specifics, to be able to evaluate and weigh the evidence.
For myself, I am utterly convinced.
Beethoven for Babies works.
It works miracles.