Does listening to music at an early age make an individual more intelligent and able to think and learn?
The question intrigues, but contemporary science seems to give us no definitive answer.
As an expectant father, the question concerns me.
THE "MOZART EFFECT"
I remember hearing a few years ago about the “Mozart effect,” whereupon students who listened to Mozart piano concertos saw their exam scores rise. I remember hearing on the radio the governor of Georgia making a speech where he promised to give free Mozart CDs to parents as they left the hospital with their newborns at taxpayer expense. “Go home and play this to your baby, and your child will grow up to be well-educated, law-abiding, productive citizen!”
Is it quite that simple? Play Mozart over your child’s crib and they will grow up to become standout students on their way to college and success. At the time, it seemed horribly simplistic to me. It appeared yet another typically American “quick fix” to a complex problem. “Take this drug and you can concentrate in school!” “Take another pill and the pain which it is to be human will be alleviated (anti-depressants).” “Buy this set of audio lectures now over the phone and you can learn Spanish in just 30 days!” “Play Mozart to your child and she will find the lessons in school easier to master!”
In the late 1990s I remember seeing pictures of mothers attaching small stereo speakers to their pregnant bellies and playing a daily dose of Mozart into the womb for the edification of their unborn child.
Back in the 1980s, I remember teachers in middle and high school telling me that listening to baroque music put the brain into a sort of cadence and focus that would make for easier and more efficient learning. "Listen to such music when studying for test, and you will do better!" they would urge us. Our brains supposedly would operate at peak efficiency.
Is any of this true? Can science confirm it?
So I spent a good two hours researching this on the Internet. The "latest scientific research" claims that the UCI study from which the “Mozart effect” came from has been disproved, and that the whole idea of the overweening importance of early childhood education has been overstressed. They claim that maybe actually playing music can increase your IQ, but that is only a “maybe.”
As usual, the latest modern science is less than helpful in real life quandaries. As usual, it would seem that our own life experiences and common sense, gleamed as best it can, proves the best guide for our actions.
Some of my earliest memories are of classical music. Whenever our household became chaotic or loud, I would resort to it. My brother and parents would clash at the dinner table, and I remember family dinners as often filled with tension. My brother, a picky eater, would accuse my parents of doctoring his food. My parents would proclaim their innocence and order him to eat his dinner. Voices would be raised.
I didn't like the tension. As a principle, I still don’t. In an environment of full of acrimony and anger, I cannot hear myself think. It is hard to breathe easy.
How did I compensate and adapt during those difficult family moments?
I would leave the table and go listen to J.S. Bach on an old tape recorder. I remember it very clearly. I would listen to the Brandenburg Concertos and the world would again seem orderly and rational, the way I liked it. The equilibrium of the universe would be reset, and my mood would return to normal. My parents would peek into my room and think I was the strangest kid in the world, this little kid listening to Bach in his room on a clunky old black tape recorder. But it worked for me. It never stopped working for me my entire life. The music of Bach has always been an anchor that I cling to when it appears, as it too often does, that everything is out of control in a disordered universe.
Physicists might explain that the universe is in a continual state of entropy, that everything is always falling from a state of order into disorder. But even if that is true, classical music is one of the reasons that backslide into unthinking chaos will be a slow and even reversible one for our species.
Classical music is clearly an important component in my credo. (see "Sonnet," by Elizabeth Bishop)
This should not be surprising, as I grew up surrounded by classical music. My father was a huge fan, and I made my way through Beethoven’s symphonies by rummaging all day through his record collection and sampling this, playing that. Easter meant one of Bach’s passions, and Christmas meant Handel’s Messiah. In perusing his vinyl record collection my father was fond of Eugene Normandy and Herbert von Karajan, I recall. My grandfather dutifully bought me a record every year for my birthday: I most clearly remember the expensive vinyl edition of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony he bought me for one birthday in early adolescence. This was the 1970s.
