On the Importance of Music

Monday Musings for Monday May 12, 2014

Volume IV. No. 18/175

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The Mozart Effect

By Assad Meymandi, MD PhD, DLFAPA*

We have had a number of letters from young parents and prospective parents asking about the “Mozart effect”. As of late the media has been touting the notion that exposure to Classical music including of course Mozart’s music during pregnancy and early childhood makes the child smarter. The question requires some recollection of Mozart as a person, artist and genius; and some reflections:

Faithful readers of this space recall that Johann Chrysostom Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was and remains one of the most enigmatic individuals of the 18th century. He was born on January 27, 1756. Before his death on December 5, 1791, he was in poor health. Throughout his short life he had smallpox, tonsillitis, bronchitis, pneumonia, typhoid fever, rheumatism, gum disease, and possible cirrhosis of the liver and hepatitis, all caused by excessive use of alcohol and possible sexual indiscretion. Toward the end of his life, he had poor hygiene, most likely because of poverty, had to move in smaller apartment with limited accommodations and facilities.

Also, Mozart was enigmatic because of ineptness, inelegant personal conduct, and his lack of social grace. Yet in his operas, he demonstrates deep understanding of human nature. He takes us through a most complex circuitous labyrinth of psychological wonders that is humanly impossible. As I listen to his operas over and over again, I keep asking myself how did he know so much? For example, his opera King of Crete, Idomeneo, taking place 1200 BC, is an incredible psychological study of human possibilities, frailties, feelings and complex psychodynamics of behavior. Medical literature do refer to Mozart’s scatologia/lalia and coprophilia as symptoms of Tourette Syndrome, a neurologic disorder the victims of which experience uncontrollable urge to make foul noises and use curse words. Modern medicine has pinpointed the biochemical etiology of the disease, namely excess dopamine concentration in the basal ganglia of the brain. This condition is neuroendocrinologically the opposite of Parkinson’s disease where there is a paucity of Dopamine in the basal ganglia. There is no question that Mozart was a genius. Now, the question is can we make our children smarter by exposing them to Mozart’s music.

The myth of Mozart “the eternal child” invented by his father, Leopold, has been exploited for financial gain first by Leopold himself and later by music publishers in Salzburg and Vienna. Now 200 years plus after his death, the myth continues to be exploited by the media. Worship of Mozart is a major industry with billions of dollars involved. Commercialization of Mozart has attracted the best and also the most crooked brains in marketing, ballyhooing, and concocting false products. “The Mozart effect” is one of them. The notion that Mozart’s music, and for that matter classical music makes us smarter is a clever but false claim.

However, what Mozart and classical music do can be understood by explaining a bit of basic neurobiology. We have hard data to document that listening to classical and harmonically rich music prolong the life of the neurotransmitter called acetylcholine (AcH) in the synaptic junctions of nerve cells (neurons), thereby making the basic thinking process more efficient. The same principle works when milking cows are subjected to prolonged exposure to classical music. The animals produce more milk. The explanation is that the animals produce more dopamine in their brain, leading to secretion of more prolactin and eventual production of more and higher quality milk. Classical music does not make the cows smarter. It does make the milking factory more efficient.

Yes, classical music and Mozart make a child’s mentation, perception and cognition more efficient. They do not make the child smarter. Also, families who are musically oriented and live in a rich intellectual and verbal environment create a better chance for their children to do better in school. Turn the television off. Read to your children and create a family environment enriched in music, books, arts, and robust conversation.

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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