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Music to the Littlest Ears: Napa Composer Tickles the Ivories for Tiny Brains

By Caroline Knorr


If you haven’t heard of Thomas Schoenberger yet, you will soon. This Napa-based composer is making beautiful music for babies and drawing rave reviews from the littlest critics. With a national CD release around the corner, his mathematically based Mozart-inspired sonatas soon will fill the airways of nurseries across the country. Will our babies get smarter? Read on…


Scientists have devoted entire careers to figuring out the mystery of the effect of music on babies. The commercialization of this research has flooded the market with so-called brain-building music that may or may not stimulate neural pathways – and often sounds like it’s played by robots. Certainly, no music is bad for babies, but it’s hard to believe that mechanical versions of classical music do anything for your baby’s brain. And the marketing of these products suggests that either you feed your baby a steady diet of classical music or risk raising a dumb, unmannered brute.


A refreshing new voice in the debate is Napa Valley musician Thomas Schoenberger, 42, who started composing classical music for babies on a lark. His two compact discs, Music for Infants and The Ultimate Baby CD have attracted a devoted following among local mothers' groups who e-mail him daily using words like “mesmerizing,” “hypnotic” and “calming” to describe the effect his music has on their children. Schoenberger is delighted and surprised by these reactions, but he isn't entirely shocked. As one of only a handful of composers writing classical music expressly for babies, he has done his own research on the neuroscience behind the effect of music on infants’ brains. His efforts have led him to a formula that may not be magic, but is certainly mysterious.


From New Wave to Neuroscience


Several years ago, Schoenberger, whose previous gigs included fronting New Wave bands in Los Angeles and creating musical pieces for commercials and films, had composed some sonatas in the 18th century double-piano style used in the landmark Mozart studies conducted by French physician Alfred Tomatis. Conducted in the 1970s, Tomatis’ studies indicated that playing Mozart’s music helped to develop speech, improve motor skills, aid memory development and enhance logical-thinking skills. The research spawned even more studies, the most famous the 1993 study by the University of California, Irvine, team Gordon Shaw and Frances H. Rauscher, who coined the term “Mozart Effect” to describe the link between the Mozart double-piano sonata and enhanced spatial-temporal reasoning. Schoenberger, whose career in music began as a child, had a pet interest in the effects of classical music on developing brains, but he wasn’t prepared for the reactions his friends’ kids had upon hearing his early work.


“I had given away samples of classical music I had written to several friends," he says. "One day, one of my friends told me that his 2-year-old moved her head every time my music was played. I then heard from another friend that her baby smiled and laughed when my music was played. I then purposely gave more compositions to friends who had young children. To my amazement, they all reacted in a manner unlike anything they had seen," he says. "The reactions ranged from seriously concentrating on the melodies to running around in circles. I still do not understand it.”


Of Math and Music
But he knew he was connecting with his audience and was inspired to write more. Actually, he couldn’t help but write more. Because of a head injury he suffered in college, Schoenberger hears music in his head constantly and also can solve complex math equations in his head – without using his fingers. He writes prodigiously and has amassed a collection of compositions in the thousands. What makes the cut on his CDs has been tested on his son, 3-year-old Michael Wolfgang, and his friends’ children.


Schoenberger's method is part science, part art. The compositions are carefully crafted in the polyphonic style of Mozart’s double-piano sonatas, using a technique called counterpoint, in which there are two or more independent melodies played together.




“It is the belief of science that this style of music, with its counterpoint and 18th-century melody, helps enhance spatial-temporal reasoning," he says. "This is what we use to ‘think ahead,’ as in chess, music and math.” Also, the songs, with names like Prelude Infante and Petite Melancholic Variation, are much, much shorter than a lot of the music typically marketed for children. “A child under the age of 3 has a natural attention deficit. I’m writing music that’s around two minutes in length for each one. And within those two minutes, there are different movements, so it’s designed to be behavior modification music.”


Not surprisingly, given Schoenberger’s passion for numbers, he infuses his compositions with math, challenging his brain with complex geometrical equations and the number series discovered by Leonardo of Pisa, a 13th-century Italian mathematician known as Fibonacci.

“I use fractal theory and Fibonacci sequence in my compositions,” Schoenberger says. “The trick is to wrap math around a melody. As far as behavior modifying, there is a hypnotic element here. I believe that mathematical music – Bach, Corelli – does indeed leave a listener spellbound.”


