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The Mozart Effect did not outlast its author

I was sorry to read of the death of Don Campbell, aged 65. We clashed on radio several times over two books that he wrote – The Mozart Effect and The Mozart Effect for Children – in which he argued with great passion that playing one particular composer to babies in the womb on would create little Einsteins and foster world peace. The hypothesis originated in 1991 with a Frenchman, Dr Alfred A. Tomatis. Don merely added sauce.

Many bought the idea, for a while. A governor of the state of Georgia, Zell Miller, ordered Mozart tapes to be distributed to pregnant mothers.

But the evidence failed to stand up to rigorous testing and the success proved ephemeral. There is simply no reason that Mozart should do more good or harm to babies than Haydn or Hindemith, though I’d advise you to keep them clear of Webern and Babbitt until after their first birthday.

Don was a passionate populist and polemicist. Our arguments were always respectful and good-natured.

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  1. Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    Another theory that got a lot of educational ink was Howard Gardener’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences (of which musical perception is one). I think the “Mozart Effect” was an illogical extension of his theory. Gardener’s concept was very popular in the 70s and 80s and fostered a multi-disciplinary approach to education. Perhaps some of today’s government leaders who are cutting out arts program might benefit from reading what Gardener has to say.

  2. Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    The spelling of Dr. Gardner’s name is correct in the link. I apolgize to Gardners and gardeners everywhere.

  3. At least “The Mozart Effect” didn’t hurt. Mozart has to be better for people’s minds than cruddy pop music — the stuff that gets piped at me in the gym — and I always welcomed “The Mozart Effect” for opening the door to that discussion. The trouble is, because of political correctness, that discussion never gets very far. Journalists almost always end up writing, “Well, any music you like to listen to is good for you.”

    • Mozart was popular in his time.
      They have to make something they know will sell, so if music in general gets dumber with time, are the musicians getting worse, or the society for whom the music is made?

    • George King says:

      But some (most?/all?) of the mozart recoridngs that were marketed under this banner were plain crappy, metronomically monstrous distortions of the music.

  4. Dot Rust says:

    The Mozart Effect had greater impact on the sale of classical recordings than it likely did on babies’ brains. Young popsters wandered in in droves to the classical department of the large record store where I worked in the early 90s and bought up plenty of Mozart. It likely didn’t create Einsteins, but definitely stirred up a few extra sales and maybe even created a few new fans. (It was SoCal, after all…)

    • I would not be surprised if Campbell received a kickback from Deutsche Grammophon. Good for him!

  5. Rosemary Hardy says:

    I once had the incredible honour and joy to be sharing a concert with Gundula Janowitz, and was able to tell her that my baby had heard ever increasing amounts during my pregnancy of her wonderful recording of the Four Last Songs of Strauss, and had then, at one week old lain in my arms and listened to the whole piece with eyes wide open, completely still. It was very moving. Gundula Janowitz told me that she had a similar experience with her daughter, but with the Missa Solemnis!

  6. Why should Webern or Babbit be kept from infants till they are one year old, and what kind of environment does this work best in? And if they are surrounded with a lot of industrial noise, does Webern or Babbit do more help than Mozart or Haydn would, or is Mozart or Haydn more useful, or is absolutely no classical music better, or are there composers (classical ones) that do help? And how would you get funding and or willing mothers-to-be for such an experiment? Are there genetic factors? And which of these babies would prefer modern violins to the old more expensive investments from the Cremonese school? And which scientific research institution would be best at maintaining all these necessary experiments and sorting out the evidence? Would it be better to hire psychics, or should this all have been kept at a telepathic level where there’s no separation or loss in giving from thought that’s true, and thus doesn’t suffer any damage in transfer?

  7. Sir:

    I fail to see why one should not expose children less than a year old to Webern and Babbitt. Indeed, insofar as the former is characterised by concision and sparse textures, it seems admirably suitable. Young children can be remarkably open-minded and unprejudiced listeners, so surely it is never too soon to expose them to “challenging” music.

