"No one questions that listening to music at a very early age affects the spatial-temporal reasoning that underlies math and engineering and even chess." So proclaimed Georgia Governor Zell Miller in 1998. To prove his point, Miller played Georgia legislators some of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" on a tape recorder and asked, "Now, don't you feel smarter already?" He even went so far as to propose a state budget that included $105,000 a year to provide every child born in Georgia with a tape or CD of classical music.
Miller's zeal for music was inspired by something called "the Mozart effect," a popular idea that arose in the early 1990s and won the hearts and minds of countless parents (and a few politicians) but which was, in the end, based on a scientific study of very limited scope. Dr. Frances Rauscher of the University of Wisconsin, one of the authors of the study, later disavowed the way her work and her colleagues' work had been interpreted and commercially exploited: "We made no claim that listening to Mozart makes you smarter," she said. "The effect we studied is limited to spatial _ temporal tasks involving mental imagery and temporal ordering." On efforts like Miller's budget proposal, and the press attention surrounding the Mozart effect, Rauscher has commented, "I don't think it can hurt. I'm all for exposing children to wonderful cultural experiences. I do think the money could be better spent on music education programs."
But the Mozart effect, it seems, has now grown up. What started as a small but inspiring study has since blossomed into a treasure trove of research that makes much more far-reaching claims regarding the importance of music in a child's life. Science News, in fact, recently devoted the bulk of its learned pages to studies that make this case.
What we now know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, is that musical training doesn't just make you a better musician. The skills acquired through the study of music transfer to other areas of learning, be they linguistic, mathematical, scientific or physical. From newborn babies who track the musical contours of their mothers' voices or conduct the nursery songs they've come to love ("Babies are born with a musical readiness that includes a basic sense of timing and rhythm," says Colwyn Trevarthen of the University of Edinburgh) to older children whose fundamental development is determined by the quality and quantity of their exposure to music, all of us are profoundly impacted by our relationship with this magnificent art form. "Musical experience has a pervasive effect on how the nervous system gets molded and shaped throughout our lifetimes," says Nina Kraus of Northwestern University.
Unlike most activities, playing an instrument or singing calls upon circuitry from many areas of the brain. "It involves paying attention, thinking ahead, remembering, coordinating movement and interpreting constant feedback to the ears, fingers, and, in some cases, lips," says Daniel Levitin of McGill University. "It's one of the most complicated tasks that we have. Take a symphony orchestra. What you have is 80 or 100 of the most highly trained members of our society: more highly trained than astronauts or surgeons in terms of the number of hours and years of preparation: and they are performing the works of some of the greatest minds that ever lived. It's really extraordinary."
So go ahead and play your baby some Mozart. Better yet, sing it to him yourself. When he's ready, encourage him to sing. And then get ready for a lifetime of achievement and creativity.
Jamie Allen is the director of education for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.