And then came the advent of the CD player. I remember my Uncle Phil buying one of the earliest CD players in the mid-1980s and playing music for me in his living room: “Can you believe how clean and clear the music is! It is like they are playing in the room with us!” Months later he was suddenly and unexpectedly dead. Of his music collection, I inherited his copy of the Kreutzer Sonata and (most ironically) Verdi’s Requiem. They rank among my most prized music CDs, they being particularly special because my Uncle Phil did not own much music. This music, in particular, must have been important to him. Hence, it is important to me.
And my grandfather, it is said, was a huge lover of Percy Bysshe Shelley and could quote long stretches of poetry, something I can also do. He loved Richard Wagner, and sometimes when I listen to the overtures of Tristan und Isolde or Tamerlane, I feel as if something in my blood calls out to the spirit of the music. I watched my father once burst into tears when Siegfried Idyll played over the radio, as it reminded him palpably and overwhelmingly of moments in youth with his father. I was driving on the 55 Freeway in Costa Mesa, and then all of a sudden my father was in tears next to me in the passenger seat. They say that smell is the most powerfully nostalgic of the senses, but I think sound and music not far behind. My father was instantly transported fifty years into the past in hearing Wagner. His father was right next to us in the car, despite the fact he had been dead for going on twenty years.
Is there something indeed genetic in this? If I had been adopted and raised by different parents, would I still feel something special when listening to Wagner? Does the blood carry from parent to child?
A student of mine once spent fully half an hour showing me video clips of Tupac Shakur, trying to persuade me that the deceased rapper was an artistic genius. I was unmoved by his music, but I remember very clearly watching Tupac describe the pain of being a man who had no family legacy to match himself by. Tupac described others who had fathers that taught them and left them a legacy. They had "family." Tupac went on at some length about how painful and difficult it was to do all alone; and as he lamented his lack of patrimony, I could see Tupac looking deeply into himself. That stays with me. There is truth in what Tupac claims.
Julia will know fully well where she comes from. Blood will call to blood. Do our ancestors seek to speak to us from the netherworld? Or is it just our imaginations making up stuff as we try to understand ourselves and our pasts? Might it all be in my head, as I try to come to grips what it means to be the latest in my line of “Geibs”? I don’t think my brother or sister particularly care for classical music. They grew up in the same circumstances as myself and share the same blood yet are different. My mother was indifferent towards most classical music. If half of my chromosomes come from my father, half come from my mother. Where lies the truth of myself?
I met my wife one evening after listening to a live performance of The Goldberg Variations by harpsichordist Edward Murray with my dad. (This defining event in my life took place on February 26th, 2000 at the Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica, California.) I was still in coat and tie when I met Maria later that evening, and when she told me how much she loved Mozart my eyes bulged out and I was already half-smitten. (“A beautiful young woman in materialistic and shallow Los Angeles, AND she knows classical music and is smart -- this one is a keeper!”) Classical music sings in our household when we cook or read, and Maria arguably is more passionate about it than myself. Classical music is part of why we bonded so tightly together at first introduction, and years later it is still part of the deeper and shared basis on which our marriage and life together is cemented.
To this day when forced on some job application or other to state my religion, I will only half-jokingly write down: "Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart."
GENERATION TO GENERATION
But will Julia like classical music?
With us as her parents, how can she not? Classical music will be among her earliest memories. She will imbibe it along with her mother's milk. I smile knowingly when Julia starts jumping around in her mother's womb when I play Beethoven as we prepare for sleep at night.
For several months I have been assiduously ripping classical music DVDs and converting the tracks to video files that can be played on our video iPod player. Among all the other baby furniture that I have put together, I have an iPod dock near the crib - and a similar system downstairs. The idea is that I can bring the iPod with Julia and always have music nearby.
I remember reading once how Montaigne's father decreed that his sleeping infant son should be awoken only by the playing of music over the crib. He took the time and effort to have a team of musicians always near for this task. I would like to do the same with Julia.
