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Playing along with the Mozart effect PDF 

Playing along with the Mozart effect

If you want music to sharpen your senses, boost your ability to focus and
perhaps even improve your memory, you need to be a participant, not just a
listener.


By Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times, March 1, 2010


Five months after we are conceived, music begins to capture our attention
and wire our brains for a lifetime of aural experience. At the other end of
life, musical memories can be imprinted on the brain so indelibly that they
can be retrieved, perfectly intact, from the depths of a mind ravaged by
Alzheimer's disease.

In between, music can puncture stress, dissipate anger and comfort us in
sadness.

As if all that weren't enough, for years parents have been seduced by even
loftier promises from an industry hawking the recorded music of Mozart and
other classical composers as a means to ensure brilliant babies.

But for all its beauty, power and capacity to move, researchers have
concluded that music is little more than ear candy for the brain if it is
consumed only passively. If you want music to sharpen your senses, boost
your ability to focus and perhaps even improve your memory, the latest word
from science is you'll need more than hype and a loaded iPod.

You gotta get in there and play. Or sing, bang or pluck.

"The Mozart effect? That's just crap," says Glenn Schellenberg, a
psychologist at the University of Toronto who conducts research on the
effect of music and musical instruction.

Even the author of the 1993 study that set off the commercial frenzy says
her group's findings - from an experiment that had college students, not
babies, listen to Mozart - were "grossly misapplied and over-exaggerated."
Psychologist Frances Rauscher, along with the rest of the field studying
music's effects on the brain, has long since moved on to explore the effect
of active musical instruction on cognitive performance.

The upshot of their work is clear: Learning to make music changes the brain
and boosts broad academic performance. Findings across the board suggest
that, even for a kid who will not grow up to be a Wynton Marsalis or a
Joshua Bell, spending money and time on music lessons and practice is a
solid investment in mental fitness.

Entrepreneur Don Campbell, dubbed the "P.T. Barnum of the Mozart effect,"
has built a thriving online business selling CDs with names like "Mozart to
Go" to enhance children's creativity and school performance. And, Campbell
says on his website, parents of children with dyslexia, autism and
attention deficit hyperactivity disorder should buy his CDs to improve
their children's neuropsychiatric conditions.

Campbell's sales pitch melds seemingly scientific claims with breathless
hype. Mozart's compositions "modify attentiveness and alertness" because
their "structural and not overly emotional expression helps clarify
time/space perception." His proprietary mixes of the prodigy's music,
writes Campbell, draw on "psychological, physiological, and aesthetic
factors to achieve a variety of auditory, physical, and emotional
responses."

Wolfgang Amadeus is not the only composer beloved by entrepreneurs
promising smarter children. Internet sites offer fretful new parents a
range of slow, synthesized music by other musical greats, including J.S.
Bach, Haydn and Vivaldi.

A "Baroque-a-bye Baby CD," its cover showing a blissed-out baby clamped
into earphones and a slant seat, promises that its musical offerings will
mimic mother's heartbeat at 60 beats per minute, offering "mathematical
perfection and symmetry" designed to "stimulate your child's brain."

If only basking in surround sound were enough. The effect of listening to
beloved classical music is at best small, fleeting and - with all deference
to the late-18th century musical genius - not even unique to Mozart,
Schellenberg says.

True, listening to music we like - whether it's hip-hop, show tunes or
Schubert - does makes us feel good. Positive mood, in turn, increases focus
and attention, which improves performance on many tests of mental
sharpness. In some, but not all, studies, that includes improvements in the
kind of mental skills we use in doing complex math problems, interpreting
driving directions and pondering how to fit a large bookcase in the trunk
of a small car.

But the performance-enhancing effect, Schellenberg says, lingers for no
more than about 10 minutes after the music stops.

Learning to play, he has found, is a far better bet. In a 2004 study, he
and his colleagues randomly assigned 144 6-year-olds to receive instruction
in keyboard, voice, drama or nothing. After a year, kids who got keyboard
or voice lessons showed a 3-point IQ boost on average over the kids taking
drama or no lessons at all.

It's a modest improvement but one that may build on itself since, for all
its faults, IQ is a reliable predictor of a child's performance in school.
Better performance in school typically leads to more and better schooling -
which, in turn, further increases IQ.

For those receiving musical instruction, "there is evidence that music
changes the brain in positive and permanent ways," says Laurel Trainor,
professor of psychology, neuroscience and behavior, and director of the
auditory development lab of McMaster University in Toronto. Yet like a
medication that powerfully treats an illness, but in mysterious ways, the
means by which music might enhance cognitive powers has eluded scientists
so far.

They do have some clues.

Learning to make music engages and demands coordination among many brain
regions, including those that process sights, sounds, emotions and
memories, says Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, a Harvard University neurologist.

Years ago, Schlaug found a glaring and suggestive difference between the
brains of 30 professional musicians and 30 non-musician adults of matched
age and gender.

In the musicians, the bundle of connective fibers that carry messages
between the brain's right and left hemispheres - a structure called the
corpus callosum - was larger and denser on average than that of their
non-musical peers. The brawnier bridge was particularly notable toward the
rear of the brain, at the crossing that links areas responsible for sensory
perception and voluntary movement.

It suggested not only that musicians might be able to more nimbly react to
incoming information but also that their brains might be more resilient and
adaptable, allowing right and left hemispheres, which specialize in
separate functions, to work better together.

Schlaug and colleagues also found that the musicians who had begun their
musical training before the age of 7 showed the most pronounced differences
- suggesting an early start might rewire the brain most dramatically.

Newer work has shown that music also enhances mental performance. In a
study published last March, Schlaug and a team of researchers in Boston put
31 first-graders through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans, as
well as a series of cognitive skills tests, to gauge the effect of 15
months of keyboard training. Compared with kids getting a playful group
music class once a week, 6-year-olds who got intensive, weekly, one-on-one
music instruction had greater and more widespread expansion in volume
across many areas of their brains. And they performed better on tests of
fine motor skill and of several other skills directly related to music. But
the study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, failed to find
improvements in cognitive skills not directly related to musical skills,
such as word recall, language discrimination, abstract reasoning and
spatial and visual problem-solving.

Other studies have found that music instruction may indeed make you
smarter. A team led by Trainor reported that in kids chosen randomly to get
a tightly structured instrumental training called the Suzuki method, brain
responses were two to three years more mature on average than those in
children not taking music lessons.

Electrical signals traveled more swiftly and efficiently through the brains
of the Suzuki-trained kids, who also showed improved performance on tasks
that required sustained attention and the ability to hold information in
memory long enough to execute complex tasks - what neuroscientists call
working memory.

"What happens in music lessons is they're fun," Trainor says. "But at the
same time, they're very demanding. The child has to hold an instrument,
position his hands, listen to the sound the teacher's making, reproduce
that sound, hold in mind the sound and compare it, assess pitch and sound
quality, and change that if necessary.

"All that takes a tremendous amount of attention. It trains kids how to
accomplish things, and it trains memory as well," Trainor adds. "All that
is going to make you better at learning."

In the end, music listening may come in a distant second to learning in a
brain-building contest. But one thing we know beyond a doubt is that it
brings pleasure - and few psychologists scoff at the power of that. It
promotes well-being. It enhances attention. It protects against the
depredation of age. It can even ease pain. "Music is one of those things
out there that people enjoy," says Robert Zatorre, a neuropsychologist at
McGill University who researches music's effects. "That's already a lot!"

 

 

 
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