A Musical Pause in August
THE American Psychological Association is not the first organization we would turn to for insights on music. But the word from the group's convention in Los Angeles these last few days is that music makes you smarter.
Specifically, a group of researchers from the University of California at Irvine found in an experiment that of two groups of undergraduates solving visual puzzles involving cut-out shapes, the group that had been listening to Mozart (the Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, K. 488, to be precise) did better than a control group exposed to a meditation tape or to 10 minutes of silence, not to be confused with John Cage's ``Four Minutes, Thirty-three Seconds'' (also of silence).
The ``Mozart effect'' was found to last only about 15 minutes. But the idea is that spatial reasoning tasks (e.g., the puzzles with the cut-out shapes) are ``processed'' mentally in a way similar to the way in which music is processed. Music works the same mental muscles, so to speak, as tasks like puzzle-solving, drawing, architecture, engineering, and chess.
The experimental work reported at the Los Angeles convention replicated and extended work reported last October in the British journal ``Nature.'' In addition to their work on college students, the researchers also studied a group of three-year-olds in a Los Angeles preschool and found that after eight months of special musical training (group singing lessons, etc.), scores on tests of spatial skills improved dramatically, whereas those of a control group without the music held steady.
The researchers noted that both musical performance and puzzle-solving require ``forming an ideal mental representation of something which is eventually realized.''
Mention of that kind of ``visualization'' brings to mind things we have read in the self-improvement ``success'' literature: ``Imagine yourself closing that big deal... .''
But music does express a particular kind of existential perfection; and Mozart does this as well as any composer I know of. A friend once observed that the difference between music of the Classical period (Mozart & Co.) and that of the subsequent Romantic period is that if the melody of a Romantic work, with all its Sturm und Drang, were a person, ``it would be dead by the end of the piece.'' A Mozart melody, by contrast, tends to lope along like one of those impossible marathoners who cross the finish line apparently with more energy than most of us would have brought to the starting line.
Music occurs in an idealized space-time continuum different from the one in which we muddle through our days. A melody never gets behind schedule, never fails to fit on the musical staff, within the bar lines; there is freedom but also structure.
How does all this connect to the realm of public policy?
Education groups like the Center for the Arts in the Basic Curriculum, in Hingham, Mass., are seizing on the research to support their contention that music in public schools, so often seen as a frill at a time of budgetary retrenchment and back-to-basics curriculums, is not a frill at all and should, moreover, be available to all children, not just the ``gifted.''
They are right in this, but for reasons having to do not just with the physiology of brain processes, but with the existential perfection of Mozart.