A Mozart brainteaser

Times Staff Writer

It stops just short of promising eyesight to the blind or rain from dry skies. But disciples of “the Mozart effect” make impressive claims: Music, they say, can do everything from boosting Junior’s math scores to curing the terminally ill to making dullards creative. The idea has become a phenomenon.

Part of cultural gossip for years, it crystallized with the 1997 publication of Don Campbell’s “The Mozart Effect.” Like the rustic preacher who describes his healing at the hands of God, Campbell begins the book by recounting how he fought back a potentially fatal blood clot near his brain by humming soulfully.

Now Campbell and his followers have a new forum: the Neurosciences Institute, a respected research body perched by the sea near La Jolla that, since 1999, has played host to a summer festival of classical piano music presented by the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library and devoted to a single composer.

Beginning next Sunday and continuing for three successive Sundays, it will be the site of “The Athenaeum Mozart Festival, Part I,” featuring Gustavo Romero playing Mozart sonatas, fantasies and rondos along with appearances by Campbell and three neuroscientists: Richard Restak of George Washington University, Lawrence Parsons of the National Science Foundation and Ani Patel of the Neurosciences Institute.


The idea for this year’s event -- the first in the series to put a larger intellectual frame around the music -- came from Romero, 38, a concert pianist and San Diego native who has been part of the music festival since it began.

“I won’t say that if you come to my concerts, you’ll have these brain-tightening and genius-inspiring moments,” says Romero, who was motivated by a longtime fondness for Mozart’s music and his curiosity about its effect on the brain. “But I’m curious to know why his music grabs so many musicians, and non-musicians, in such an arresting way. Is it the simplicity, the childlike quality?”

When asked if he feels smarter playing Mozart, Romero laughs. “Well, I won’t....” Another laugh.

But the “Mozart Effect” book, which Romero read after seeing expand-your-brain CDs in record bins, gave him another way to think about the music.


“So much has been written about the magic of Mozart’s music,” he says, “so all this seemed natural this year. I thought it would be good to talk about Mozart on several levels. Why does he have an allure, more than other composers? Why do musicians turn to Mozart in their later years: You know, Horowitz recording Mozart at the end of his life.”

Concentrated effort

Although he’s no scientist, Romero’s experience concentrating on the music of a single composer -- practicing and performing all 32 of Beethoven’s sonatas, for instance -- has shown him what long-term exposure to a single musical personality can do.

“I know from practicing Beethoven for a long period of time -- Beethoven is so assertive, so strong and unyielding, that you start to play with a lot of authority. So this ebullient character of Mozart, this fresh quality, is something totally different. When I’m in a pensive mood, or a little bit low, Mozart is the composer who brings me out of that.” (Bach’s multivoiced piano music, he says, is so formally intricate as to be exhausting.)

This mood lift isn’t the Mozart effect, exactly, but it does suggest something of music’s power, Romero says. “I go in circles when I try to figure it out.”

Although assumptions about music’s healing or energizing power go back centuries, and French physician Alfred Tomatis coined the term in the 1950s, documentation of “the Mozart effect” began in earnest at UC Irvine in 1993.

There, researchers played a passage of the composer’s Sonata for Two Pianos and found that undergraduates who heard it received a 10- to 15-minute boost in spatial reasoning compared with students exposed to silence or the Minimalist music of Philip Glass.

The term “the Mozart effect” stuck in part because the composer was both widely popular and, famously, a child prodigy. (Presumably, “the Scriabin effect,” promising that the Russian’s sonatas could turn your child into an intense, neurotic mystic with messianic tendencies, would have appealed less to parents.)


The research sparked an industry: There are now music appreciation classes for babies too young to walk, more books (including Restak’s “Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot: Unleashing Your Brain’s Potential,” which came out this spring), and record stores full of discs promising the intellectual equivalent of booster shots.

Campbell alone, who has trademarked the term, has released four different series of “Mozart Effect” CDs (“Vol. III -- Unlock the Creative Spirit: Music for Creativity and Imagination”) and become a latter-day traveling evangelist, speaking everywhere from schools to corporate seminars on workplace efficiency to National Assn. of Cancer Survivors conferences on music’s healing power.

The effect has even had civic and political consequences: It’s become a talking point for those urging more music education in schools; state governors have issued Mozart tapes to new mothers or decreed that classical music be played at day-care centers. In Edmonton, Canada, string quartets were piped into public squares and the city reported a decline in drug deals.

At the same time, a group of detractors has sprung up, among them Robert Todd Carroll, professor of philosophy at Sacramento City College, who calls Campbell “the Carlos Castaneda and P.T. Barnum of the Mozart effect, exaggerating and distorting” the original research.

Research since has produced mixed results. “The bottom line was, even when we duplicated the [Irvine] experiments as closely as possible, we couldn’t get the effect,” says Kenneth Steele, a psychology professor at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. At least 14 other labs, he says, have reported the same problem.

Some say the idea defies common sense. “If Mozart’s music were able to improve health,” asks Michael Linton, a Tennessee music professor, “why was Mozart himself so frequently sick?”

Whatever, he does the trick

True or false, the discussion is still raging.


“When I talk to people about research on brain development,” says Paul Thompson, a neurobiologist at UCLA’s School of Medicine, “often this is the biggest question people ask: ‘My sister’s pregnant -- should she be playing Mozart?’ ” While some of the boost-your-IQ assertions are over the top, he says, “the claim that music affects the brain is well-substantiated by brain imaging.”

Campbell, a trained classical musician who’s also written a book on his old teacher Nadia Boulanger, says he thinks further research will bear him out. In San Diego, he will give the opening lecture of the series.

Speaking from his office in Boulder, Colo., he says: “I will talk a bit about why Mozart tweaks the public ear -- his music is probably more performed than any other composer -- and secondarily, about why Mozart tweaks the attention of the public in the areas of health, education and brain development. I’ll talk about some of the challenges of doing research on music and the ear.”

Romero concedes that he’s found scientists, including those at the Neurosciences Institute, to be suspicious of some claims about the Mozart effect. He’s more comfortable defending his own experience than Campbell’s book.

“I can only speak on a very instinctive level,” the pianist says. “I’m a little bit biased, because I go back to Mozart for a lot of reasons, and he just seems to do the trick. And he seems to do the trick for a lot of other people.”

Is there a way to settle the debate once and for all? If so, Romero would happily serve as a guinea pig.

“I’m aching to be hooked up,” he says. “If they want to do any experiments on me while I’m playing, I’m dying to see what this looks like on a graph! I’d really like to know what my brain goes through.”


‘The Athenaeum Mozart Festival, Part I’

When: Next Sunday, July 13, 20 and 27, 4 p.m.

Where: Neurosciences Institute auditorium, 10640 John Jay Hopkins Drive, San Diego

Price: $27, or $100 for all four concerts and lectures

Contact: (858) 454-5872 or