Is there any truth about the benefits of Classical music?

Is there any truth to the commonly accepted notion that listening to classical music improves mental capacity? Somehow it has been accepted in modern society that classical musicians have larger frontal cortices, better mental reasoning powers and perhaps intelligence quotients. Over the last two decades or so this idea has fuelled a rise in the number of pregnant mothers listening to classical music – whether or not they like it – and parents enrolling their children into music classes. The music of Mozart, in particular, has enjoyed a resurgence as its classical form is deemed to be more logical and organised, compared to music of other periods, assisting in triggering patterns of organisation in the brain amongst its listeners.

How did this idea about Classical music come about? In the 1990s scientists conducted a series of experiments where one group of students were played one of Mozart’s piano sonatas before a spatial reasoning test, while another group sat in silence. The group that was played the music beforehand performed better on that task than the control group. The effect on the control group was temporary and only lasted fifteen minutes, meaning that after the fifteen minute mark the disparities between the results were minimal and statistically the same. The results of the group found also that while music primed the individual particularly for mathematical tasks, after an hour of listening to Classical music, the effect on the brain was lost.

That piece of research was pounced on by the media and other individuals and seemingly perpetuated to promote the listening of Classical music. One governor of the state of Georgia even decreed that newborn babies be given a copy of a CD of Mozart’s works upon leaving the hospital. The Mozart Effect, to give it its common name, was written about in newspapers and magazines, and this began the spur of Mozart-related sales of music as well as the trend of mothers playing such music to their children in and out of the womb.

The most important question we need to ask is whether there is any truth in such research, and whether it can be corroborated.

We know that some forms of music has a soothing, calming effect on individuals. Playing the music to the students may have calmed that so they were not nervous, allowing them to perform better on the task. However, relaxation need not take them the form of Classical music. Any activity that promotes calm before a task – reading a light magazine, playing computer games, talking with a friend – can also hence be said to have the same effect as the classical music that was played.

What if the students in the group had read a joke book or comic beforehand, been less worried about the test and scored better? It might have prompted a deluge of articles claiming “Reading Archie (or The Beano – insert your own title here) improves your IQ”.

Or if the students had been offered a protein drink beforehand, it would not be inconceivable that someone would latch to that piece of research and declare that “Protein Drinks not just good for your body, but for your brain too”.

Mozart’s music has been said to embody the elements of classical music as we know it. Organised formal structures, chords and harmonies through related keys, use of contrasting tunes, contrasts in volume all feature in his music. But the music of other composers have such features too. Imagine if the composer Josef Haydn had been the lucky beneficiary of the experiment and his music had been played instead. The sales of his music catalogue would have hit the roof!

Subsequent scientists all found that listening to music of any form caused improvements, and the genre of music – whether rock or Classical – was irrelevant. But studies today still quote Mozart.

Is it ethical that the media promotes unsubstantiated research by reporting without closer scrutiny? As we have seen in previous blogs posts, the media reports on things without necessarily scrutinising the evidence, and entrusts so-called experts to corroborate the evidence, while it fills column inches and air time with modal auxiliary verbs? Huh? In simple terms, it means that if there is a sniff of a link between A and B, the media reports that “A could cause B”. Never mind whether it does or not, there is always the disclaimer of the word “could”.

In this instance, students performed better on a spatial reasoning task after listening to Mozart; hence the headline “Mozart could improve mental powers”. Diluted over several recounts, you could get “According to XXX newspaper, Mozart improves brain power” before arriving at “Mozart improves brain power”. Unfortunately, this is when the headline is then pounced on by anyone who would stand to profit from espousing this theme.

Who would profit from this? The Classical music world – performers, writers, musicians – can use this “research” to entice people into taking up lessons and buying CDs and magazines. If you read any music teacher’s website you may find them espousing the benefits of learning music; it is rare if you find one that advises it is a lot of effort.

The media will profit from such “research” because it means there is an untapped well of news to report and bleed dry in the quest for filling column inches and air time. News exclusives will be brought out, and so-called experts will also profit for appearing on the news and programmes, either monetarily or in the form of public exposure.

One must question the ethics of incorrect reporting. Unfortunately unsubstantiated research leads to more diluted misreporting, which can then form the basis of new research – research that uses these claims as the groundwork for investigation.

It is scary to think that all the medical research that has been done into effect of music and health could be biased because of the so-called effect of classical music. Could musical activities such as learning the piano help reduce Parkinson’s disease? Could listening to the music of Beethoven reduce the incidence of higher cases of Alzheimer’s disease? Could it all be wrong – have we all been sent down the wrong tunnel by an avalance of hype reporting?

It may be fair to say the human impulse is to buy first and consider later, because we are prone to regret. If we have missed an opportunity to improve the lives and abilities of our children, then we will be kicking ourselves silly forever with guilt.

So if you are still not convinced either way about whether classical music – either in the listening or the practice – really does have any effect, you could at least mitigate your guilt by exposing your child to piano music, for example that has predictable patterns in the left hand. Sometimes, listening to structurally-organised music such as from the Baroque may be useful, but it is also good to listen to Romantic music because the greater range of expression arguably develops a child that has more emotionally subtlety and intelligence.

You may find that ultimately, any truth in the research about Classical music and its mental benefits is not due to the blind passive listening, sitting there while the music goes on around your children. It is in the child’s inner drive to mentally organise the sounds that are heard, the trying and attempts to organise background sounds that really triggers the mental activity in the brain. It is more the practised ability in the inner mind to organise musical sounds that causes better performance in related mental tasks.