Prescription Piano Sonatas?

A few months ago, and quite by accident, I discovered the existence of the Angry Chef. Anthony Warner, who has recently published a book in addition to his excellent blog, is a brilliantly funny, eloquent and – when it’s called for – furious critic of fad diets, pseudoscience and the kind of sickeningly moralising tones that go with certain sorts of celebrity foodies and their insistence that we should all be avoiding sugar, eating kale with everything and stirring goji berries into our tea. As someone who has a great love of chocolate, a deep suspicion of the alleged superpowers of kale, and wouldn’t be able to identify a goji berry in a labelled line-up, I’m a big supporter.

And you might think that, far from the world of healthy eating – indeed, in an environment which is at best assumed to be full of champagne glasses and a worst populated by the entirely debauched (and I’m only talking about the dietary aspects, mind) – classical music might not have to put up with its own equivalents of superfoods. Alas, you’d be wrong. In fact, quite a few people have asked me, over the last six months, to tell them about ‘The Mozart Effect’ in the clear belief that this Effect exists, and that it can make us all more intelligent, more cultured, better-adjusted human beings.

So at the risk of being a party pooper, I’m just going to lay it out there: there is no such thing as The Mozart Effect. It’s a load of hooey. Or rather, it seems that listening to music can make people temporarily better at spatial tasks. That’s any music, not just Mozart, for about ten to fifteen minutes after you’ve listened to it. Perhaps worth trying with your favourite playlist immediately before you build you next piece of flatpack furniture. But a sure-fire way to brilliance and intelligence it ain’t.

Kale leaves

What’s fascinating about the Mozart Effect phenomenon is how willingly it was picked up, after a single article in Nature in 1993, and that despite endless, endless public debunkings, we still seem to think that there’s something in it. In 1998, the governor of Georgia even set funds aside to provide every child born in the state with a tape or CD of classical music, because it was supposed to be so good for them. Check out the countless ideas bouncing around the web at the moment for good music to listen to whilst you’re studying your way into the new term. We as a society love the idea that a bit of classical music can make you smarter. Because after all, classical music is supposed to be intellectual and refined, isn’t it? So it’s presumably like that thing parents do when they encourage their children to hang out with certain others because they’ll be ‘a good influence.’ Pity the research seems to show that the little darlings will be just as positively affected by listening to tracks plastered with Parental Advisory stickers as they will by Mendelssohn or Chopin.

However, as disappointing as this lack of auditory pomegranate juice seems to be, there is something about music that we know can be extremely good indeed for people of all ages, not just ante-natal Alan Turings. And that is: playing it. The extent to which music lessons can increase your IQ is still up for debate, and it may be that overall, the ‘intelligence’ aspect is something of a red herring. What is absolutely not in doubt, though, is the extent to which music-making can benefit learners in all sorts of other ways. To learn an instrument (or indeed to sing) takes focus and concentration, a methodical approach, a new kind of literacy (if notation is required), fine physical control. Music-making is often communal – and certainly most fun if carried out with others – and the added social skills that this can bring, improvement in communication, mental health benefits, and so on, have been observed in everyone from young children to elderly dementia patients. Music in schools has improved countless aspects of children’s learning and social skills, and had a profound effect in many cases on the way in which they approach their school work across the board. Making music, actually getting your hands dirty, is what’s brilliant.

And yet here we are in the UK, living in a society in which I’m still being quizzed with relative frequency by relatively well-educated and well-informed people about the Mozart Effect, whilst the provision for music in schools is getting worse and worse with each passing year. It’s not unlike the frenetic pushing of fad diets whilst many people are left without the basic skills to cook themselves healthy meals at home.

So, at the risk of sounding like The Angry Musicologist: don’t you think it’s about time we did something about that?


If you can, sign the BACC FOR THE FUTURE petition here to keep creative subjects in UK schools

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.