    Age rating should remain the preserve of graphic media such as film. Unfortunately, it has already crept in to the planning of “family” events: for example, the BBC Symphony Orchestra has restricted family tickets for two of its concerts next season (22/03/2013 & 12/04/2013) to the first half, saying that the second half is “less suitable for this age range” (8-16 years). Could somebody please explain to me why kids under 16 years old should not be allowed to hear Shostakovich Symphony №8 or Tippett Symphony №4? [postscript to any young readers: the stewards are unlikely to stop you going back into the hall for the second half, so feel free to stay on and listen to the "grown-up" music]

  8. What is with everyone’s fascination with Webern and Babbitt?

  9. Webern vs Weber … Neuroscientists now point to evidence that babies do prefer consonance to dissonance! And while Mozart might not be the only composer to make us smarter, there certainly is a connection between playing music in childhood and a devotion to healing through the arts in adulthood. There is a reason that there are so many doctors’ orchestras around the world, and so few lawyers’ orchestras!

    May I invite you to read my new book “Scales to Scalpels: Doctors who practice the Healing Arts of Music and Medicine?”

    • with pleasure. who is the publisher?

    • I actually was assuming Mr. Lebrecht was joking saying not to play Webern or Babbit to babies until after their first birthday. I would think either one would be more soothing than the aggressively stimulant mechanized redundant rhythm of much pop music (which supposedly would consist of more “consonant” harmonies), or the loud woofers you hear when a car comes down the street with it’s speakers on full blast as if it’s a bull dozer plowing through the rain forest. With so much more noise pollution and white noise, I would think that “modern” classical music like Webern or Babbit might help one hear the consonance in the dissonance of this confusing assault of sounds whose intrusion we are confronted with every day.

      If you are truly looking for consonance, you might look towards just intonation, something which was compromised as soon as the well tempered system was put into play. In fact, scientifically, Jazz theory embraces the overtone series better than the Western musical tradition from which the well tempered system came. Again, the “dissonance” in Webern might be seen to help attune one to the higher partials which reintegrate one with the overtone series.

      If I might go back to Mozart. There’s a lot of talk about Mozart being absolute music, that his life didn’t parallel his music (as if anyone really knows what went on in his life) or that his music had such an absolute structure as music that it was pure music. This seems to imply that when you focus on music itself, on the form it has, that you approach a pure state. I think the opposite is the case. Music is home for the emotions, and it’s a place you can find a harmony the world doesn’t offer, and this is a real home rather than the “objective” home. That Mozart was able to find a home there, that he was able to let go and not care about “wordly” things is I think because he knew what music was for, not because he was trying to exploit it to some technical pure state that aggrandizes effect. Instead he allowed the mind it’s innate state to find a home, and let go of form to see content instead.

      I don’t think any of the well meant analyzing of Mozart’s music will ever point out its quality or unlock any secrets. I think you actually have to listen to it for what it is. If Mozart had spent the amount of trouble analyzing his music as others do, he could have afforded himself the luxury of being too busy to ever have made himself vulnerable enough to have written any of it at all. In knowing how great it is, he wouldn’t have had to have written any of it. And like the wave particle duality, something remains elusive, beyond the grasp of the ego. The more searching you do for the philosopher’s stone, the more this becomes apparent. You can’t separate Mozart from what music is. You can’t separate it from and extol it above the rest of the amazing musical tradition it comes from. You can’t separate it from people like Stradivari, Guarneri del gesu and other makers of musical instruments; or from those who created the notation system, the science of harmonies; or even where air comes from or the energy of vibrations that move through air, or fingers, ears, minds, emotions…things we all have together.

      There are enough “neuroscientists” working day and night on finding some miracle cure for a whole list of symptoms (see the best seller DSM 4), symptoms their cures are better at creating than nature. They’ve created drugs that in their miraculous application are said to be able to cure the illnesses of Handel, Schumann, Beethoven, Van Gogh and a whole number of great artists; although they suppress all parts of the personality as well as self initiative, creativity and take 20 to 25 years off of a person’s lifespan. Not only are these drugs said to cure said great artists who are conveniently already dead, but when their application has created more and more of the problem they are said to cure, the response is to say we need more of such drugs. Although I’m more interested in the music itself, I would be curious what they have to say about “consonance,” versus “dissonance.”

  10. Carlos Fischer says:

    The Mozart effect is one of the many crap myths and fake “values” that harmed classical music

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