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At 42 weeks pregnant, I lumbered into our local hospital’s operating room for a planned C-section, hyperventilating and tearful in my compression tights, while the midwives and doctors did their best to reassure me. “Let’s get your playlist going,” they suggested. The midwife brandishing a speaker and a USB cord cheerfully told me that the previous patient who had a C-section that day had held her baby for the first time just as her Spotify playlist landed on The Lion King’s “The Circle of Life.” A nurse suggested that they could queue up the “emergency” playlist they had for birthing people who came in without their phones. “My wife hates music,” my husband chimed in, and everyone laughed except me. I was too busy pondering the fact that I was about to be sliced open like a hamburger bun in about four minutes. 

I don’t hate music, but I’m not exactly keen on it, a fact which my friends and family find very weird. Maybe it was the endless hours of failed piano lessons I endured until my parents accepted that I had zero talent or interest, or maybe it was the string of failed musicians I dated in my early twenties who earnestly played guitar at me for hours on end. Either way, I could live without music very happily.

Our son was delivered safely a few minutes later and broke the silence with a loud cry almost right away.

After nine and a half months of anxious waiting, that cry was the only sound I wanted to hear. 

Nearly four months on, our quiet, meticulously organized house has been turned completely upside down. Laundry hampers overflow and every room smells vaguely of diapers, but we’re simply too tired to care. Like many first-time parents I know, my husband and I have been lured into buying every single gadget that promises to keep our baby asleep for longer than 60 minutes at a time. By the time we discovered the white noise app we now rely on day and night, we had bought four different kinds of swaddles and a $1,200 cot which promises to replicate the sensation of constant soothing by essentially strapping your baby down and rocking them at increasing speeds until they eventually nod off.

I don’t know which one of us discovered that our baby loves white noise, particularly the ‘vacuum cleaner’ genre, but it has a narcotic effect on our son. The app we use features a picture of a woman sleeping peacefully in a full face of makeup and spotless white pajamas next to a rosy-cheeked infant. That could be me, I thought, covered in spit-up and smelling of gone-off milk. Babies our son’s age are supposed to sleep about 17 hours a day, so we have white noise playing almost constantly. Between that and the constant hum of the washing machine, breast pumps, beeping monitors and wind-up toys, our once-quiet house is now constantly filled with sound. 

Then something strange started happening. Early on, while feeding the baby in the middle of the night, I heard very faint piano music, which went on for an hour or so until I managed to fall back asleep. The next night it was Spanish guitar. The night after that it was a brass band. 

I assumed it was our neighbors and brushed it off. But then it went on for weeks. 

I heard jazz saxophone, the sounds of an orchestra starting up and elevator music—until it dawned on me that the music was only ever on at the same time as the white noise. 

When I realized that our neighbors were on holiday in Spain and started hearing church organs in the middle of the night, I started to panic. Convinced that I was having some kind of postpartum psychotic break, I lay awake that night fretting, listening to my baby snoring and the “Mario Kart” theme music, which was sounding increasingly sinister now that I had figured out it was a figment of my imagination. 

One evening after the baby had gone to bed, I ran myself a bath and my husband joined me in the bathroom, where we do most of our catching up these days, eating leftover spaghetti out of the saucepan and looking depleted. He took the news that I was losing my mind fairly well and suggested that we not jump to any conclusions. 

We googled it, and as it turns out, audio pareidolia, also known as “musical ear,” is the phenomenon of hearing music in static sound, like white noise. 

Our brains are wired to interpret meaning in sound, and where there aren’t any discernible rhythms or patterns, our brains will fill in the gaps as best they can with music, whether we like it or not.  

According to the medical experts of Reddit, as long as you’re not hearing voices telling you to do anything, musical ear is nothing to worry about. Hundreds of women and one or two men reported hearing these phantom sounds, including whispering coming from the droning noises of bottle sterilizers and choral music coming from their Hatch sound machines. 

Feeling immensely relieved, I lay awake that night hearing what sounded like harmonica music. While I would have preferred a podcast, I felt better knowing that I wasn’t losing it completely. 

Before our son arrived, my husband and I smugly told each other that if we never played him any kid music, he wouldn’t know it existed and we could live a “Baby Shark”-free life for a few years, at least. We also agreed that we wouldn’t buy any plastic toys or use pacifiers, and we failed spectacularly on both counts almost immediately. My son laughed for the first time while my husband and I sang “Baby Shark” in a desperate bid to soothe him one evening, and now I sing him “Baby Shark” every day while waving around various neon plastic toys with one hand, and offering him a pacifier with the other. 

Hearing phantom music in the middle of the night seems like one more strange (albeit benign) item on the long list of things that new parents have no way to prepare themselves for. 

So much of early motherhood has felt like I’ve been groping around in the dark—and the pendulum swings between joy and panic many times throughout the day. Life is messy and noisy now. But whether it’s “Baby Shark” or something entirely imagined by my tired mom brain, I hear a lot of music. As long as my son is happy, I don’t mind, although I’ll draw the line if he asks for a drum kit in a decade. 

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