The Mozart Effect: who cares ?

Look, I fear we may have our priorities in the wrong place with all this talk of the ‘ Mozart Effect’ and the supposed scientific research in support of / contradicting the idea that playing classical music to babies will develop certain neural pathways, will improve cerebral connections or empathetic emotional understanding.

20130304-195755.jpgEvery so often, some Worthy Boffin either propounded or rails against the view that a baby’s development can be greatly enhanced if classical music, particularly the music of Mozart, is played to them. What strikes me about all this is that it isn’t important At All. When we are concerned with how we can programme our children through the use of music, we have perhaps lost sight (or, more pertinently, sound) of what music can bring.

As a professional musician and parent, I can say with complete conviction that it’s not the supposed cognitive-enhancing possibilities of listening to music, or the more developed emotional empathy with others that music can assist in developing that interests me, or that I want for my children from music. What I want is for them to have the opportunity to experience music for themselves, to listen to a wide variety of music, from Minimalism to Miles, and find out if there’s some that they like, and for them to have the chance to explore more of it if they do. I want them to learn to play an instrument or to sing so they can find another creative pastime, a social activity in which they can participate with others if they enjoy doing so.

I’m not interested in attempting to programme my children into wunderkindern through exposure to pieces from the Austro-Germanic musical tradition, in the hope that they develop superior synaptic connections in order to make them better children, if such a thing were actually possible. And for anyone who’s seen A Clockwork Orange, surely that way madness lies…

So, let’s just forget all the bullshit about the enhancements that the Mozart Effect is supposed to offer, and just allow our children to enjoy music for themselves as a creative pastime, rather than as a conditioning tool for the betterment of their cerebral performance. Music is not, and should not be, about making ‘better’ babies, or assisting in the development of certain physiological capacities that will improve children. Music can do many things, not least of which is to offer fertile ground for lots of utter crap to be talked by lots of idiots.Get a grip, everyone…

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Seize the moment: the appeal of pop music

Everyone knows the old arguments: classical music is written for posterity, pop is ‘here today, gone tomorrow;’ classical music has greater longevity, pop evaporates when the fad passes; classical has more cerebral appeal, pop speaks to the heart but the heart moves on.

Was posterity a consideration when Vivaldi was working at the Ospedale della Pietà, or when Mozart was writing his symphonies in the eighteenth century ? His piano concerti, which he himself played and for which he often improvised suitably dazzling cadenzas: were they written with future fame in mind ? Did Bach envisage his music lasting for hundreds of years when he was recycling instrumental works for the Sunday services each week as Kapellmeister ?

The answer to these is, probably not; Bach was writing as part of his job requirements, a salaried post; Mozart was writing to commision, to keep himself afloat and cope with his gambling. Posterity was less important than the next pay-cheque.

Pop music, as its title suggests, is written to appeal: to be ‘popular.’ It does so – at least, when it’s doing its job successfully – by capturing something of the moment, hooking into the zeitgeist and turning something of the prevailing moment into music. Pop music, like fashion, has phases, and its music appears in response to them, fading when the phase passes and is replaced by something else perhaps equally as short-lived, but nonetheless vibrant.

It’s perhaps unfair, though, to hold this against pop music, to use it as a criticism, or to cite it as a reason for its inferiority compared with classical music. Pop music’s strength lies, like that of jazz, in its very ability to re-invent itself to respond to the surrounding cultural climate, to shed its skin one moment and clothe itself in the Emperor’s New Fashion for a few brief but dazzling moments.

The mammoth strivings of Mahler, locked in his little lakeside hut in Steinbach, to write his epic symphonies are all well and worthy, but it can be just as difficult to write a successful pop song. As the poet Simon Armitage points out in a a slightly different context in All Points North, writing is a solitary task; and Stravinsky said there was nothing more daunting than sitting down in front of a blank piece of paper. Like writing poetry, writing music is a difficult task – whether it’s classical or pop. Whether you are Cathy Dennis writing for pop princess Kylie Minogue or George Benjamin, it’s a challenge whichever sphere in which you’re composing. There’s room for both.

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