We all stand on the shoulders of giants, and inspiration can come in the most unexpected ways. The idea that the genius inherent in classical music can “rub off” on the listener is an old one. But can you actually boost your own brain power merely by listening to the strains of an orchestra? The idea has had its proponents — as well as its peddlers — in the past. Despite the research, however, no provable links between classical music and brain power have ever been detected.
That may all have changed with a new Scandinavian study.
The idea of the "Mozart effect" is probably familiar to you. The idea, which first appeared in the 1950s, claims that children who are coaxed into listening to the music of that particular composer somehow absorb a little bit of the genius he demonstrated from an early age. The notion really took off, however, in the early 1990s after a study at the University of California declared that participants who were played music by Mozart had their IQs temporarily boosted. This seemed to correspond with the once popular idea that playing music to the fetus as it develops in the womb helps to sharpen its brain. The idea was — as you might expect —cynically commercialized and resold to anxious parents as a shortcut-to-the-smarts for their future offspring.
It wasn't just the fact that the study remarkably small — there were only 36 subjects — but the authors of the study didn't actually use the phrase "Mozart effect." Nor did they claim it would work only with Mozart. Nor did they conduct their tests on children. Nor did they claim that it caused anything more than a temporary spike in spatial-temporal performance. As we've reported before the "easy cure" rumors are usually just that — too easy and just rumors. Despite the success and persistence of the idea, that study was flawed in a number of ways.
Enter the new study from the University of Helsinki in Finland. While it doesn't claim it will make you or your children instantly smarter, it does conclude that classical music can have a measurable effect on learning and memory. The participants in the tests listened — appropriately — to Mozart's Violin Concerto No.3 (K.216). The scientists discovered that the music "enhanced the activity of genes involved in dopamine secretion and transport, synaptic function, learning and memory."
Dopamine is the key to neural transmission — it gets all those little pathways and connections in your brain to fire the information to where it needs to be. One of the genes most affected was synuclein-alpha (SNCA) — normally linked with Parkinson's disease — which is found in the one of the brain's strongest linkage regions for musical aptitude. Listening to music, the report says, demonstrates one of the higher cognitive functions of the human brain which can "induce several neuronal and physiological changes."
Dr. Irma Järvelä, who led the Finnish team, suggests that "the up-regulation of several genes that are known to be responsible for song learning and singing in songbirds suggest a shared evolutionary background of sound perception between vocalizing birds and humans." At the same time, the study says, the same exposure to music helped downplay the effects of genes associated with neurodegeneration. This process, say the scientists, demonstrates the "neuroprotective role of music." While it might not exactly make you smarter, it gives the brain a healthy workout.
The authors hope the study will lead to new information about the way in which our shared genetic history has shaped our perception and comprehension of music and that it may allow further understanding and development of the fundamental principles behind music therapy.
The new study is by no means a vindication of the paper that launched the "Mozart effect" commercial sensation. The Finnish authors warn of the limitations of the effects they studied: "the effect was only detectable in musically experienced participants, suggesting the importance of familiarity and experience in mediating music-induced effects." This, then, is not something that is going to help small children — unless, of course, they happen to be a new Mozart already.
Those who work in the world of classical music — performers and critics — might be the most profoundly affected. But if your work or leisure means you spend your time steeping your ears in the classical canon, you might just feel the long term effect, too. And that has to be an idea worthy of note.