TV & Radio
MAGIC FLUTES: Mozart, in a portrait by Gerrit Greve; his music has been used to treat ailments ranging from acne to Alzheimer's disease.
January 16, 2006 / Vol. 167 No. 3
The Power Of Mozart
The legendary composer is not just for listening to anymore — 250 years after his birth, he's a health fad
BY PETER GUMBEL / PARIS
Katia Eliad, a Paris-based artist, was stuck in a rut. She felt blocked in her creativity, out of touch with herself and for some inexplicable reason unable to use green or blue in her abstract paintings. So last spring, she started an unusual treatment: daily two-hour sessions of Mozart's music for three weeks at a time, filtered through special vibrating headphones that sometimes cut out the lowest tones. The impact, she says, was dramatic. "I'm much more at ease with myself, with people, with everything," says Eliad, 33. "It feels like I've done 10 years of psychoanalysis in just eight months." Blue and green are back in her palette. As for Mozart, "he's become like a grandfather who calms you when you wake up in the middle of a nightmare."
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born 250 years ago, on Jan. 27, 1756, and lavish celebrations are being planned around the world to celebrate his anniversary. This year will be filled with his music, but it will also be a time to re-examine the contradictions and conflicting interpretations of his brief 35-year life. He has been cast in many roles: the infant prodigy paraded around European courts by his father, Leopold; the foulmouthed brat whose letters attest to a fondness for off-color practical jokes. One widespread misconception has him buried in a pauper's grave in Vienna's St. Marx Cemetery. Another unproven legend, given widespread credence thanks to the hit movie Amadeus, depicts him as the victim of his jealous court rival Antonio Salieri. Fervent admirers have argued that he was divinely inspired, but some modern psychologists detect an infantile-regressive personality. And if he were alive today, says Herbert Brugger of the Salzburg tourism office, he would be "a pop star — somewhere between Prince, Michael Jackson and Robbie Williams."
There's little new about such typecasting. But over the past decade, Mozart has increasingly been placed in a role that is perhaps the most controversial of all: as healer of mind and body. In this New Age interpretation, Mozart is the ultimate composer-therapist whose music can help treat ailments ranging from acne to Alzheimer's disease and even, it is claimed, make you and your kids smarter. Some of these claims are based on science. One neurosurgeon in Chicago has conducted studies that show certain Mozart pieces can reduce the severity and frequency of epileptic seizures in some patients, while researchers in Irvine, California, have found that some people with Alzheimer's are better able to perform mental tests after listening to Mozart for 10 minutes.
But much of the supporting material is anecdotal. French actor Gérard Depardieu says Mozart helped to cure his childhood stutter. Eliad, the painter, received her treatment at an institute founded by a Paris physician named Alfred Tomatis, who pioneered the use of Mozart's music to treat all sorts of childhood disorders as well as adult ailments including depression. Few national authorities officially recognize the treatment, and traditional music therapists are deeply skeptical. Still, Poland is currently introducing Tomatis' methods nationwide in centers that help children with learning difficulties. And in the London suburb of Richmond, Jackie Hindley credits it with helping her 6-year-old son Lawrence. He was a slow developer and hyperactive, Hindley says, with a particular language difficulty: whenever people spoke to him, he would stay quiet for half an hour before coming back with an answer, she says. After several sessions of listening to Mozart, "he's now a very active speaker who responds immediately to whatever is said to him," Hindley says. "He's taken very profound steps forward."
By far the most widespread — and most disputed — recent claim is that Mozart can enhance your brain power. That notion was first given scientific support in a 1993 article in Nature, which found that college students who listened to the first movement of Mozart's Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos performed better on a spatial reasoning test that involved mentally unfolding a piece of paper. The study's main author, Frances Rauscher, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin who is also a cellist, went on to do a similar test using laboratory rats. They were exposed to the same piano sonata in utero and for two months after birth, and then let loose in a maze. There they navigated their way out far quicker than three other groups of rats, which had been exposed to white noise, silence or a highly repetitive piece by American composer Philip Glass.
In the decade since, these studies have sparked an academic storm, with many of Rauscher's peers either refining or debunking her findings. Other researchers have had mixed success in replicating her results. But her work received widespread media attention and gave rise to a pop-psychology trend known as the "Mozart effect." Dozens of Mozart compilation CDs that promise to enhance intelligence are now on the market, with titles such as Mozart for Mommies and Daddies — Jumpstart Your Newborn's IQ. The claims have had social-policy repercussions: in 1998, the U.S. state of Georgia began handing out classical-music CDs to the parents of all infants, and there are similar but less official programs in Colorado, Florida and elsewhere.
Behind much of this enterprise is a U.S. musician named Don Campbell, who is not a scientist and had nothing to do with the original research, but who quickly trademarked the term "Mozart effect," and has written two best-selling books on the subject and compiled more than a dozen CDs. "In an instant, music can uplift our soul. It awakens within us the spirit of prayer, compassion and love," he writes. "It clears our minds and has been known to make us smarter."
Rauscher is both bemused and sometimes amused by such rank commercialization. "At least somebody managed to make money out of it," she says. But she bristles at the way her findings are misrepresented. "Nobody ever said listening to Mozart makes you smarter," she complains, pointing out that her research showed only a temporary and limited improvement in the student's spatial reasoning, rather than a sustained and general increase in IQ. Today, she's even revising her own initial conclusions in the light of subsequent research by others, working on a book tentatively titled Music and the Mind Beyond the Mozart Effect. Listening to Mozart, she now reckons, may not be as important for the brain as the general sense of mood of arousal brought about by doing something that is enjoyable. Campbell, who is based in Colorado, isn't fazed by her attitude, nor by the open scorn he encounters in the academic community. "I don't think we can prove anything, but we can't disprove it either," he says. "To be most honest, we don't understand why music has such a powerful influence on the brain."
