Mozart, Medulla, and Much Ado


wolfgang-amadeus-mozart

In 1993, a study called “Music and Spatial Task Performance” (Rauscher, et. al) was published in Nature.  This study was actually part of a series investigating the differential responsiveness of the brain to music by Mozart. The results indicated that college students exposed to 10 minutes of a Mozart sonata increased their performance on a “spatial IQ test” by 8-9 points. Use of the term IQ may have been regrettable, as complete batteries were not administered and the term IQ is already ripe for misinterpretation. The specific subtest where a strong main effect was demonstrated was actually the paper folding and cutting task from the Stanford Binet (4th Ed).

Nonetheless, the study enjoyed an avalanche of media attention. The New York Times declared that Mozart would make us smarter, and companies began campaigns to capitalize on this new scientific phenomenon. By far, the biggest marketer of the idea has been Don Campbell, a musician who coined the term “Mozart Effect”. He has written popular books on the subject, and the first chapter of his book The Mozart Effect for Children begins with a chapter called “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Neuron” (Dowd, 2008). Campbell’s “Mozart Effect” CDs have sold over 2 million copies, and that’s not all:

  • The Baby Mozart CD is one of Baby Einstein Co.’s most popular products
  • Sony Records produced a CD entitled “Mozart Makes You Smarter”
  • Sony Records began to label their classical CD’s with “Mozart Effect” labels (March, 1999)
  • The coach of the New York Jets began playing classical music to help his football players concentrate at training camp study sessions (Dowd, 2008)
  • The state of Florida passed a bill requiring state-funded daycare centers to play classical music every day (Bangeiter & Heath, 2004).
  • The state of Georgia passed a bill to distribute free classical music CDs to mothers of newborns in the hospital, and several other states joined in (Bangeiter & Heath, 2004).

Headlines went from speculative to ridiculous, and soon Mozart music was being used for everything from migraines to mudbaths:

  • “Mozart Aids ‘Eye Check’ Accuracy”  (American Chronicle)
  • “Eat to Live: Mozart Makes Good Wine” (Consumer Health Daily)

I even found one, proudly hyperlinked on Campbell’s website, that read: “The Moo-zart Effect: After Playing Mozart at Milking Time, One Farmer has Seen a Dramatic Shift in his Cows’ Temperament and Production” !

In the “Frequently Asked Questions” section of his website ( www.mozarteffect.com ) Campbell discusses the history of research using Mozart’s music. He notes that Mozart was used in the 1950’s by Dr. Alfred Tomatis to study speech and communication disorders, and states “ by 1990, there were hundreds of centers throughout the world using Mozart’s music containing high frequencies…to help children with dyslexia, speech disorders, and autism.” Campbell does not mention the distinction between therapeutic listening, auditory integration training, and the “Mozart Effect”. He also neglects to mention the lack of validation for therapeutic listening and AIT in general, or the fact that the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American  Speech Hearing Association do not endorse these therapies for any type of disability whatsoever.

Regarding use of Mozart to increase spatial skills, replication studies have not consistently demonstrated a significant effect of Mozart listening on spatial task performance (Sacks, 2007; Bangeiter & Heath, 2004). In a meta-analysis including 16 replication studies, Chabris (1999) reported minimal evidence for a “Mozart Effect”.

More recently Standing, et. al (2008) tested the Mozart effect on 60 subjects who received positive, negative, or neutral information regarding the effect of Mozart’s music on intellectual abilities. The Differential Abilities Scale was used to evaluate spatial and verbal skills after subjects had listened to Mozart, white noise, or nothing.  No “Mozart Effect” was found, but both spatial and verbal scores were higher for subjects in the “neutral instructions” trials. The authors advance some possible explanations for this, such as the possibility that positive or negative instructions may create an over-aroused or under-aroused anticipatory set that impacts performance.

It is important to keep in mind that, although researchers have failed to replicate the Mozart Effect with any consistency and there are also other possible explanations for the phenomenon (such as the music “priming the mental pump” for spatial activity rather than enhancing it), there is considerable disagreement in terms of what, psychometrically, constitutes a “spatial temporal” task. For example, there are no tasks requiring the subject to mentally rotate and manipulate pictured objects or shapes on the DAS, but Standing et. al used it in their “replication” study anyway. It is also essential to look at how the researcher is defining the construct of “spatial-temporal” skill. For example, the fourth edition of the Stanford Binet was seriously flawed in terms of its factor analytic stability. The subtests simply did not align with the “factors” to which they had been assigned, and so an analysis of whether or not paper folding and cutting is predictive of spatial-temporal abilities in the first place may be in order. In short, conceptualizing “mental origami” as analogous to a “spatial intelligence” may be a significant leap. Assuming that other visually based tasks are also “spatial” may be an even bigger leap.

Whether there is some small time-limited impact of Mozart’s music or not, why the media frenzy? The idea that we can “make our babies smarter” is a tantalizing and highly marketable idea. Campbell’s trademarking of the idea brought it into the popular culture, and this seemed to make scientific findings accessible to mom and dad. Baby toy companies such as Neurosmith (who feature Mozart on their music-based products) and Baby Einstein have made millions on the popularization and gross extrapolation of “scientific” findings.  For example, there have been numerous media reports of “critical periods” for infant brain development. This makes young parents vulnerable to the marketing of sensory and “brain building” products that, in that context, seem necessary for the child’s well being. Play that Mozart CD now, or you may never have the chance again!

Bangeiter and Heath (2004) make the argument that ideas that promise solutions to complex social concerns are likely to become widespread. In discussing why the educational community is so eager to adopt methods and materials that have not been validated Waterhouse (2006) takes a similar view. It is difficult to wrestle with questions about human abilities, and we all want seemingly understandable solutions to problems that are so difficult to solve. Scientific studies can be complex and difficult to understand, and programs that appear to make these concepts accessible to us are attractive. Every teacher wants to feel as if they are making the best decisions. If we feel that our actions are grounded in “scientific research” it does not take away from our successes, but it does help us to shift blame and responsibility away from ourselves and on to the science if we are wrong.

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