Researchers have identified math as one of the most important lessons of music. Eric Symons, a San Rafael-based classical guitarist and composer who has studied music therapy from a compositional standpoint, says musical intervals in particular give brains a workout. “In fact,” he says, “most children, when they say ‘mommy’ or ‘mama,’ are almost universally around the world using a minor-third interval. Thomas has made his compositions specifically geared for the brain development of infants by using intervals, harmonies and chord resolution that mathematically resolve as to develop neuro-pathways.”


Symons believes that this musical resolution helps calm babies. “The resolution of a diminished chord, in layman's terms, is the essence of conflict resolution, or more precisely, the resolution of pain and anguish.”


The Human Element
Schoenberger also is inspired by the natural sounds of daily life.


“To create this music, I listen to the sound of children laughing, singing, crying," he says. "I use those rhythms as a core and flesh out my music around it. I also use minor chords to color the music. Mozart wrote music to the cries of his wife giving birth. It is all about interpreting what is around us in musical vocabulary. By concentrating on the common sounds that children make, I believe that I am on to a fundamental code of communication with babies in their pre-verbal stage.”




">The communication manifests in interesting ways. Parents who play the CDs for their children report fascinating behavior. Lisa Marie Christie, a Burlingame mother of 3-year-old Laura, heard of the CDs in her mothers' group, the Carpool Warriors. She observed an immediate reaction the first time she played the music, when Laura was 17 months old. “She started smiling, then waving her hands like a conductor," Christie says. "She then started swaying to the music. It just took my breath away. She always moves her body when the music plays. I have tried so many other baby CDs and there is no reaction.”


">One of the most dramatic differences between Schoenberger’s music and most music marketed for babies is that it sounds good enough to play at dinnertime. A lot of baby music comes in only one flavor: happy. Schoenberger’s compositions have a lot more depth. “I find it insidious that so much of the music in the marketplace is 100 percent positive,” he says. "It is diabetically sweet, almost unnatural. Kids need to also experience both the sweet and the tart side of music. I try to shade my music like a cloud suddenly passing over a full moon.”


">New listeners are often surprised to hear that his music is really meant for their children. Tony Ruffo, a San Francisco father of 6-month-old twins, has been disappointed in the quality of most baby CDs. “A lot of the music sounds a lot simpler, almost cartoony," Ruffo says. "Schoenberger’s music sounds like regular music, something I’d listen to to relax.”


More Research on the Way
Common sense tells us that if we like it, we’ll be more inclined to play it for our kids. It’s this notion that the music can be shared between parents and children that led Stevanne Auerbach, Ph.D, author of Smart Play: How to Raise a Child with a High PQ, to name The Ultimate Baby CD one of the best 100 products of 2002. Auerbach is director of the Institute for Childhood Resources and founder of www.drtoy.com, a Web site that provides information on the best toys and educational products. “We don’t need research to tell us that babies respond to music," Auerbach says. "Thomas’ music is easy for everyone to listen to. It provides an overall sense of relaxation and enjoyment that you can share as a family, which provides a calming home environment.”




Schoenberger takes the concept a step further. He believes his music creates an environment that is conducive to optimal brain growth, but he is careful to distance himself from the idea that music can raise a baby’s intelligence. “It’s not saying, ‘if you listen to this you can get more intelligent.' It’s saying: ‘This is a greenhouse, you need to grow your own seeds,’” he says.


What’s next for Schoenberger is a national CD release and awaiting the results of research using his own music. He cautions that neuroscience is in its infancy with regard to understanding the effect of music on the brain. “We are in the pioneering stages of this thing. It’s been a good first run but we have a long way to go,” he says.


And unlike those composers whose music was used in brain studies, Schoenberger keeps writing more songs. That’s music to the littlest ears.


Resources:
Music for Infants and The Ultimate Baby CD are available at FAO Schwartz,
The Right Start and Zany Brainy stores. Also online at www.intelibaby.com,
www.cdbaby.com and others. Go to www.thomasschoenberger.com for more
information.

They are also for sale at several North Bay retailers. In Napa: Cribs and
Bibs on First Street and Vallergas Markets (three locations), and Queen of
the Valley Hospital.  In St. Helena: Tapioca Tiger on Main Street. In

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