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Classical Gas


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By John Corbett

On the basis of a thoroughly unscientific survey of Web sites and local bookstores, I believe I am ready to announce the discovery of something that will rock the world of pop science--something I will cumbersomely call "the Mozart-effect effect."

The Mozart effect, you may recall, entered the public's consciousness thanks to a 1993 study by University of California at Irvine researchers, who were pleased to announce that a roomful of college students, after listening to ten minutes of a certain piano sonata by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, had improved their performance on a short spatial-intelligence test. The good news was that this corroborated an earlier study in which preschoolers who'd been given eight months of music lessons outscored their musically illiterate counterparts on the same sort of tests. The bad news was that the college subjects seemed to lose their newfound smarts within 15 minutes.

But that hasn't kept a stampede of educators, music snobs, and New Age music healers from touting--and hawking--the miraculous powers of Mozart and, by extension, other classical composers. This is the Mozart-effect effect. For instance, you can now purchase pianist Valery Lloyd-Watts's Music for a Better Brain, a CD that features "selections by the great masters of pattern and structure," including not only Mozart but also Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Scarlatti, and Telemann, and promises to "stimulate your ability to think abstractly." Or you can visit the on-line Mozart Effect Resource Center (, where you'll encounter Svengali Don Campbell, sometime student of famed music educator Nadia Boulanger, founder of the Boulder-based Institute for Music, Health and Education, and author of The Mozart Effect (Avon Books, 1997). Campbell has compiled six CDs (three explicitly for children), including Strengthen the Brain: Music for Intelligence & Learning, which, he assures the consumer, can help listeners achieve "the kind of measurable IQ boost [Campbell's emphasis] documented in the famed University of California at Irvine study." It doesn't include the sonata used in the study. Incidentally, in case you were thinking about adopting it for your own line of products, "The Mozart Effect" is already a registered trademark held by Campbell.

Last week the dailies reported that one of the scientists who made the original discovery, Frances Rauscher (now at the University of Wisconsin), has found that young rats given a nightly dose of the same Mozart piano sonata learned to run mazes more quickly and efficiently than rats subjected to music by Philip Glass or white noise. In '94, the UC-Irvine newsletter MuSICA Research Notes explained that the authors of the original study "selected Mozart because they believe that its musical structure facilitates cognitive processing in the brain and predict that music which lacks sufficient complexity or is too repetitive would interfere with abstract reasoning." The insufficiently complex, repetitive minimalist Glass would seem to have confirmed their suspicions. Rauscher and her colleagues cheerily report that the rats' reactions to Glass and Mozart have "strong implications for education and enrichment programs."

At long last, validation for the superiority of classical European culture, irrefutably proved by the miracle of scientific inquiry! Not only are the great works universal and timeless--now they transcend species. Concerned that people might think he's a Mozart chauvinist, one of Rauscher's coauthors from the original study, Gordon Shaw, assured the Boston Globe that he has "a postdoctoral fellow who is very anxious to try this with other classical composers." That's important research too, because then we can officially admit Bach, Beethoven, and all the other dead white fellas to the good-for-you list too. No word if there's a postdoctoral fellow who's very anxious to try this with Miles Davis or James Brown or Brian Wilson. Lord knows none of those guys was very efficient at running the maze.

The Mozart-effect effect gathers intensity from our reckless search for panaceas--and what could be an easier solution to our problems than to accept what is already widely accepted? How big a leap is it for the mainstream media to take this outlandish outpouring of class and ethnic bias as hard science? Or for us to believe its conclusion, that certain music "may be tapping into the internal neural structure of the cortex," as Dr. Shaw speculated in the Globe? And what if, continuing in the great sociobiological tradition charted by E.O. Wilson, we could demonstrate that Mozart did good things for bees and ants? Would we feel even more certain of the inevitability of Western classical music, concluding that its inherent grip on the mysteries of logic and rational thought is so firm that all social beings can be immediately and automatically elevated just through brief exposure to it? How deep in our genetic framework would we look for Mozart's fingerprints? How easy would it be to convince ourselves that he held the skeleton key to some primordial epistemological padlock?

