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It’s no secret babies love music—we all do. But let’s face it, “baby music” sucks. The cutesy repetition, the inane lyrics, the unimaginative same three chords. Playing a lot of what passes for baby music these days would likely constitute torture in a POW detention camp. So why do we play this crap to our kids?
And DON’T get me started on Baby Mozart.
Despite several studies in recent years debunking the idea that specifically playing Mozart to your newborn somehow makes them smarter, countless parents still leave their little ones with Mozart on repeat (which also sounds a lot like Black Site torture to me—I love Mozart just as much as anyone, but too much of a good thing isn’t necessarily a good thing, right?).
Researchers generally agree that regular exposure to music in general boosts early cognitive development—and exposure to diverse styles of music is best. Studies have also shown that the quality of the interaction between baby and caregiver while listening to music can be just as important for development.
So what does that mean in practical terms?
Expose baby’s ears to what you like to listen to too. If possible, introduce baby to a broad spectrum of tastes as well. It doesn’t have to be all sing-alongs and nursery rhymes.
Also, speaking from experience, it’s important to pay attention to what you play baby while they’re still in the belly.
In the months leading up to our son’s birth in the Portland area, we spent a lot of time in the car, driving out to hiking trails, on road trips, or visiting friends and family. I had one CD in the car. I meant to change it at some point but never got around to it. We’d listen to news or music on the radio, but would inevitably return to that one CD.
Thankfully, it was a good album (Bob Marley’s Natural Mystic/ Legend II compilation), because we had no idea then just how much we’d be listening to it AFTER our son’s arrival.
In fact, for the first several dozen car rides, the first song on the album (Natural Mystic) had the mystical power of zonking the kid out (instantaneously in some cases). So, we obviously listened to THAT one A LOT.
Now, if that CD had been Barney or Taylor Swift, I would not be here today to tell the story.
Finally, you can tell fairly quickly whether a baby LOVES a particular piece of music or simply tolerates it—even newborns! (and indeed, many toddlers will even TELL you in no uncertain terms…picky little boogers). When an infant tolerates the music, you might buy yourself a couple of minutes of peace…if you’re lucky. But…when that infant LOVES the music, the look on their face is priceless—like the Big Baby in the Sky just kicked down the door to the universe, blowing their entire conscious wide open and challenging all their previous conceptions about the world around them, man.
In other words, mind blown.
And suddenly, you’ve got one happy (and/or SLEEPY) baby on your hands.
Here are 12 music albums that did it for our kid.
1. Natural Mystic (“Legend II”) by Bob Marley
Our baby’s top tunes: Natural Mystic, Iron Lion Zion, One Drop
The original mind-blowing album for our son. Three days old, the unmistakable reggae beat of Natural Mystic faded in, and the kid zonked out. Magic. In later months and years, he’s also become a big fan of “Iron Lion Zion” and One Drop. Particularly great for car rides. More »
2. Goodnight Songs by Tom Proutt
Babe’s Faves: The Noon Balloon, Goat on the Mountain, Wooden Town
Yeah, this one’s technically a kid’s album, but only technically. Written by the author of Goodnight Moon (the story behind this is actually really interesting), musically and lyrically it’s got a ton more complexity than most music geared toward this age group. Despite what the album title implies, most of the songs taken in isolation won’t necessarily put a baby to sleep. With that said, one should NOT listen to the album in its entirety while driving or operating heavy machinery. More »
3. Desde El Equinocio by Alturas
Andean favorites performed by a masterful Ecuadorian group. Like many of the albums on this list, Lori and I used to listen to this one on long car rides. Great for road trips, or just playing inside on a rainy day. More »
4. Meet Me in Margaritaville by Jimmy Buffett
Babe’s Faves: Son of a Son of a Sailor, A Pirate Looks at Forty, Come Monday, One Particular Harbor
Adults seem to love Jimmy’s music or despise it. I for one fall into the first camp, particularly for his Key West-based material. Babies, on the other hand, seem to love Jimmy across the board. Put on some Buffett, pull out the box of blocks, and let the tropical breeze take you and baby to the beach of your choice. More »
5. Big Calm by Morcheeba
Speaking of chillin’, babies like to chill out too, especially right before nap time. Keep the laid back vibes going with some Big Calm. More »
6. The Very Best of Grateful Dead by the Grateful Dead
Ever hear a toddler sing along to “Touch of Grey?” It’ll blow YOUR mind. More »
7. Buena Vista Social Club
I like to experiment playing all sorts of music for the kid to see what sticks. While some are instant hits, most fall flat. But that doesn’t mean a second try won’t yield drastically different results. Such was the case with this amazing album from a supergroup of Cuban musicians, and is currently one of my son’s favorite albums. More »
8. Endless Summer by Beach Boys
I can’t say I’m a huge Beach Boys fan, particularly regarding their earlier work. But our infant loved the jingle-jangle surfer tunes to no end. And regardless, even listening 1960s surfer tunes is far more preferable than listening to most of what passes for music today (do I sound like a cranky curmudgeon, or maybe just a 38-year-old expat dad?) More »
9. The Beatles (aka White Album) by…the Beatles
Back in the USSR, Blackbird, Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da
This is what my dad used to play for me when I was my son’s age (which may explain a lot). Turns out, my kid digs the transcendental ashram-inspired double album as well. More »
10. Monk’s Dream by Thelonious Monk
Who knew babies liked good jazz? More »
11. 80 Minutes of Native American and Zen Flute by Massage Tribe
Really, any good spa CD will do the trick, but this one’s my favorite…and baby’s favorite too. Great for winding down things before nap time (or just cultivating a relaxing environment).
12. Best of Raffi
Babe Faves: Baby Beluga, Apples and Bananas, Day O
I know what you’re thinking. “Raffi? Seriously, dude?” But trust me, you could do a lot worse than the King of Kid’s music. The thing about Raffi is that his effects are truly magical. It took some time for our kid to grow into Raffi, but now, at the ripe old age of two, wherever we are, however toxic the meltdown, the first unmistakable whistle of that white whale and our son is happy as a clam (and putty in our hands). More »
Cover photo by Alireza Attari on Unsplash.