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If the Mozart Effect is a Hoax, Why Listen to Classical Music?

If the Mozart Effect really does not spark your child to score higher on spatial reasoning tests or produce higher SAT scores should you forget classical music and try vitamin pills?

The question brought to mind an interesting story in the New York Times this past year. A woman spent a year intensively studying Italian. Before she began, she had taken some mental ability testing, being a little worried that she was not as sharp as she used to be. After her year of working on Italian, she decided to be retested. To her surprise, all her scores had gone up. The take away: study a foreign language if you want to increase your brainpower. That might have been the end, but another person wrote a letter to the editor and quipped, “Only in America would one think that the reason to study a foreign language was to improve your mental agility!” It went on, and I paraphrase: Traveling there perhaps? Ordering a meal in Italian in Rome? Meeting new people from a different country? Etc. And so I turn to the Mozart effect with a similar thought. Why parents would think that the primary reason for children to play an instrument or to listen to great music would be to improve their test scores?

Consider the following: Have you ever thought of listening to classical music just because it, like a painting, can be beautiful? But, we go to museums both to look at beautiful paintings – eye candy – but also because paintings have the ability to make us see our world differently. Paintings can make us think about angels, wars, and fashion. Paintings can open our eyes to a beautiful sunset or a handsome horse. They can make us wonder why someone would pay millions of dollars for a painting of two colored squares (Rothko). And, like all great art, each time we go back, we see something different. Similarly, music can be beautiful – ear candy. It can treat us to new sounds and beautiful melodies. It can describe a walk in the woods with birds twittering or a thunderstorm and military battle. But perhaps most importantly, music has the ability to change how we feel.

(NOTE: All the musical examples cited below are from YouTube because they are free. If you find something you like, I encourage you to go to Amazon and listen to samples to find a performance that you really like. The sound quality will be better - MP3s are good; CDs have the best sound quality - and you may be surprised at the differences in interpretations.)

Try this simple test. Listen to the following short musical examples and answer how you feel.

People often say that music is the universal language because it speaks to our emotions. When the BBC opened its broadcasts during the Second World War with the opening notes to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, it elicited the serious, hard times at hand. And, almost like a bookend, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the final chorus in his Ninth Symphony exudes feelings of peace and brotherhood. Nations have recognized that singing national anthems elicits feelings of patriotism. When the band or orchestra begins the Star Spangled Banner everyone immediately stand up and joins in. In France, the same thing happens when the Marseillaise is played.  Even the European Union decided that it needed a national anthem and chose Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”  (Flash mobs Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, NBA Video with Beethoven's Ode to Joy)  Composers in the 19th century decided that they wanted their music to tell stories. Richard Strauss composed Til Eulenspiegel (The Merry Pranks of Master Till) to recount the tales of the naughty boy Till. Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain is another descriptive work. But Beethoven described a day in the countryside when he composed his Symphony No. 6, The Pastoral ($ version). (This YouTube performance is accompanied by an excellent description so that you know what Beethoven is trying to say.) And, of course, there is Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.($ version), with birds and ice storms that you will recognize immediately.

The above are all examples of classical music. Is classical music the only kind of “good music”? Definitely not, but one thing that makes classical music different is that, like a great painting, every time you look at it you will see or hear something different. If you stand in front of a Monet painting of a bridge over the Seine in Paris, you will be surprised to see that the fog lifts.

The painting does not change but what you see in it does. Similarly, the first time you listen to Haydn’s Surprise Symphony, ($ version), you may not get the joke, but after a few listens you will hear where Haydn is playing with us. Another great example, especially for young people, is the two tracks on the Casey at the Bat (Maestro Classics) recording. If you listen to “Flight of the Rabbit” on Track 5, it will just sound like,  well, music. But if you then listen to Track 4, “In a Cabin in a Wood,” the conductor will tell you all the things that you might not have heard the first time. Every time you listen to it afterwards, you will hear the rabbit jumping and the guns shooting.  Finally, I would offer that you have probably heard more classical music than you realize. Movie producers, restaurant owners, airline publicists all avail themselves of classical music. Ever flown United? Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue)($ version). If you want to discover just how much classical music you probably already know, go to Kickass Classical’s Top 100 list. A good way to introduce young people to the world of classical music to start with this list. For a dollar a week, your child could begin to build a music library and become musically literate. You may be surprised at what they like!

If you are still looking for things to listen to, I recommend this article: “10 Essential Classical Music of All Time.” In addition, some of my favorite performances of Baroque and Early Classical music are:

Stay tuned for more suggestions for music composed after 1750. If you didn’t go to KickAss Classical’s top 100 list before, , I suggest that you take a moment now. Every time I click through the samples, I listen for 5 seconds to each and smile. How so many different emotions can be pulled out of me in the course of two minutes never ceases to amaze me.  ​-Bonnie Simon

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