Will Music Really Make Your Child Smarter?


The nineties have been the decade for widespread news about the affects of music on the brain. Everyone seems to be asking about the “Mozart Effect”, specifically what it is and how to use it to their child’s benefit. It is certainly an exciting time to be a music educator and a parent. We are finally able to look at documented research that shows that music is integral to a child’s growth, and use this information to help our children achieve their full potential. What more do we want as parents than to give our children all of the tools necessary to become happy, well-adjusted, intelligent human beings?

Unfortunately, like most popular theories, the “Mozart Effect” has become watered down in an effort by some people to make more money at the expense of the general public. You can go into any bookstore nowadays and buy “Mozart Effect” books, videos, tapes, and even bumper stickers.

In researching this article I did just that at several local music stores, as well as on the internet. I looked first in the music section, and when I didn’t find any books on the subject, wandered over to the children’s section with my 2 year old daughter. Again, aside from a mixed assortment of compact discs with music for children’s brains, I found nothing of real value for research. Curious, I went to the information counter where I was told that the “Mozart Effect” books, written by Don Campell, were to be found in the “alternative medicine” section! And, they were all sold out. That gave me my first clue that something very interesting was happening on this subject. I decided to research further in the library and on the internet.

The term “Mozart Effect” has come to simplify (by Don Campbell et al) a large body of research by neuro-scientists and experimental psychiatrists showing a definitive link between music study and improved spatial intelligence. This is nothing to be taken lightly. Children are born with over 100 billion unconnected or loosely connected nerve cells called neurons. Every experience that child has will strengthen or even create links between neurons. Those pathways that remain unused will, after some time, die. Because neural connections are responsible for every kind of intelligence, a child’s brain will develop to its full potential only through exposure to enriching experiences. It is important then, to identify the kinds of enrichment that forges the links between neurons.

Music has been clearly proven to improve neurological connections responsible for spatial intelligence. Spatial intelligence is necessary for a person to be able to see patterns in space and time. It is the ability to perceive the visual world accurately and to form mental images of physical objects. This kind of intelligence is used for higher brain functions such as music, complex math, solving puzzles, reasoning, and chess. Music specialists for years have noted that their musically-trained and involved students tend to be at the top of their class, often outscoring their non-musical classmates in mathematical tasks. Until recently, however, there was no way to clearly prove it.

Definitive studies have been done since the early 1980’s when Dr. Gordon Shaw and colleagues presented the trion model of the brain’s neuronal structure to the National Academy of Sciences. By 1990 the team had shown through computer experiments that trion firing patterns produce viable music, when these patterns are mapped onto musical pitches. This study was important in that it suggested that this musical model could be used to examine creativity in higher cognitive functions, such as mathematics and chess, which are similar to music. By 1991, Shaw proposed that music could be considered a “pre-language” and that early childhood music training exercises the brain for some higher cognitive structures.

The State of Modern Music

The State of Modern Music

Today’s practitioners of what we once called “modern” music are finding themselves to be suddenly alone. A bewildering backlash is set against any music making that requires the disciplines and tools of research for its genesis. Stories now circulate that amplify and magnify this troublesome trend. It once was that one could not even approach a major music school in the US unless well prepared to bear the commandments and tenets of serialism. When one hears now of professors shamelessly studying scores of Respighi in order to extract the magic of their mass audience appeal, we know there’s a crisis. This crisis exists in the perceptions of even the most educated musicians. Composers today seem to be hiding from certain difficult truths regarding the creative process. They have abandoned their search for the tools that will help them create really striking and challenging listening experiences. I believe that is because they are confused about many notions in modern music making!

