The Mozart Effect

Composer

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted here with the gracious permission of First Things, where it first appeared.

It can cure backache. And asthma. And obesity, writer’s block, alcoholism, schizophrenia, prejudice, heart disease, drug addiction, headaches, and AIDS. It makes bread rise better and improves the taste of beer. It can even make you smarter – so smart that in Florida it’s now the law that all child-care facilities receiving state aid include at least half an hour of it every day. The governors of both Tennessee and Georgia give newborns in their states examples of it along with cards reminding their parents of their tykes’ immunization needs. At a community college in New York, administrators have set aside a room in their library for it. Across the nation, professional educators pelt school boards with demands for its inclusion in the curriculum. An Indiana obstetrician even markets a device that administers it in utero.

What is this philosopher’s stone that can so dramatically change the world? It’s music. Or better, Mozart’s music, or so says Don Campbell in his best-selling The Mozart Effect: Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the Mind, and Unlock the Creative Spirit (Avon Books, 1997). In high demand as a speaker, Campbell addresses a different conference almost weekly, hop scotching across the nation from his base in Boulder, Colorado. Trademarking the name “Mozart Effect,” Campbell has even gone cable with infomercials for his book and its accompanying compact discs and cassettes. In the great tradition of P.T. Barnum and the “Veg-O-Matic,” Mozart has now hit the mainstream of American life.

The impetus for this remarkable turn of events was a modest letter by Frances Rauscher, Gordon Shaw, and Katherine Ky published under “scientific correspondence” in the October 14, 1993 issue of Nature. In their barely three-column report, these University of California at Irvine (UCI) researchers summarized the findings of an experiment conducted upon thirty-six UCI students. After ten minutes spent either listening to Mozart’s Sonata in D major for Two Pianos, K488, to a “relaxation tape,” or simply sitting in silence, the students were given a paper folding and cutting test. (A piece of paper is folded over several times and then cut. You have to mentally unfold it and choose the right shape from five examples.) The students who listened to the Mozart sonata showed a 89 point increase in their IQ scores over their scores when they took the test after either a period of silence or listening to the relaxation tape. The bump in IQ was temporary, not lasting beyond the time required to sit through the experiment.

The researchers were testing the suspicion that there might be a kind of “music box” analogous to Chomsky’s famous yet-undiscovered “language box.” Might the symmetries and patterns characteristic of music be fundamentally connected to the symmetries and patterns researchers were tracking in brain waves? If so, might not music really be tapping into a structure inherent in the brain itself? And if this were true, ultimately might music be a kind of fundamental, or pre-linguistic – or even supra-linguistic – speech? The researchers tested Mozart’s music because they thought that if anyone was “tapping into this inherent structure for patterns,” it was Mozart. Who else was composing music so early and so well?

Although the researchers were professionally circumspect with their conclusions, the media that reported them were not. The story that “Mozart makes you smarter” made network news, and the wire services carried it to newspapers and magazines across the country. The Mozart Effect was born, and began its trek from the lab to the publishing house to the legislature.

Well, not born really. Reincarnated, let’s say. And it wasn’t so much a trek as a march along a well-worn path. The notion that music has properties and powers that can sharpen the mind and transform the soul is ancient. Such ideas formed the basis of Confucian civilization in China. In the West, they are attributed to Pythagoras and his followers and played a central role in Plato’s ideal state.

Greek intellectuals generally had little patience with the gods of mythology, preferring to view the world in more abstract ways. At an early date, they observed that the basic condition of their world was change (we grow old, rivers flow, winter becomes spring, etc.), and reasonably concluded that if so, the basic condition of divinity (or otherworldliness) would be the opposite of it – or changelessness. This changelessness they considered perfection. Such divine perfection they couldn’t see in the world around them, but they could observe it in the stars, in arithmetic, and in geometry. They credited Pythagoras with discovering that such divinity could also be encountered in music.

Pythagoras argued that music was divine because it was constructed of musical intervals that could be defined by mathematical ratios. Take a string and pluck it and you get a note. Divide it exactly in half, pluck it, and you get the same pitch an octave above it. Take that same string, divide it in thirds, hold down that string at a point two-thirds along its length, pluck the longer side, and you get a pitch a perfect fifth above the note you get plucking the whole string undampened. In a similar way each interval can be described by number. The octave by 2:1. The fifth by 3:2. The fourth by 4:3. The major second by 9:8. The major third by 81:64. And so on and so forth, every interval being described by an unchanging ratio. Because one, two, three, and four added together equal the Pythagorean perfect number ten, the intervals defined by these numbers are themselves also perfect (which is why we still refer to the octave, fourth, and fifth as the “perfect”).