In educational journals there is some healthy skepticism about the Mozart effect. But in the mainstream press, where most people get their information about both science and education, a lot of questions get left unasked. For instance: why that particular sonata, K. 448? Whose recording of it was played? (I make the assumption live music wasn't an option, even though the image of a chamber orchestra lulling baby rats to sleep tickles my funny bone.) Was it chosen because, say, The Marriage of Figaro seemed less logically structured? And doesn't it seem likely that the way the music was performed and recorded might have an influence on its perception, cognition, and subliminal effect? Was it a fast or slow interpretation, an echoey or dry recording, played loud or soft? Was it on CD or LP? If we believe in the Mozart effect, such studies could be the perfect place to prove once and for all the superiority of analog or digital.

Likewise, the Globe didn't see fit to say which Glass composition was played; Glass seems to have been employed merely as a symbol of what's wrong with new music: it's illogical at best, discombobulating at worst. If the scientists played one of Glass's numbingly boring newer works, I can understand the findings--those rats would be lucky if they could recognize their own mothers, much less get up and walk through a labyrinth. But how about a shot of Iancu Dumitrescu or Conlon Nancarrow or Merzbow, see how quickly they fly through the maze then? Are we really going to buy the idea that Glass's music will keep us from achieving our full spatial-intelligence potential? Tempting, in sarcastic moments, but not likely. I do believe music has the power to change minds and alter perception. But it isn't just another environmental factor like asbestos or lead paint. In between our ratlike urbrain and Mozart's sonorous stimulants fall the shadows of humanity and psychology, layers and layers of reflexive conditioning that hopelessly obscure a clear view under the hood. There's no such thing as a person outside culture.

So what's really being tested here is the music. As Donna Haraway showed in her groundbreaking 1989 critique of primatology, Primate Visions, the behavioral sciences are frequently used to justify social norms and mores, and to sanction the perpetuation of the status quo. The way primatologists' findings are refracted in popular culture sites, such as the film Gorillas in the Mist, she says, wrongfully turns them into commentary on human behavior. Rauscher's rats have been presented not as rats but as stripped-down human beings, little black-box test subjects that reveal what we, wrapped up in layers of culture, cannot. But what this process truly reveals is the desire to see white European classical culture sanctioned by a higher authority--if not God, then at least nature. "Insufficiently complex" is a code not only for Glass but also for pop music, which, it's implied, is a threat to mental health. The Mozart-effect effect is about rationalizing cultural piety.

When I was in college, I once played a favorite blues record by the late Johnny "Clyde" Copeland for one of my music theory professors. As the horn section began riffing, she blanched. "God," she gasped, steadying herself on her desk. "What is that? They're playing a tritone! Take it off, please, I'm going to faint!" What impressed me was the intense and immediate physicality of her response. It looked, no shit, as if she might well have collapsed had I not pulled the arm off the LP. But though her reaction seemed innate, I didn't experience anything similar and neither did any of the many people I tested that track on over the next few days. Of course she'd been taught that the tritone--the interval of an augmented fourth or flatted fifth--was a vicious assault on her senses. That interval was banned in medieval times, labeled diabolus in musica, and strictly controlled in later epochs--like Mozart's.

What I learned in school that day was that the feelings we experience when we listen to music are staggeringly complex phenomena and, moreover, mainly the result of conditioning. My teacher's freakout was perhaps an example of the Mozart effect backfiring: she was actually conditioned to be too vulnerable, too sensitive, and too intolerant of "illogical" musical ideas to survive outside the ivory tower, where music isn't neat and tidy like test questions, counterpoint problems, or spatial puzzles, where it's messy and unkempt and, as such, beautiful.

For music to have a lasting impact, it can't be approached as yet another yuppie lifestyle commodity--half an hour on the Stairmaster for cardio health and ten minutes with Wolfgang on the Walkman to tone the brain. I am admittedly skeptical of any claim to universality in music, whether it comes from New Age mystics, peddlers of panglobal world music, aesthetic dictators like La Monte Young, or PhD-flashing scientists. Music resides in particulars, not universals; as an example of what some would call "immaterial culture" it is especially sensitive to its context, and its value is in what it reveals about the specifics of its context rather than in any absolute ideals of form and structure. Learning about an unfamiliar kind of music isn't just applying your own aesthetic and cognitive abilities to the sounds. It's a challenge to the very way you've learned to listen. I'd be willing to bet that in the long run accepting that challenge will give you a better mental workout than listening to the same old Mozart piece over and over. In fact, I'll stand on this unprovable assertion: listening to Mozart doesn't automatically make you smart. Whether it'll help you get ahead in the maze, of course, is another question altogether.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Mike Werner.


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