When my daughter and daughter-in-law were pregnant with my granddaughters, I didn’t have to badger them to listen to Mozart so that Rebecca and Kate Rose would be born budding geniuses. Everybody knew about the “Mozart effect,” and most educated pregnant mothers played it ad nauseam. Although I was only a pregnant grandfather, I too believed in it.


Where did this notion come from?

In 1993 Nature magazine published a paper by Frances Rauscher, a professor of Psychology at UC Irvine, titled “Music and Spatial Task Performance.”  She and her colleagues used three groups of 36 college students. One group listened to a Mozart’s sonata for piano for 10 minutes. Another group listened to relaxation instructions designed to lower blood pressure for 10 minutes as well. A third group sat in silence. Immediately afterward they were given one of three abstract/spatial reasoning tasks from an IQ test (Stanford-Binet intelligence scale): a pattern analysis test, a multiple choice matrices test and a paper-folding and cutting test. The researchers found that the subjects who had listened to Mozart scored 8-9 points higher than the subjects who listened to the relaxation instructions or sat in silence.

Like the genesis of many other urban myths, the public (and its slavish media) was ready to believe, and the seed fell on fertile ground. Remember, the original research showed that Mozart helped in spacial tasks, and only for a short time, measured in minutes; the ephemeral effect would be an apt description.

Within days headlines blared the news that music made you smarter. Sad to say, I was swept with the wave of enthusiasm; after all, it made so much sense -it’s got to be true, contrary evidence be damned. This is what evidence bias is made of; you believe what you want to believe, and discard the rest. The Nobel Prize winner psychologist Daniel Kahneman attributes this to our “lazy brain;” it simply takes too much energy to refute what you already believe.

Can you see a commercial opportunity here?

The Mozart EffectDon Campbell, a former musician and music writer, was one of the first people who saw the commercial opportunities in this new phenomena. His 1997 book entitled, “The Mozart Effect: Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the Mind, and Unlock the Creative Spirit” began to exploit the situation. He released collections of Mozart’s music packaged as learning aides for children and adults alike. He trademarked the term “The Mozart Effect” for his growing line of commercial products. His collection now includes eighteen books on the subject and sixteen different albums of Mozart’s music. He has taken the concept to much greater lengths, no longer claiming that Mozart’s music just increases intelligence. He says it also helps with healing, emotions and creativity and does not let the fact that there is no scientific basis for his claims get in his way. One of his recent books, “Mozart Effect for Children,” claims that Mozart’s music enhances network connections in the infant brain. His Mozart compilation collection even includes a version of Don Giovanni for the fetus!

By the end of the 20th century it was common knowledge among mothers and educators that listening to classical music, especially Mozart, was a must to help aid in the cognitive development of their children. So is it any surprise that Americans spend more money on music than on sex or drugs.?

Is there anything to the music-brain connection?

There must be. As Oliver Sacks points out in his article “The Power of Music,  “In all societies a primary function of music is collective and communal, to bring and bind people together. People sing together, dance together, in every culture, and one can imagine them doing so, around the first fires, a hundred thousand years ago. This primal role of music is to some extent lost today, when we have a special class of composers and performers, and the rest of us are often reduced to passive listening. One has to go to a concert, or a church or a musical festival, to recapture the collective excitement and bonding of music.”

Which reminds me of the great movie classic “Fitzcarraldo” by Werner Herzog (based on a true story) in which Fitzcarraldo, a would be rubber baron, is taking a ship down a tributary of the Amazon in search of rubber trees, which in those days brought great fortunes to the owners, the Rubber Barons. On the way, the ship is confronted by a hostile indigenous tribe, massed on the banks of the river. Fitzcaraldo then plays on the ship’s PA arias from the operas: Verdi’s Ernani, Leoncallo’s Pagliaccio(“Ridi, Pagliaccio”), Puccini’s La Boheme, and Bellini’s I puritani. The aborigines are transfixed by the music, and their hostility melts away. Unbelievable, but true; it did happen.

Amazonian aborigines melting to the arias of La Boheme? You bet. Music is a universal language, be it drums in the jungle, arias in the opera house, or a lute played by a monk in a remote Japanese monastery. this is not a modern phenomenon; forty thousand years ago early humans carved flutes from animal bones. Why do we invest time and money in this non-economical abstract thing?

The neurobiology of music

Recent research shows that music people described as highly emotional engaged the reward system deep in their brains activating subcortical nuclei known to be important in reward, motivation and emotion. Furthermore, listening to what might be called “peak emotional moments” in music — that moment when you feel a “chill” of pleasure to a musical passage — causes the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, an essential signaling molecule in the brain. But here is an interesting twist: dopamine rises several seconds before the emotional peak. What this implies is that part of the “high” is the anticipation. Anybody who listens to music, really listens, knows it. Composers like Beethoven and Mozart, legendary performers like Paganini, Jascha Heifetz, Caruso, and Pavarotti knew how drag the sweet moment of anticipation before the climax and emotional release. If you noticed the sexual allusion here it is not unintended: the same dopamine system is involved in both.

Which brings us back to the question of the value of listening to music. Apart from the shear pleasure, science tells us that listening to music activates many cortical systems. Moreover, there is cross-talk between them. Thus, the auditory cortex “talks” to the visual cortex and the sensory cortex; so we describe the Jazz singer’s voice as “velvety”, or “dreamy.” Even the motor cortex is activated and we unconsciously tap our feet to the rousing music of John Philip Sousa. From mere “organized sound” our brain makes connections in unexpected directions. We see music, some of us can hear colors, and we all visualize when we read a good novel.

And this, coming to think of it, is the essence of creativity: making unexpected connections; seeing patterns that are not evident to the “naked eye”. This, I think, is why music is so important for our children’s intelligence, as well as for our overall sense of well-being.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.



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