The Pythagoreans believed that number was the core to the universe and that because numbers do not change they were of divine origin. Since musical intervals were an expression of number, they too were divine. But the Pythagoreans themselves had little or no use for real music – that is if by “music” we mean musical compositions, or actual musicians for that matter. At least according to Aristides Quintilianus, an early Pythagorean, listening to actual music just got in the way. Best just to stick to thinking about the ratios.

In spite of this warning, tales developed of music’s supernatural abilities. Orpheus charms Hades by his singing. Terpender of Methymna is credited with calming a revolt by his music. The mighty Alexander the Great is driven to murder – and remorse – by the playing of a servant. Even David’s soothing of Saul’s rages is probably rooted in a notion of music’s supernatural nature being able to restore equilibrium. But no one makes music more central to his thought than does Plato. In the Timeaus creation myth, he makes music the essential stuff of the cosmos. In The Republic, Plato develops it into the notion of the “doctrine of ethos.”

Plato’s purpose in writing The Republic is to describe the ideal state. Since an ideal state cannot be made up of un-ideal people, a good deal of his discussion concerns how to educate boys into the kind of men who would lead such a society. Briefly put, he thinks that this could best be accomplished by stressing two things in elementary education: gymnastics and music. The ways in which gymnastics would train the body are pretty clear; similarly, music was supposed to mold the spirit.

Plato held that music does not merely depict qualities and emotional states but embodies them (this is the “doctrine of ethos”). A performer singing about the rage of Achilles, for instance, would not only be depicting the emotional states of anger and violence and the personal qualities of Homer’s hero but would be experiencing those things himself. And not only the performer – so too would the listeners. Plato believed that music encodes ethical qualities already found in human conduct and that music feeds those qualities back into the soul of the performer and his listeners. Thus certain sorts of music would educate boys into living highly ethical lives while other sorts could educate them into baseness.

Plato forbids music in the Mixolydian and intense Lydian modes for his boys (they are “useless even for women if they are to be decent”) as well as the music in the Ionian and lax Lydian modes (which are “soft, lazy, and fit for drunkenness”). Boys should be allowed to hear music only in the Dorian and Phrygian modes. In this way they might imitate the actions of a brave man “defending himself against fortune steadily with endurance.”

Plato’s ideal state was never established in antiquity. But his musical ideas weren’t forgotten. In 1570, as France was being torn by the wars of religion, Charles IX’s Catholic intelligentsia prodded him into creating the Académie de Poésie et de Musique. In the lettres patents which created the academy, the king declared that “it is of great importance for the morals of the citizens of a town that the music current in the country should be kept under certain laws, all the more so because men conform themselves to music and regulate their behavior accordingly, so that whenever music is disordered, morals are also depraved, and whenever it is well ordered, men are well tutored.”

It was the king’s hope that proper music-making would restore order to his land, ending the bloodshed between Catholic and Protestant, or, if not ending it, at least making the Protestants take their humiliations a little more quietly. Here we have the “Mozart effect” roughly two hundred years before Mozart’s birth.

Problem is, it didn’t work. French Protestants and Catholics did not lay down their arms and embrace each other upon hearing the strain of fifes playing music in the Dorian mode. Plato’s educational theories – on this point at least – are sheer nonsense. Do we really believe that training in ballet (which is really the union of gymnastics and music that Plato is talking about) is the best preparation for politics? Should Winston Churchill have spent more time in a tutu? The idea that requiring boys to listen to music in a particular mode will make them act with courage is perhaps the stupidest notion a great mind has ever come up with. Play whatever music you like for them – boys will be boys. And Pythagoras was wrong. The perfect fifth is not the temporal manifestation of supra-cosmic divinity sent to illuminate the land with transcendence. Moses did not come down the mountain with a tuning fork (nor, for that matter, did Muhammad or Jesus or Joseph Smith).

