By Eli S. Chesen
Countless parents subscribe to the notion that exposing their child to the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart might convert their progeny into prodigy. The commonly held delusion here is that equipped with a handbook and handful of CDs, Johnnie has an advantage over those other kids who are growing up on Twisted Sister and Mötley Crüe. Unconventional wisdom says that even brief exposure to the 18th century musical savant will make your kid smarter and, after all, Mozart had pushy parents, too.
This whole fantasy began with a 1993 article in Nature Magazine
reporting a small-scale study conducted at the University of California, Irvine, by Gordon Shaw and Frances Rauscher in which students listened to 10 minutes of “Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major,” immediately subsequent to which they took Stanford Binet IQ tests, which, when compared to baseline testing, reflected some improvement in the students’ short-term memory functioning. This semi-scientific demonstration of memory enhancement was eventually and grandiosely to become known as the “Mozart Effect.”
The study’s controls were two alternatives to the Mozart:
A. Listening to a relaxation tape or
B. Being exposed to 10 minutes of silence.
What many do not realize is that the reported improvement with Mozart-mediated memory functioning was in actuality a very transitory phenomenon, lasting approximately as long as the musical sample itself. It was opined by the original researchers that the music primed or “warmed up” the brain’s memory circuitry, thereby enhancing recall.
Pythagoras argued that music was perfection because musical intervals themselves could be translated into mathematical ratios. And, indeed, Mozart’s music is quite mathematical and symmetrical.
In deference to Shaw and Rauscher, their observations were reported with respectable restraint. On the other hand, as rigorous research goes, the reported experiment was feckless and flimsy. Notwithstanding the paucity of modest findings in regards to Mozart-generated cognitive augmentation, the researchers’ pontifications were a little elevated.
Others, however, took the ball and ran with it, recklessly claiming that $30 worth of CDs could transport little Mary from her fourth grade remedial reading group to Dostoyevsky scholar … and all this for about the price of a Vegematic.
In other celebrations of absurdity, scientists were soon reporting “The Schubert Effect” and “The Stephen King Effect.” Proponents of the “King Effect” hypothesized that reading bone-chilling prose likewise enhanced psychometric testing results.
Widely promoted, and even taken for granted by many, is the idea that Mozart will actually promote a child’s organic brain development. In the spirit of this, some will-be-mothers have been known to blast “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” at their gravid abdomens to share a little culture with their child in utero, a kind of third trimester serenade of elevator music. *
While Shaw’s and Rauscher’s studies have been adopted and practiced by an infinitude of well-meaning but misguided parents, the efficacy of this practice has not for the most part been confirmed by others, who have tried to replicate the original 10 magic moments of Mozart. Conversely, this reality has been conveniently lost on scam artists selling Mozart off the back of the wagon.
Enter Don Campbell, author of the modestly titled “The Mozart Effect: Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the Mind, and Unlock the Creative Spirit” (1997).
I would admonish you to avoid buying this book… If you do, please do not forget to stop by the grocery store, on the way back from the bookstore, to pick up at least a one-pound bag of salt.
Campbell was scientifically sophomoric, but nonetheless a marketing genius, who, with his sparkling wit and shallow understanding of neuropsychology, sold the notion of The Mozart Effect in a manner reminiscent of those salesmen who roamed the prairie early in the last century, going from farm to farm “charging” lightning rods for a fee.
The Mozart Effect has been popularized by a specific demographic who:
1. Listen to a lot of National Public Radio.
2. Bake bread.
3. Prefer anything natural, including herbs, soy and snake oil.
4. Crave natural childbirth and other painful experiences.
5. Avoid preservatives.
6. Avoid baby formula.
7. Consume significant quantities of yogurt and fiber.
8. Have an on-call acupuncturist.
9. Prefer meditation to napping.
Campbell marketed a kind of brain kit with reading materials and mysteriously selected Mozart tracks, which were supposedly especially sequenced and transformative in their effects on young central nervous systems. He and other adherents, tapping into the magic of a kind of Mozart code, have brought the 18th century composer into the “New Age,” something which must make the genius spin at high rpm’s in his common grave. Campbell’s findings lead me to wax inquisitively about what we might hear if we played “Don Giovanni” backwards. He professes insights, lost on musicologists and scientists.
He and his followers allege:
*That music is good for us, physically, emotionally and spiritually… I can live with this premise.
*That Gerard Depardieu could barely speak before doing some variation of musical therapy… I assume that for Depardieu, Debussy was substituted in place of the Mozart.
*That 50 diseases, including hypertension, cancer, Parkinson’s Disease and a panoply of psychiatric maladies, including autism, can be cured by Mozart exposure… I take some exception here. Hypertension, maybe, but cancer and Parkinson’s? I want to see at least one more study.
*That the influence of the music’s effect has actually been calibrated and is equal in its potency to a 10 milligram dosage of Valium… If, indeed this is true, I suspect that one of Mozart’s longer pieces, say, the Jupiter Symphony, could induce general anesthesia and drug dependency.
