Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Science Proves Your Favorite Music is the Best

Instead of examining a single article for this post, I'm going to discuss a trend: using science to imply that classical music better than other styles.

Journalists in all fields love to report on scientific studies, but very often the science is misunderstood or misrepresented, as the journalists are usually not specialists themselves. My previous post shows one example of this lack of understanding (assuming that mistake was in Vanderbilt's reporting and not in the actual study, though I suspect the scientists wouldn't have picked the name "Buxtehude" out of the ether, so someone knew what they were doing). Comedian-journalist John Oliver discussed the media's misrepresentation of science on a recent episode of his show Last Week Tonight; if you don't have 20 minutes available to watch this funny and informative clip, you can look at this diagram from covering the same topic.

When it comes to scientific studies involving music, there's a cultural component that complicates reporting. Very often, scientific studies are presented in ways that conform to our cultural expectations. That is, people love reading that classical music is good for us.

The best known example is the notorious "Mozart Effect," often described as "Mozart makes you smarter." Wikipedia is a good starting point for learning about the original study and the industry that sprung up around it. In summary, a 1993 study found a temporary increase in performance on spatial-reasoning tasks after subjects listened to a Mozart sonata, versus verbal relaxation instructions and silence. Even though the effect was temporary, the results were limited to one type of task, and Mozart was the only type of music used, several people took this study to mean that Mozart specifically has the power to unlock human intelligence.

The Mozart Effect has since been debunked, but people still flock to his music and other recordings of classical music with the hope that it will make them smarter. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it's increased the audience for classical music by attracting people who wouldn't have listened to it otherwise. On the other hand, it's making false claims about music, promises that the music was never intended to fulfill. Back on the first hand, does it matter how people came to the music, so long as they stick with it once they find they like it? On the second hand, if they approach music for the scientific claims, are they appreciating it as art? On the first hand, is there really a "right" way to appreciate art?

The Mozart Effect continues to resonate in classical music reporting. Clicking on the "Mozart News" tab on Classic FM's website turns up several scientific stories, including:

  • "Mozart minuets speed up reaction times": Scientists timed participants performing a task while listening to no music, Mozart's minuets, and the minuets with added errors. No other error-free music was used.
  • "Mozart better than Bach for premature babies": The article reports that the babies were "played Mozart on the first day, Bach on the second and were left in silence on the third," and then the results of the three days were compared. As reported, this sounds like a flawed design, as there are variables involved beyond music.
  • "'Liking' Mozart on Facebook makes you clever": The headline makes the classic error of confusing correlation and causation: clever people tend to "like" Mozart, but clicking the "like" button for Mozart won't make you more clever. This result has much more to do with the cultural value we assign Mozart's music than aspects of the compositions.
I am not a scientist, so I do not have adequate training to quibble over the details of the experiments. Often the claims made by the headlines were never intended by the scientists. Occasionally the scientists do operate on a faulty understanding of music, which will probably be a topic for future blog posts. For the purpose of this post, though, I can examine how Classic FM presents these studies to reaffirm their readers' biases.

We like being told that we have good taste. These articles take it a step further to claim that our preferences can be backed up by empirical data. Why should that matter? My theory is that this indicates insecurity; it's a manifestation of the uncertainty about classical music's future. If science says that classical music is special, then it can't disappear...right? 

But that way of thinking can be dangerous. Assuming that classical music is protected by its intrinsic goodness makes us more complacent and less willing to fight for it. If we believe it is not bound by the value judgments of society, we risk letting it disappear from society.

As a point of contrast, here's some music-in-science coverage aimed at a different readership, fans of metal: "Science Suggests Metal Fans And Classical Fans Are Identical Personality-Wise." Classical music is still used as a standard, but what I noticed is that Greg Kennelty, the writer, points to the ways people engage with the music rather than aspects of the music itself:
Personally, I think this makes a lot of sense. Classical fans are very, very knowledgeable just like metal fans are about what they're listening to, who they're listening to, what was done when, etc. I think the reason classical fans maybe have a bit of an edge, or a developed sense of what a lot of people deem as "sophistication," is because classical has a lot more history to it.
Rather than using the study to claim that classical and metal themselves are somehow similar, Kennelty instead (properly) looks at similarities in human behavior. He accounts for the cultural value placed on classical music, a discussion that is often missing from classical music reporting. Maybe classical music fans don't want to think about the external factors that has given their favorite music its high status; they'd rather believe that their music is inherently better. 

If that is indeed the case, though, they should read this satirical article from Submediant (classical music's equivalent to The Onion) and be perfectly satisfied, as it tells them exactly what they want to hear: "Physicists Prove Classical Music Inhabits Separate Realm, Inaccessible To Humans."

 "Mozart minuets speed up reaction times" on Classic FM

"Mozart better than Bach for premature babies" on Classic FM

"'Liking' Mozart on Facebook makes you clever" on Classic FM

"Science Suggests Metal Fans And Classical Fans Are Identical Personality-Wise" by Greg Kennelty on Metal Injection

"Physicists Prove Classical Music Inhabits Separate Realm, Inaccessible To Humans" on Submediant


  1. There's another and perhaps even more pernicious (if also rarely explicitly stated) element to this entire picture as well: the specious notion that because Mozart was supposedly a prodigy (more on this anon), youngsters exposed to his music may get some sort of prodigy rub-off. Even setting aside the biographical fallacy and the use of Mozart to personify musical genius -- "You're helping Mozart the eternal child to communicate his genius to your children" -- there is the fact that the clinical psychiatric definition of a prodigy is someone who performs a given task or set of tasks at an adult / professional level before the age of ten. By this standard, Mozart was NOT a prodigy: sure, he was gifted, but the compositions he wrote before the age of ten would be utterly forgotten today if they didn't have his historiographically and (since Pryse-Phillips) scientifically name affixed to them. They may be competent or proficient -- unusually so for a kid of that age. But they're not the work of a prodigy: as artworks they *deserve* to be footnotes to biography and history. It's silly that, in concert and recital programming and popular perceptions of classical music, they crowd out musically worthy compositions by other composers because the latter were not blessed with a biographical myth that speciously bribed consumers who otherwise don't give a whit about the art of music to feel good about their having introduced it to their kids.

    1. Excellent point. Do you want to abandon your professional scruples and start the "Mendelssohn will make your child a prodigy AND polymath!" movement with me?