And the “Mozart Effect” is no effect at all. Soon after the original Irvine project, researchers at the University of Auckland tried to replicate Rauscher’s results. They were unsuccessful, and concluded that listening to Mozart had no effect upon short-term IQ. Although Rauscher has replicated her original findings in a subsequent project, the conflicts between the studies have yet to be resolved. In any case, the parameters of the study weaken under scrutiny. Did the students really listen to the Mozart, or were they just in the room while the music was going on? Did the students who listened with care – in other words, listened to the music as it is supposed to be listened to (following the change of themes, the modulations, noting the surprise deceptive cadence near the close) – perform differently than those who just sat back and let the music wash over them?

The researchers seemed surprisingly unaware of the music itself. When they suggested parameters for further investigation, they hypothesized that “[music] which is repetitive may interfere with, rather than enhance, abstract reasoning.” Yet the movements of the sonata they selected are themselves highly repetitive. And the choice of work is regrettable, since the second movement is probably one of the silliest things Mozart ever wrote. The very best thing that could be said of their experiment – were it completely uncontested – would be that listening to bad Mozart enhances short-term IQ.

Prof. Rauscher has since joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, where she is now studying the effects of music upon rodents. While her and her colleagues’ findings remain controversial, these folks are insightful scientists and did not exaggerate their findings. Don Campbell knows no similar inhibitions. Using Rauscher’s research as his base, Campbell has legally laid claim to The Mozart Effect™ and launched a commercial enterprise independent of the scientists whose curiosity initiated the investigation.

The claims that Campbell makes for music are of an almost rococo flamboyance. And like the rococo, just about as substantive. The ailments that head this article are part of a list of nearly fifty problems Campbell suggests that music corrects. His evidence is usually anecdotal, and even this he misinterprets. Some things he gets completely wrong. For instance, Campbell cites Georgie Stehli’s famous cure from autism as an example of music’s therapeutic effects. But in her autism, music, and indeed almost all sound, was a source of tremendous pain to little Georgie, not comfort. Her therapy was successful because it desensitized her to sound.

And the whole structure of his argument collapses under simple common sense. If Mozart’s music were able to improve health, why was Mozart himself so frequently sick? If listening to Mozart’s music increases intelligence and encourages spirituality, why aren’t the world’s smartest and most spiritual people Mozart specialists? According to the argument in Campbell’s book, the world’s intellectual and spiritual center, populated with our civilization’s most generous and healthful beings, ought to be where Mozart is most revered, studied, and performed; in other words, some place like the Metropolitan Opera’s canteen during the intermission of Cosi fan tutte. It isn’t.

The world’s greatest orchestras have a good number of people in them who passionately hate each other. (The principal oboe and flute of one of our major orchestras so detested each other that no one remembered a time when they spoke.) And far from being healthy, orchestral musicians are beset by ailments. Carpal-tunnel syndrome, back problems, high blood pressure, exhaustion, diabetes, depression; look down from the balcony on the orchestra and you’re looking on a group of men and women poised on the brink of physical collapse.

Music academics are no better. The annual meeting of the American Musicological Society is full of displays of one-upmanship, conceit, and subtle and not-so-subtle public back-stabbing and professional murder. And our greatest musicians, the star virtuosi, are more than infrequently notorious for their cruelty, faithlessness, arrogance, selfishness, and stupidity. And in all of these areas, Mozart’s music only makes matters worse. His work is so technically demanding and his textures so lean that little less than a perfect performance will do. Almost any musician would prefer the gymnastics of Rachmaninoff to the delicacy of Mozart since with Mozart you always perform without a net.

In short, musicians – the ones who know Mozart best – are cantankerous, egotistical, selfish, stupid, cowardly, generous, even-tempered, compassionate, intelligent, humble, and kind in about the same proportion as Teamsters
– who, for the most part, hardly know any Mozart at all.

Music can do many things. A work song can coordinate physical labor. A march can keep an army in step. A bugle call can signal retreat and a melodic phrase can assist in the memorization of Torah. And art music, or that music which is intended to be primarily listened to for its aesthetic content, can be a powerful means for emotional self-reflection, self-illumination, and expression. But the one thing that music most certainly cannot do is overcome the will.

Music is not a drug that incapacitates the listener and produces a predictable result. A whole lifetime spent listening to Bach will not automatically make a woman love God. And – despite the warning of two generations of moralists – a lifetime listening to the Rolling Stones will not make a man fornicate. Particular kinds of music may express things that appeal to the listener, and the listener may select a particular kind of music because he finds that it resonates with his own pre-musical emotional condition, but the music itself can never cause the listener to act. Action is a function always of the will, and while music may prod, and it may suggest, it cannot force. We must indeed pay the piper, but we always choose the tune and decide whether or not to dance.

