Sharp minds and music

Do classical piecesboost brain power?


Danielle Braff


Browsing through the classical music section of any music store, shoppers expect to find collections of Mozart’s symphonies and piano concertos. These days, stores are also stocking CDs with such titles as “Mozart for Mothers-to-be” and “Build Your Baby’s Brain.”

Sound strange? Not to many experts in music and child intelligence. These CDs (and others like them) are at the center of a decade-long controversy: Can classical music really affect a child’s brain?

Over the last decade, researchers have produced hundreds of studies on the effects of classical music on young minds. Some experts claim it cultivates intelligence; some believe it has no effect at all. Others recommend parents play classical music for their children because it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Bringing the debate to the forefront are cuts in education funding throughout Illinois that threaten to rid schools of music altogether. Along with the normal school subjects a parent must worry about—reading, writing and arithmetic—should they also be concerned with how much time each day is devoted to listening to Mozart?

Some experts tell us ... John Hughes, a professor of neurology at the University of Illinois Medical Center, says his research indicates that when children and adults listen to Mozart, their brains react positively and their overall health improves.

Mozart, an 18th century composer, wrote music with periodic melody and volume changes—about every 30 seconds, Hughes says. The result of listening to those steady changes, according to Hughes, is that the listener’s body—even if the listener is in utero—reacts and organizes its inner functions. Because of that, Hughes and others who study intelligence typically recommend that children listen to Mozart rather than an assortment of classical composers.

“The brain likes anything periodic,” Hughes says. “The body likes anything periodic.”

In fact, Hughes says, the brain and body love periodic things so much that studies have shown that listening to Mozart can boost IQ scores as much as 10 points. 

Don Campbell, one of the leaders of the Mozart intelligence movement, says Mozart also spurs intelligence because his music is neither overly emotional nor overly ornamented.

Campbell is the author of nine books defining the “Mozart Effect,” as he describes it, designed to help parents choose classical music for their children. He has also produced 16 albums. He says the order within Mozart’s music brings clarity to the minds of children, which are constantly bombarded with hectic noises like cell phones and televisions.

“What we’re trying to do is nurture this child,” Campbell says. “Music does multiple things to the mind and body all at once. What we put in the ear is not just sound. It has neurophysical responses that deal with the memory.”

Some parents tell us... With the Mozart intelligence studies in mind, Anne Marr, a Park Ridge mother, sat her 2-year-old daughter Elissa in front of the television 30 minutes every day for a year to absorb videos based on the Mozart Effect.

(Just remember, while many manufacturers market videos for for babies, the American Academy of Pediatrics warns that children under age 2 should not have any screen time—be it videos or television—because it is considered bad for brain development.)

As Elissa watched the videos, she would move closer to the television and point, reacting to the music, her mother says. Elissa, now 5, prefers to listen to classical radio stations when the family is in the car.

“She enjoys it,” Marr says. Whenever they get into the car, Elissa always says, “I want to hear the classical station,” her mother says.

However, even after a year spent watching “Baby Bach” and “Baby Mozart” videos and two years of listening to classical music in the car, Marr says she doesn’t know how much effect it has had on her daughter. “I have no idea,” she says. “I think she’s a bright girl to begin with.”

One-year-old Jane Roche, who plays in the Park Ridge library with Elissa, also listens to “Baby Mozart” CDs in the car. As Jane listens, she shakes her head and bops back and forth to the music, says Bridget Roche, Jane’s mother. 

Yet, others say ... Some experts say that any music—not just classical—is likely to have that same positive effect. It’s the emotional component of music that affects people, they say, not the strict rhythms and routine melodies of classical compositions. And while musicologists and musicians believe music is important, they don’t necessarily agree with the studies promoting the connection between music and intelligence. 

“As appealing as I might find the idea, there’s insufficient evidence to support this hypothesis,” says Richard Ashley, associate professor of music cognition at Northwestern University and president of the Society for Music Perception and Cognition.

Ashley’s colleague at Northwestern, Scott Lipscomb, says that while there are many benefits to classical music, intelligence is not one of them.

“Though I believe music is an incredibly important aspect of our culture from which all who participate benefit, playing or listening to music does not necessarily make one more intelligent,” he says.

While experts debate the connection between music and intelligence, piano teacher Judy Torigoe says music does have a definite emotional influence. “Whether they absorb the information or not, they are learning about Western music,” says Torigoe, who also owns Allegro Music Studio in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood. “They might not be able to identify what’s happening, but emotionally they might be able to respond to it. Music affects the listener emotionally. It can make you feel happy or sad or anything in between.”

Not surprisingly, most musicologists recommend that children listen to all composers. 

“Bach may transfix one child, Beethoven another and Mozart another,” says Duffie Adelson, executive director of the Merit School of Music in Chicago. “I am not convinced that Mozart holds more power with children than other outstanding composers. It is a very personal connection, but once it is made with one composer, it can be easily made with others because one’s ears have been opened to a new and glorious world.”

For parents and educators new to the classical music scene, there are hundreds of classical-music-for-children CDs available with promises ranging from increased intelligence to better sleeping habits. Prices range from about $10 to $30.

There are also cheaper options. Parents can turn on a classical radio station or pick up a budget Mozart CD for about $6 at most music stores. Hughes recommends Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in D flat major.

Debates on the link between music and intelligence will likely continue for years to come. One thing, however, is clear. According to every neurologist and musicologist interviewed, classical music can only help and won’t do any harm. 

Danielle Braff is a writer living in Chicago with her cat, Mr. Trevor.


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