First, let’s examine the attitudes that are needed, but that have been abandoned, for the development of special disciplines in the creation of a lasting modern music. This music that we can and must create provides a crucible in which the magic within our souls is brewed, and it is this that frames the templates that guide our very evolution in creative thought. It is this generative process that had its flowering in the early 1950s. By the 1960s, many emerging musicians had become enamored of the wonders of the fresh and exciting new world of Stockhausen’s integral serialism that was then the rage. There seemed limitless excitement, then. It seemed there would be no bounds to the creative impulse; composers could do anything, or so it seemed. At the time, most composers hadn’t really examined serialism carefully for its inherent limitations. But it seemed so fresh. However, it soon became apparent that it was Stockhausen’s exciting musical approach that was fresh, and not so much the serialism itself, to which he was then married. It became clear, later, that the methods he used were born of two special considerations that ultimately transcend serial devices: crossing tempi and metrical patterns; and, especially, the concept that treats pitch and timbre as special cases of rhythm. (Stockhausen referred to the crossovers as “contacts”, and he even entitled one of his compositions that explored this realm Kontakte.) These gestures, it turns out, are really independent from serialism in that they can be explored from different approaches.

The most spectacular approach at that time was serialism, though, and not so much these (then-seeming) sidelights. It is this very approach — serialism — however, that after having seemingly opened so many new doors, germinated the very seeds of modern music’s own demise. The method is highly prone to mechanical divinations. Consequently, it makes composition easy, like following a recipe. In serial composition, the less thoughtful composer seemingly can divert his/her soul away from the compositional process. Inspiration can be buried, as method reigns supreme. The messy intricacies of note shaping, and the epiphanies one experiences from necessary partnership with one’s essences (inside the mind and the soul — in a sense, our familiars) can be discarded conveniently. All is rote. All is compartmentalized. For a long time this was the honored method, long hallowed by classroom teachers and young composers-to-be, alike, at least in the US. Soon, a sense of sterility emerged in the musical atmosphere; many composers started to examine what was taking place.

The replacement of sentimental romanticism with atonal music had been a crucial step in the extrication of music from a torpid cul-de-sac. A music that would closet itself in banal self-indulgence, such as what seemed to be occurring with romanticism, would decay. Here came a time for exploration. The new alternative –atonality — arrived. It was the fresh, if seemingly harsh, antidote. Arnold Schonberg had saved music, for the time being. However, shortly thereafter, Schonberg made a serious tactical faux pas. The ‘rescue’ was truncated by the introduction of a method by which the newly freed process could be subjected to control and order! I have to express some sympathy here for Schönberg, who felt adrift in the sea of freedom provided by the disconnexity of atonality. Large forms depend upon some sense of sequence. For him a method of ordering was needed. Was serialism a good answer? I’m not so certain it was. Its introduction provided a magnet that would attract all those who felt they needed explicit maps from which they could build patterns. By the time Stockhausen and Boulez arrived on the scene, serialism was touted as the cure for all musical problems, even for lack of inspiration!

Pause for a minute and think of two pieces of Schonberg that bring the problem to light: Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21 (1912 – pre-serial atonality) and the Suite, Op. 29 (1924 serial atonality). Pierrot… seems so vital, unchained, almost lunatic in its special frenzy, while the Suite sounds sterile, dry, forced. In the latter piece the excitement got lost. This is what serialism seems to have done to music. Yet the attention it received was all out of proportion to its generative power. Boulez once even proclaimed all other composition to be “useless”! If the ‘disease’ –serialism –was bad, one of its ‘cures’ –free chance –was worse. In a series of lectures in Darmstadt, Germany, in 1958, John Cage managed to prove that the outcome of music written by chance means differs very little from that written using serialism. However, chance seemed to leave the public bewildered and angry. Chance is chance. There is nothing on which to hold, nothing to guide the mind. Even powerful musical personalities, such as Cage’s, often have trouble reining in the raging dispersions and diffusions that chance scatters, seemingly aimlessly. But, again, many schools, notably in the US, detected a sensation in the making with the entry of free chance into the music scene, and indeterminacy became a new mantra for anyone interested in creating something, anything, so long as it was new.