*One can dissolve a cerebral artery thrombosis (a form of stroke) by humming music while simultaneously vibrating the skull with the hand. I think there is an untold story here. This do-it-yourself neurovascular surgery certainly required bigger guns than a mere Mozart sonata… I suspect there is some cheating here, wherein Campbell went for broke, skipping Mozart altogether and perhaps going with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or even a Mahler symphonic marathon.
*That musical exposure cures a malady affecting almost half of the planet’s population. Campbell’s people claim that listening to Mozart encourages both sides of the brain to work in sync, thereby remedying occidental left-brain dominance… I am nonplussed by this claim.
Still not convinced? An American Medical Association publication suggests musical anesthesia for childbirth, noting that a sample of mothers-to-be preferred Vivaldi- and Mozart-generated endorphin production.
In a related report, it was observed that even fetuses are critics, kicking reactively to rock music, something which also raised fetal pulse rates.
At least one study asserted that kids who take music lessons have higher IQs. But, then again, kids who take music lessons are more likely to have pushy, educated parents who can afford lessons, to say nothing about their DNA complement, a kind of genome metronome.
Other observations of the effect of music on humans are less far out and appear relatively reasonable. People listening to slow, passionate music in a minor key, such as the ubiquitous Barber’s “Adagio,” might put in a sluggish performance on some testing.
I suspect the reverse might be true for Handel’s, “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” or the last movement of Dvorak’s “American String Quartet,” pieces with wonderfully manic tempos and exuberant melodies.
Music certainly affects mood and typically exerts its effect immediately, and it is reasonable to accept the idea that mood drives performance and vice versa.
The Mozart Effect itself, however, is silliness and symptomatic of something more serious, even antieducational, in patterns of parental practices. There is a widely shared fantasy, in the minds and modalities of parents, which asserts that various educational shortcuts and gimmicks might turbocharge a child’s mental abilities.
Parents want their children to have an edge, fair or not.
The pitfall here is analogous to giving Jimmy anabolic steroids so he can beat out Ron Bob for first-string nose guard. While the side effects of the Mozart Effect do not include the testicular atrophy and the liver disease of steroids, there are side effects here of a social and educational nature nevertheless.
The naive belief that listening to music will enhance learning is an insult to art itself, and I contend that the parents who arrange regular at-home Mozart matinees for Jimmy are likely to be people who do not know nor appreciate the master’s compositions in the first place. The repetition inherent with “The Mozart Effect” surely perverts the musical exposure-experience for the child.
The effect on a child of endless hours of classical droning is like assigning him a kind of structured mantra to which he quickly becomes indifferent. I have observed, in some children, a would-be appreciation for music stifled by the compulsivity and monotony of overexposure to highly structured early music. The brain tires and tunes out such repetition… Don’t get me started on Suzuki!
I only allow myself to listen to the Ravel “String Quartet” (my all-time favorite composition) once in a while, because I fear that I might otherwise become sick and tired of it. Daily chateaubriand makes one long for a hot dog.
So where is the harm?
An analogous and even more dourful gimmick, related to a Mozart Effect mentality, has taken the form of workbooks, course outlines and online SAT preparation instruments. Just as listening to a few minutes of Mozart might enhance memory for a little while, cramming for the SAT becomes a proxy for the “warming up” of short-term memory as per the Mozart Effect.
Parents want their children to have an edge, fair or not.
Strategic preparation for the SAT contaminates the original mission of the exam, which used to be the measurement of accumulated knowledge and ability. Thanks to shortcut gimmicks and strategies, the test is now more a reflection of test-taking ability and immediate memory recall. I discouraged my children from studying for the test. Similarly contrived preparation strategies have likewise infected the LSATs, MCATs and other now-obsolete testing devices. The Mozart Effect leg-up playbook is at work here.
As for the Mozart Effect itself, it is no more than a sham promoted by a scam. It is a function of parents’ attempts to passively inoculate their children with an immunity to stupidity. It harkens to the phenomenon of utilizing Sesame Street as both babysitter and tutor. I opine that any of these repetition-based programs, whether available as CDs, DVDs, online, or through TV, actually extinguish creativity in children.
Mimicking the ABCs does not a literate make nor does listening to Mozart’s “Dissonance Quartet” make Emily an aficionado. Mozart, Mendelssohn, Mötley Crüe … I am skeptical that there is any genuine effect these audio forces exert on the auditory cortex of the brain, such that the brain thrives or dies antecedent to the sophistication and nuance of time signatures, melodic lines and key changes therein.
In fact, I believe people are prewired to either love or hate this stuff anyway. I also contend that most kids exposed to the Mozart Effect eventually look back on the experience as having been auditory torture. I think the parent who wants a prodigy should take the kids to the library.
* Thanks partly to the Mozart Effect, this piece of music is even more overplayed than Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero,” and Mozart would have hated this, just as Ravel hated hearing people on the streets of Paris whistling his not-so-serious composition to death.