Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Articles

Music Trains the Brain

ANG Newspapers, published June 14 and 15, 1999

Babies like Bach. They also like Mozart, Vivaldi, and a bit of Brahms. Since the birth last week of James, my first grandchild, I have found that some of the little one's lustiest cries can usually be quieted by turning up the volume on a CD of Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, or the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. Little James even seems pretty keen on Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21, as well of the strains of Brahms' Lullaby from my own scratchy voice.

This happy event, as well as some of the Bay Area musical events coming up within the next few weeks, remind me of a wonderful newspaper item that appeared a while back in the New York Times. Its headline read, "Georgia's Governor Seeks Musical Start for Babies."

The article than quoted an apparently discerning Governor Zell Miller of the State of Georgia as saying, "Having an infant listen to soothing music helps those trillions of brain connections to develop." Governor Miller then acted on this belief by proposing that, as part of his state's $12.5 billion budget, $105,000 be spent to make music available to each of the approximately 100,000 children born in Georgia each year. Miller suggested that a worthy cassette tape or CD be included along with the usual paraphernalia that hospitals send home with newborns and their moms in his state.

Miller, who happens to be a fan of country and bluegrass music, was convinced that the music of composers like Bach and Mozart can stimulate brain development at very early ages. He is not alone. Back in 1993 researchers at the Irvine campus of the University of California suggested that humans are born with certain brain cells that respond to musical sounds. "These neurons work in patterns that can be expanded as a sort of `pre-language' to perform increasingly complex interactions -- even before the brain has developed verbal language skills," according to UC Irvine physicist Gordon Shaw.

Shaw, along with a number of other scientists (as well as a lot of us parents!) believe that this ability may bolster higher-level thinking skills. After all, both Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein spent many hours each week playing the violin!

Researchers at the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at UC Irvine, documented that 10 minutes of listening to Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major as performed by Murray Perahia and Radu Lupu, temporarily raised the measurable IQ of college students by up to nine points.

The researchers went on to suggest that classical music, probably because of its complexity, is more effective at such cognitive boosting than simple, repetitive grunge rock or minimalist music. New Age jazz, they felt, may actually interfere with abstract reasoning.

And even further back in history, to the "Golden Age" of Greece circa 450 B.C., the study of music was considered just as essential to the development of the whole person as was the study of mathematics, rhetoric, and participation in athletics. Hear, hear!

Addded February 2005: For recent research on music and the brain, see the American Music Conference website.

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