Poor Mozart. Where is he in all of this? Lost. Mozart’s magnificent dances, the terrifying thunder of Don Giovanni, the bliss of The Magic Flute, the harmonic intricacies of his symphonies, and the transcendence of the final works: the “Ave verum corpus,” La Clemenza di Tito, and the Requiem – all of this is lost in the rabble of Campbell’s traveling snake-oil show barker’s sales pitch. Mozart’s greatest music isn’t about being intelligent, or acquiring power. It’s about becoming a human being and living, as he signed his scores, in nomine Domini. That is what the Mozart effect is supposed to be.

About the Author

Michael Linton teaches undergraduate theory at Middle Tennessee State University’s School of Music. Linton holds a B.M from Wheaton College (Ill), an M.A. from Yale University, an M.M. from The University of Cincinnati and a Ph.D. from New York University. He studied composition with Lucas Foss, Scott Huston, and Krzysztof Penderecki and studied theory and analysis with Jan LaRue. Before coming to Tennessee, Linton taught at the University of Bridgeport and Northwestern College (MN). He has written for the Wall Street Journal, First Things, the Weekly Standard, and the Groves Dictionary of Art and has served as a critic for The Connecticut Post and the St. Paul Pioneer Express. With his wife Janet, he served as a church musician in Baptist, Congregational, and Episcopal churches in Kentucky, Connecticut, Minnesota, and Tennessee.

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Discussion

  • Interesting article. And a true defence of Mozart against silly commerce.

    But:

    “The perfect fifth is not the temporal manifestation of supra-cosmic divinity sent to illuminate the land with transcendence.”

    This invites for comment. Pythagoras may have expressed his awe and surprise in the imagery of his time and place, but it seems to me that he saw something of great importance, namely that the structure of natural formation includes numerical ratios, and that the human mind can grasp this. The ratios of the intervals seems to be on first sight a trivial observation, but it is not: it is in fact a remarkable thing that numbers exist in the mind and that they are also an intrinsic part of nature; this can be called something of transcendence because nobody has ever discovered ‘numbers’ as such in nature. What we call numbers are mental metaphors of ratios and only ratios do exist in nature. The relationship between ratios in nature and numbers in the human mind shows that the human mind is a structural part of evolution and related to the deepest layers of natural creation. It is as remarkable that there is a connection between Mr Einstein scribbling on a black board and the (unintended outcome of) the atom bomb – the scientist who said: ‘The mystery of the universe is not its incomprehensibility, but its comprehensibility’, which sums it up neatly.

    Therefore, the structural harmony, beauty and liveliness as embedded in classical music relates to both nature and the innermost nature of the human being, and music based upon these deep structural affinities will create resonances in the listener. And of course, it is then a decision of the listener whether these resonances will have implications or not, but that is immaterial for the music itself: it needs to be understood to be able to affect the listener. Where the human mind is perceptive enough to music, it will be accessible to one of the great mysteries of existence. And great composers play around with the ratios, creating emotional effects of order, deviation, variation, and return and resolution, all based upon nested hierarchies of ratios – a kind of fluent mathematics in emotional terms;

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JO7waQBpW3U

    One should remember what Steven Semes wrote in his essay on this site:

    “Scientists are interested in pattern and proportion once again. Neuroscience is beginning to reveal ways in which pattern-recognition is built into the complex and subtle mechanisms of the brain. From this viewpoint, classical music and architecture are analogous, not just because they reflect one another, but because they reflect us and the way our minds work.”

    http://www.futuresymphony.org/le-violon-dingres-some-reflections-on-music-painting-and-architecture/

    It is a normal human urge to long for beauty, in whatever form, and it is no coincidence that Mozart’s music fulfills that need generously, because in his works the ordering of ratios is very close to the surface, and order is an essential part of beauty. In his ‘The Future of the Past’ Semes writes: ‘Our recognition of beauty reveals the persistence of pattern, relationship, and consonance within the transient.’ So, there is a Mozart effect, but it is not restricted to Mozart alone.

    https://www.amazon.com/Future-Past-Conservation-Architecture-Preservation/dp/0393732444

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