Five months after we are conceived, music begins to capture our attention and wire our brains for a lifetime of aural experience. At the other end of life, musical memories can be imprinted on the brain so indelibly that they can be retrieved, perfectly intact, from the depths of a mind ravaged by Alzheimer's disease.
In between, music can puncture stress, dissipate anger and comfort us in sadness.
But for all its beauty, power and capacity to move, researchers have concluded that music is little more than ear candy for the brain if it is consumed only passively. If you want music to sharpen your senses, boost your ability to focus and perhaps even improve your memory, the latest word from science is you'll need more than hype and a loaded iPod.
You gotta get in there and play. Or sing, bang or pluck.
"The Mozart effect? That's just crap," says Glenn Schellenberg, a psychologist at the University of Toronto who conducts research on the effect of music and musical instruction.
Even the author of the 1993 study that set off the commercial frenzy says her group's findings — from an experiment that had college students, not babies, listen to Mozart — were "grossly misapplied and overexaggerated." Psychologist Frances Rauscher, along with the rest of the field studying music's effects on the brain, has long since moved on to explore the effect of active musical instruction on cognitive performance.
The upshot of their work is clear: Learning to make music changes the brain and boosts broad academic performance. Findings across the board suggest that, even for a kid who will not grow up to be a Wynton Marsalis or a Joshua Bell, spending money and time on music lessons and practice is a solid investment in mental fitness.
Entrepreneur Don Campbell, dubbed the "P.T. Barnum of the Mozart effect," has built a thriving online business selling CDs with names like "Mozart to Go" to enhance children's creativity and school performance. And, Campbell says on his Web site, parents of children with dyslexia, autism and attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder should buy his CDs to improve their children's neuropsychiatric conditions.
If only basking in surround sound were enough. The effect of listening to beloved classical music is at best small, fleeting and — with all deference to the late-18th century musical genius — not even unique to Mozart, Schellenberg says.
Listening vs. playing
True, listening to music we like — whether it's hip-hop, show tunes or Schubert — does makes us feel good. Positive mood, in turn, increases focus and attention, which improves performance on many tests of mental sharpness.
But the performance-enhancing effect, Schellenberg says, lingers for no more than about 10 minutes after the music stops.
Learning to play, he has found, is a far better bet. In a 2004 study, he and his colleagues randomly assigned 144 6-year-olds to receive instruction in keyboard, voice, drama or nothing. After a year, kids who got keyboard or voice lessons showed a 3-point IQ boost on average over the kids taking drama or no lessons at all.
For those receiving musical instruction, "there is evidence that music changes the brain in positive and permanent ways," says Laurel Trainor, professor of psychology, neuroscience and behavior, and director of the auditory development lab of McMaster University in Toronto.
Learning to make music engages and demands coordination among many brain regions, including those that process sights, sounds, emotions and memories, says Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, a Harvard University neurologist.
Years ago, Schlaug found a glaring and suggestive difference between the brains of 30 professional musicians and 30 non-musician adults of matched age and gender.
It suggested not only that musicians might be able to more nimbly react to incoming information but that their brains might be more resilient and adaptable, allowing right and left hemispheres, which specialize in separate functions, to work better together.
Schlaug and colleagues also found that the musicians who had begun their musical training before age 7 showed the most pronounced differences — suggesting an early start might rewire the brain most dramatically.
In the end, music listening may come in a distant second to learning in a brain-building contest. But one thing we know beyond a doubt is that it brings pleasure — and few psychologists scoff at the power of that. It promotes well-being. It enhances attention. It protects against the depredation of age. It can even ease pain. "Music is one of those things out there that people enjoy," says Robert Zatorre, a neuropsychologist at McGill University who researches music's effects. "That's already a lot!"
Playing Along With the Mozart Effect
If you want music to sharpen your senses, boost your ability to focus and perhaps even improve your memory, you need to be a participant, not just a listener.
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