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.

A smart person thought up the mental improvement products

The trail of human evolution is littered with gadgetry that have outlived their usefulness. We can add devices such as the fax machine, walkman, mini-disc and tape recorder to the list of machines which seemed clever at the time but have now before obsolete. Those of us of a certain age will remember newer additions such as the PocketPC, a palm sized screen which was used with a stylus that tapped out letters on screen, and the HP Jornada, a slightly bigger tablet sized keyboard and phone. And who could forget the Nintendo Brain Training programmes for the DS and Fitness Programmes for the Wii?

Launched in 2005, Nintendo’s Brain Training programmes claimed to increase mental functioning. Nintendo’s premise was that the concentration required in solving a variety of puzzles, involving language, mathematical and reasoning, increased blood flow to the frontal cortex of the brain, which at least maintained brain functioning or helped improve it. After all, since the brain is a muscle, exercising it by bombarding it with mental exercises would keep it active and healthy, right?

It is the idea of keeping the brain active that leads many to attempt their daily crossword or Sudoku. The latter in particular has seen an surge in interest over the past decade and is now a feature in newspaper back pages and magazines. There are even publications exclusively filled with Sudoku puzzles, and even more complex versions where each traditional puzzle forms a square in a bigger and complex three by three grid. If you thought doing a Sudoku puzzle was hard, imagine having to work on it in relation to eight others. It would be absolutely mind-boggling!

Is there any truth about the positive enhancements to the human life that these objects or activities bring? Nintendo’s claims about the Brain Training programmes were doubted by leading neuroscientists, who doubted the tenuous links between the increased blood flow to the brain and the vaguely described positive effects to life. It is akin to making a blanket statement saying chess grand masters or academics are the happiest people around. Unfortunately it is yet another case of a company creating a product and then engineering the science around it.

Manufacturers of beauty products do it all the time. Whether it is skin care or facial products being flogged, you will find an aspirational theme within the first five seconds of the advertisement (“Look beautiful! Stay young!”) which is then followed by a pseudo-scientific claim, preferably involving percentages (sounds more authoritative) and a small sample size (easier to corroborate, or disclaim, depending on the need).

“Live young forever. XX skin lotion is carefully formulated to retain your natural moisture, so you look and feel twenty years younger. 86% of 173 women noticed a change in skin density after using it for three months.”

There you have it. The secret of beauty product advertising.

Unfortunately, if there was any display of mental acuity, it was by the marketing team of Nintendo. In pitching a product to adults, using the retention and improvement of mental agility as a plus point, they not only convinced adults to buy what was essentially a toy, but to buy one for their children as well. The DS alone has since sold over 90 million units worldwide, and when you take into account the cost of games and all that, you will have to concede that someone at Nintendo had the smarts to produce a tidy little earner.

(For those who were more concerned with retaining their physical functioning, the Nintendo Wii Fit programmes performed that function and filled in the gap in that market.)

The improvement of mental functioning is always a good basis for marketing any product. You can find a whole plethora of products huddling behind it. Multi vitamins, activity puzzles, recreational activities involving multi-tasking – all supposedly give the brain a workout, but more importantly, tap into the fears of missing out or the loss of mental function in the human psyche, that makes people buy not out of potential gain, but fear of lost opportunity and potential regret.

The loss of mental function can lead to Alzheimer’s disease, for which there is currently no cure. With 30 million people worldwide suffering from it, this presents an endless river of opportunity for people researching the disease, as well as people developing products to improve mental function in the hope that it can stave off the disease. Like the Nintendo Brain Training developers realised, it is not so much about whether these scientific products work that makes people buy them – the evidence that is produced is biased and not independent – but it is the fear of missing out and retrospective guilt that compels people to make the purchase. Buy first, examine the evidence later, is the apparent dogma.

Unfortunately we are at the stage of modern society where it is not just the product that needs scrutiny, but whether the scrutiny itself needs scrutiny for evidence of bias, either in the form of financial ties or expected research outcomes.

Mental improvement is an area that product developers – whether the products be vitamins, books or applications – will continually target because human beings will always seek to improve mental prowess, both in themselves and their children, in the hope that somewhere down the line it offers an advantage, or prevents the mental degeneration associated with the aging process. And the compelling reason to buy lies somewhere in the meeting points of being seduced by the aspirational ideals the product offers, the fear of missing out, and the assumption that the underlying evidence is empirical. The greatest mental sharpness has been displayed by the one who has understood the sales psychology of mental health improvement products and used it to his or her advantage.

The quest for fitness may be detrimental to your long term mental state

We are often told how we should aim to have, and maintain, a healthy lifestyle. After all, being physically fit allows your body to function both in physical and mental aspects. Healthy body, healthy mind, right?

The only difficulty, if you can call it that, with exercise is that the first thing that we would normally consider is running, but it is not for everyone. Going forward for a certain distance or time has little meaning for some people, especially children.

The thing about running is that it has to have some appreciable meaning, so unless you have some derivative inner joy of measuring your progress using statistics, it is unlikely to hold your interest for the long term. A better form of exercise is though group sports, as the mental boredom of tracking fitness levels is negated in favour of the social dynamic.

Common group sports such as football  have a large following in England. The football season for example lasts from August to May and provides a welcome distraction during the cold winter months. It is also a simple game that can be improvised using other materials and played on all surfaces. No goalposts? Use bags or some other markers. No football? Use a tennis ball. It is often interesting to see children turn up at a field, establish the boundaries of play using trees and creates goalposts using caps or other loose materials and these are often sufficient for the game; at least until there is discussion about whether the “ball” hit the post or went in the goal after it flies over a set of keys intended to represent the goalpost.

There is increasing concern about the link between dementia and football. The pounding of the ball against a soft surface of the brain, when the ball is headed, over time can cause the destruction of cells and cell function. This is of particular concern in the case of children, whose brains and bodies are developing. This has been of significant interest as members of England’s 1966 World Cup winning squad have found to have developed dementia in their later years. Some of them cannot even remember being there in 1966!

It is not just the impact of ball on head that is concerning, but when the head is moved through a range of motion too quickly. Even though there is no impact on the head externally, internally there is damage as the brain is hitting the sides of the skull supposed to protect it.

It is not just football that we have to be concerned about. There is plenty of head and neck related impact in rugby and American football. In fact, in American football, the head related injuries for offensive and defensive linemen, who every forty seconds start a play by ramming into the player on the opposite side of the line,  and the list of dementia sufferers is growing continually. Some players have even sued the NFL for injuries suffered during the game.

Will the rules of football change so that heading the ball is banned? Don’t bet on it. That would change the fabric of the game so much as to ruin it. When the ball is swung in from a corner, what would you do if you couldn’t head it? The game will not change, but also don’t rule out a consortium of players in the future filing lawsuits for work-related injuries. Perhaps in the pursuit of fitness, it may be wiser to choose less impactful activities for the sake of long term health.