The Yanni Effect

In 1993, Gordon Shaw and two UC Irvine colleagues said they had discovered a connection between intelligence and classical music. In a published letter to the science journal Nature, the three said they had exposed 36 UCI students to various aural stimuli—including a tape of Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major. After 10 minutes of Mozart, the students took a test the researchers said revealed improved math skills.

It was dubbed the “Mozart Effect,” and for the past seven years, it has helped fill bookstore shelves with titles announcing the latest sonata found to boost test scores.

Initially hailed as a triumph of high culture, the Mozart Effect has since fallen out of favor. In one British study, researchers replicated similar results with contemporary music; in another, with a pretest reading of Stephen King novels. Most studies over the past year have shown that if there is a Mozart Effect, it is so small as to be completely useless.

That hasn't deterred Shaw, a professor emeritus of physics at UCI who now runs a small nonprofit research company in Irvine called the Music Intelligence Neural Development (MIND) Institute. He dismisses criticism of his work as “a couple of poor experiments done by people who didn't look at the whole thing.”

But the truth is more complex. In the British study of more than 8,000 schoolchildren, researchers recorded even greater improvement than in Shaw's original experiment, but—interestingly—after exposing students to more popular music.

The summer 1999 issue of Nature contained a new study by Kenneth Steele of Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. Repeating Shaw's earlier experiment, Steele failed to replicate Shaw's results. Around the same time, Harvard neuroscientist Christopher Chabris examined 16 separate studies and found there was indeed a rise in IQ for something called spatial-temporal reasoning, but only by a statistically negligible two points. Chabris also looked at studies showing spatial-temporal improvement in groups of students who had read Stephen King novels or listened to Yanni. Chabris' explanation for these results is simply that “enjoyment arousal” from pleasurable activity stimulates that part of the brain that performs spatial-temporal reasoning tasks.

And in late September of this year, a three-year study conducted at Harvard's Graduate School of Education showed exposing students to music and dramatic arts improves spatial-temporal reasoning skills—but not test scores.

This criticism, which in the scientific world amounts to something like complete rejection, hasn't slowed the pop-culture explosion of Mozart Effect paraphernalia, however. After Shaw's announcement, new books came out promising everything but nirvana—followed by newer books promising exactly that. According to one such book, The Mozart Effect for Children, “It has been proven time and time again that music is a powerful implement for stimulating a child's brain, nourishing his spirit, and strengthening his body, even prior to birth.” Another by the same author is modestly titled The Mozart Effect: Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the Mind and Unlock the Creative Spirit.

The governor of Georgia got into the act, offering a state-funded Mozart cassette for every newborn. New stethoscope-like devices appeared so pregnant mothers could play sonatas directly into the womb.

Shaw acknowledges that “people have exploited this a bit . . . which I take very seriously. There is no data at all on infants, but they shouldn't be dismissed. There very well might be something.”

Shaw is continuing his own research as well. He has his own website (www.mindinst. org). He's also got a book and CD-ROM for sale. Called Keeping Mozart in Mind, the package sells for $49.95 and is ranked 42,281 on Amazon. com. Shaw declined to tell the Weekly how much money he brings in every year.

“Everyone talks about education as a big thing, but they mainly focus on reading and writing,” said Shaw. “To me, a former physics professor, the main difficulty is math. If kids can't think mathematically, they'll be left out of our high-tech society.”

Shaw wants additional schools to begin using his methods. But with the research weighing heavily against him, it's doubtful that will come off. In fact, continuing studies showing no practical link between listening to classical music and higher test scores may have the effect of driving Mozart from the classroom entirely—a victim of budget cuts in an era focused on churning out workers geared solely for our “high-tech society.”

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