What kind(s) of music Julia chooses to listen to in adolescence and adulthood is her business and her choice. But, for some reason, my gut tells me her childhood is when she needs to be exposed to classical music. Maria is intent on Julia having music lessons in her youth - to have opportunities she herself did not have. Julia will have piano lessons; she will assay the cello. I am indifferent on that.
I don't know.
PHYSICIAN, HEAL THYSELF!
But this laborious "ripping" of music DVDs into video files has been an unexpected joy to me, also!
Long it has been since I listened long and deeply to music. I used to listen to the same Mozart piano concerto movement over and over again until I was almost in tears! I am just too busy most of the time to do something so self-indulgent as to listen to music for more than a few minutes at a time. How sad! But I now have nifty new recordings of Alfred Brendel, Jacqueline Du Pre, Daniel Barenboim, and Yo-Yo Ma. It makes a difference that the video of the performer plays along with the music. I almost feel as if Brendel or Ma are in the room. For me, it adds a layer of familiarity and intimacy.
I am an iPod convert.
And the effects of the music are so salutary to my health, I feel in my gut. So often over the past year or two I have been so exhausted by work that I find myself jumbling my thoughts, finding it difficult to remember details and minutiae. My mind feels scattered, tired, flat. My brain fatigues, like one single muscle (or set of muscles) stressed over and over again until failure. I slur my words in lectures at work. But when I just relax for half an hour and let the complexity of intricate and beautiful music wash over my mind, I feel rejuvenated. Listening to classical music at night, I just FEEL better; my brain seems to relax. Like a closed fist opening up, my brain eases into repose.
That is not something that comes easily to me. I appreciate it.
Yet too often I put on a good piece of music and start concentrating so hard in front of the computer that I don't even notice the piece has ended - I am thinking about work or some other "practical" concern. The music's message flies over my head; my mind is elsewhere than on the music. I should devote that same concentration to the music itself: it would most likely be a better use of my time than anything else I might be doing at a particular moment. But, alas, music does not often get my best moments or sustained attention. So it goes all too often with me. So it has gone for several years.
Perhaps this will change with the arrival of Baby Julia? Will playing classical music for Baby Julia change and improve her life? My life? No change will truly take with Julia unless it is part of the living tissue of her family. I read recently that a child does not see his or her test scores in school rise if there are simply books in the house which nobody reads. Test scores rise when mommy and daddy read, and then junior copies them: reading as a way of life. So it will go with music.
And so just having Mozart playing in the background like a decorative garnish will not be enough, it seems to me. Playing Mozart to a foetus or a newborn is not going to make much difference, I suspect. Whether and why the parents themselves love Mozart throughout the life of a child might make all the difference in the world, however. Jacqueline Du Pre's mother was a concert pianist, as was Glenn Gould's; they were their children's first and most vital teachers. A music professor himself, Yo-Yo Ma's father played Bach to ward off the chaos and pain of his native China invaded by Japanese hordes in the 1930s. Decades later, his famous son, Yo-Yo, played the Sarabande movement of the 5th Cello Concerto for his sick father in the hospital before his death in 1991.
How could they have not loved classical music?
Modern science probably cannot explain why listening to music is healthy for my brain. But I know it is. My "gut" tells me so. The one doctor I have seen in the last decade who I really thought was any good listened to me explain why I thought I had pain in my wrists from excessive typing, and after patiently hearing me out exclaimed, "It is most probably as you say - the patient always knows best." The doctor was speaking more to himself than to me - reminding himself of this medical truth generally, more than confirming my situation specifically. Similarly, I don't need a doctor to tell if and how music does me well. I know it; I feel it. Maybe sometime in the 23rd century scientists will discover why.
I have the most elaborate playlists on iTunes. Music I would so much like to explore or revisit. No time to do it. All these major artists who I know deserve many hours of intense, fruitful study. Maybe I should make time.
Maybe Julia will make it so I will make time.
December 17, 2006