Tuesday, January 6, 2009

"Bullshit!" Debunking the "Mozart" Effect

  The Penn and Teller Showtime series BULLSHIT! is known for exposing pseuodsciences such as esp, alien abductions, and the like. They also go after alternative medicine, bottled water, and feng shui. But surely they would have no problem with the claim that classical music makes one smarter, right? After all, classical music is a product of the great minds of the nadir of Western Civilization, right? 


I was not shocked at this one, personally, having read Don Campbell's The Mozart Effect: Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the Mind, and Unlock the Creative Spirit years ago, finding it full of shlocky new-age claims that music is "the physician for times to come" (also the title of an anthology edited by Campbell. But I do confess to having believed that the generalized conclusion that listening to Mozart and friends before a test would enhance performance. So why is this claim bunk?

From the museumofhoaxes.com:

The Mozart Effect is the term for the idea that listening to classical music will improve your intelligence. The idea is baloney, and yet it enjoys wide belief. Check out MozartEffect.com, where Don Campbell sells a variety of products that will supposedly help people use music to improve their minds and bodies. The Skeptic's Dictionary has a good article debunking the phenomenon. Now Stanford researcher Chip Heath and his colleague Adrian Bangerter have published research tracking the evolution of the idea of the Mozart Effect. They trace The concept back to a 1993 experiment that found college students experienced a slight rise in IQ when listening to classical music (other researchers were never able to duplicate these results). From there the concept took off. But even though the original experiment involved college students, it didn't take long before people were applying the idea to infants and teenagers. So Heath and Bangerter came up with the hypothesis that "the legend of the Mozart Effect grew in response to anxiety about children's education." And "Sure enough, they found that in states with the most problematic educational systems (such as Georgia and Florida), newspapers gave the most coverage to the Mozart Effect." It seems like an interesting case study of what fuels the spread of misinformation.
Here's a link to one explanation of how children learn regardless of music.
  It's easy to want to believe that classical music is good for our children and our health. But in this case, it's not a matter of "PC" multiculturalism, or a hatred of Western values, but a matter of manipulation by turning those Western values against itself, by making pseudo-scientific claims on legitimate products of the rational mind. It's witch-doctoring dressed up in a scientist's lab coat (like most of the ideas in psychology. See P&T's smackdown of "the Baby Whisperer".) It's hard to make the claim that a particular type of music, any type of music, enables a child to learn more effectively because it would suggest that music is merely to be consumed, when, in fact it is in part a cognitive process to begin with. Musical appreciation is a learned process, and heirarchal. One can't appreciate the contrapuntal stylings of Bach before grasping a basic melody like "Mary had a Little Lamb." (Jourdain backs this up in Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy when he points out that most children have enough difficulty banging out a pattern in time on pots and pans or keeping intonation while singing.) It may be possible that listening to contrapuntal music from an early age will stimulate the mind, but to suggest that the music itself increases I.Q. is putting the cart before the horse.

Some parents and educators may dismiss the counterclaims based on perceived results of the Mozart Effect on their own children, offering anecdotal evidence and proud testimonials. It's not to say that such music can't have an effect. But anecdotes and testimonials are not objective proof, and their is no scientific evidence that the effect is real or permanent. 

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