He has a point. Scientific studies show that many different areas of the brain are activated when a person listens to music. There's also some overlap between the areas of the brain most responsive to music and those used in spatial reasoning. But beyond that, there's little certainty as to why some pieces of music stimulate more than others — and even less understanding of music's sometimes soothing effects.
Glenn Schellenberg, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto at Mississauga, built on Rauscher's study by comparing the effects of a happy-sounding Mozart piece to a sad-sounding Albinoni piece, and then testing to see if music by the British rock band Blur had a bigger impact. (The answer is yes, among 10- and 11-year-old boys). At one point he even did research that pitted Mozart's music against a Stephen King story. His conclusion: listeners who preferred Mozart performed better after listening to Mozart than to the story. Listeners who preferred Stephen King did better after the story. Such findings are in line with those of neurosurgeons who have long tracked the effect of various stimulants, including music and drugs, on the brain's electrical discharge patterns. A growing volume of research suggests that music may hardwire the brain, building links between the two hemispheres. Exactly how this process works is still unclear, but such brain stimulation can lead to peaks of performance and awareness.
Why should Mozart's music be the focal point of this debate, rather than other classical composers such as Bach, Beethoven or Chopin? Many sounds, from Hindu chanting to the noise of the surf breaking on a shore, are believed to be therapeutic.
As for classical music, Gérard Mortier, the director of the Paris opera, is one of many who reckons that Mozart isn't the only composer who soothes. "You find the most appropriate music for the pathology," Mortier says. "For some people it might be [Johann Sebastian Bach's] 'Goldberg' Variations. For others it might be the second act of [Richard Wagner's] Tristan and Isolde. For a third it could be a Schubert quartet, and for another it's Mozart."
Still, John Hughes reckons Mozart yields the best results. He's a neurologist at the University of Illinois Medical Center who specializes in epilepsy. One day a colleague handed him a tape of the same Mozart sonata that Rauscher used in her studies. The next morning, he tried it out on a patient in a coma, and was stunned to find that it substantially reduced the frequency of seizures. He followed up with a series of studies on 36 patients; 29 of them responded in the same way to the music. "There's no question about it, about 80% of the time it has a beneficial effect on seizures," he says. That's when he started testing other classical music on patients, only to find that Mozart was consistently the most effective on his epileptic patients.
The key, he believes, lies in the way Mozart repeated his melodies. "He turned a melodic line upside down and inside out. That gave people something interesting to listen to. Our brain loves pattern." Some of Bach's music scored highly, as did works by Mendelssohn and Haydn. But Mozart's musical sequences tend to repeat regularly every 20-30 seconds, which is about the same length of time as brain-wave patterns and other functions of the central nervous system. His conclusion is that the frequency of patterns in Mozart's music counteracts irregular firing patterns of epilepsy patients. Unlike the IQ tests, Hughes says, the response he measured has nothing to do with theories of mood and arousal: "Most of my patients are in a coma so you couldn't explain it as, 'I feel better so I perform better.' This is a direct effect on the brain."
Michelle Quatron doesn't have a clue why Mozart's music works, but she says she can see the effect on her 6-year-old daughter Lucy, who is autistic. "She used to sit in a corner and have no interaction with anyone," Quatron says. Two years ago, she began taking Lucy to a center in Lewes, England, that uses the Tomatis method of playing music through what's called an "electronic ear" — essentially regular headphones with a piece in the middle that vibrates against the scalp, conveying sounds through bone conduction. Tomatis and his followers claim that this has a profound impact on patients' ability to hear and listen to others and themselves, which is the core of the treatment. Still, since there's no conventional scientific proof for the method, health authorities in many countries, including the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S., don't recognize it.
Quatron says she was skeptical about the treatment at first, but is now a convert. "The first thing that astonished us is that she allowed it to happen — that she sat for two hours listening to Mozart, and not just once but every day for 14 days," Quatron says. And she's thrilled with the changes she sees. "Lucy is making friends. Her eye contact has improved and her language has come on so much. It's like she's opening out. She's coming right out of herself."
In the official world of music therapy, such methods are viewed as hokey. That's because registered therapists working with handicapped or troubled children usually get them to make music as a way of expressing themselves and interacting with one another. In Britain, where music therapy has been a registered health profession since 1999, Gary Ansdell at the Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy Center in London points out that "it's all about active music making, not passive listening." Ansdell is also scornful of Don Campbell and his "Mozart effect" empire. "It has to be more complex than that," he says. "We're not doing Mozart a favor to reduce him to an effect."
But in this Mozart anniversary year, it seems, anything goes. Just ask Carlo Cagnozzi. He's a Tuscan winemaker in Montalcino, near Siena, who has been piping Mozart to his vines for the past five years. He first had the idea as a young man, when he would bring his accordion to the grape harvest. Playing Mozart round the clock to his grapes has a dramatic effect, he claims. "It ripens them faster," he says, adding that it also keeps away parasites and birds. If Mozart had really been buried in a pauper's grave, he would probably be spinning in it. But with so little still understood about the psychological and physiological effects of music, researchers from the University of Florence are now studying Cagnozzi's claims. Says Don Campbell, the Mozart effect author: "Mozart has universal appeal. The discussion needs to continue. We are just beginning to ask the right questions." The swirling controversy seems sure to continue — and Campbell will carry on selling his CDs. Even if his claims about Mozart's music making us smarter are bogus, he's helping to introduce a lot of people to a composer whose music remains relevant, 250 years after his birth.
With reporting by Bethany Bell/Salzburg and Julia Mason/Paris