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The original title of this post was “A Revaluation of the Mozart Effect” but I figured you would be asleep by the time you got to the end of the title, so I used an edited version of a quote from psychologist Glenn Schellenberg instead. He said: “The Mozart Effect? That’s just crap.” The inspiration for this post comes from an article in the L.A. Times by Melissa Healy called “Playing along with the Mozart effect”; read the whole article here.

The Mozart Effect, simply put, is the theory that playing Mozart and similar composers’ (Bach, Vivaldi, Haydn, etc.)  music for your baby will enhance the brainpower of the bairn. Don Campbell and others have made a cottage industry of selling CDs and books on the subject.

It just sounds right, doesn’t it. Another example of the unsung power of classical music to do good in the world. An easy way to turbocharge baby minds and get a headstart on the world!

Unfortunately, according to Schellenberg and other experts, it ain’t necessarily so.

That’s the bad news. Listening to music does make us feel good, and being in a good mood is helpful for doing most anything. While it’s playing. This stops when it stops. It also doesn’t change brainpower.

Now for the good news.

If you want brain-changing positive effects, change the passive experience of listening to music to an active one: actually DO music.

Schellenberg – who studies the effect of music and musical instruction at the University of Toronto – found that a year of music instruction raised the IQ of 6 year olds an average of 3 points over kids who took no lessons at all. McMaster University psychology professor Laurel Trainor says “there is evidence that music changes the brain in positive and permanent ways”.

They’re not sure why exactly, but scientists think that in musicians the corpus callosum (the connective bridge between the halves of the brain) was “larger and denser” than that of nonmusicians, contributing to enhanced speed, flexibility, and adaptability in the musician’s brains. Musicians who started lessons before age 7 showed the biggest differences.

So: it’s not listening to Mozart that makes you smarter. It’s musical training that makes you smarter. Prof Trainor says that Suzuki violin students show brain responses that were 2-3 years more mature than those of kids not taking music lessons. Trainor says: “What happens in music lessons is they’re fun. But at the same time, they’re very demanding. The child has to hold an instrument, position his hands, listen to the sound the teacher’s making, reproduce that sound, hold in mind the sound and compare it, assess pitch and sound quality, and change that if necessary. All that takes a tremendous amount of attention. It trains kids how to accomplish things, and it trains memory as well. All that is going to make you better at learning.”

There it is. Music is good for you – at any age. Doing music, that is.

Regular readers of this blog know what is coming next. The author of Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians (GIA; 354 p.) has to mention the most brain-enhancing music making of all: improvisation. Traditional music school training is all well and good, but misses the other half of comprehensive musicianship: making up your own music. Being skilled at interpreting ink on the page is a fine thing, but it leaves untouched all those elements of mind, body, and soul that alloy knowledge, physical skill, and emotion when you create your own music on the spot, a.k.a. improvise.

And man, is it fun. Once you get past your initial terror (“I might make a mistake!!!”), you discover this whole other you that has been lying dormant inside, just waiting to get out. It is your voice, your own musical voice, as distinct and unique as your speaking voice.

Why didn’t someone tell me about this earlier, you ask?

Suddenly you can make up pieces that sound like… music (!) – on the spot. Or with a friend or two or three. Or even with an acquaintance who is not even a “musician”, but who can keep up a steady beat on a drum. Or pot or pan. Or shake his car keys. Or rap on a table. That’s all you need as accompaniment and you’re off (one of the most fun things I ever did was to play for hours with a neighbor who had a djembe [African drum]; I also played an impromptu solo a couple years ago with a djembe player at the Northeast Horn Workshop – we had one brief “rehearsal” and then stepped on stage).

In music school we study history, theory, and perhaps a little composition, and none of it has anything to do with our study of the horn.

When you make your own music, you can use every bit of it. All the subjects work together to help you make interesting and effective choices on the fly.

You hear something in your mind’s ear, and you try for it on the instrument. Or your playing partner plays a strong idea and you take it and develop it in some way an instant later. Didn’t quite get it? No big deal. You take what you did get and make something out of it. “Mistakes” are an opportunity to discover something new, something you never would have come upon if you hadn’t made that “mistake.”

Or you face a difficult technical problem in the solo, etude, or excerpt you’re working on. As an improviser, you have extra tools to solve the puzzle. You are empowered to take the problem apart, construct preparatory etudes for it, play it backwards, transposed, with altered rhythms, change tempo, dynamics, register.

It’s scary to begin. But it is quickly addicting and changes your brain and your life in all kinds of ways. It’s a liberating, refreshing, complement to all the note-reading music making we do.

Did I mention that it’s fun, too? I know, I know, music is supposed to be serious. No having fun!

You have my permission not to have fun making your own music if that helps. But go ahead anyway. Do it for your brain. Mozart would approve.