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Classical Music From Scratch: B is for Brains

Posted: 12/05/2012 00:00

"Hattie Garlick, music blogger - reading bizarre research so you don't have to."

I think that sums up my recent forays into the classical world pretty nicely. Case in point: did you know that classical music boost the chances of surviving organ transplants among mice?

According to this report in Pacific Standard, researchers in Japan (where else?) subjected a group of mice to heart transplants, divided them into five groups and then subjected them to either opera, (La Traviata); some Mozart; Enya; no music; or "one of six different sound frequencies."

A week on, the mice subjected to Enya, a sound frequency, or no music all "rejected their grafts acutely". By contrast, those exposed to Verdi or Mozart "had significantly prolonged survival," (26.5 days with Verdi and 20 days with Mozart, since you ask).

Rodent respite-centres around the world must be rejoicing. But putting aside the ethics of subjecting mice to invasive surgery for something so, well, Japanese... what can this scientific approach to calculating the value of classical music teach us?

Something profound and measurable, surely. Something about the genre's relationship to life itself. I thought about it, I really did. And I couldn't come up with a thing.

It did, however, remind me to visit an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection that had been on my to-do-list for several weeks.

At Brains, The Mind as Matter, there is an extraordinary piece of art: a digital animation of the activity inside the brain of a person who is listening to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Go, for goodness sake. Like the rest of the exhibition, it is truly wonderful.

They give you earphones so you can listen to the score and the brain-animation is played in real time, so that as you catch your breathe to a particular thump of a drum, you watch patches of the brain ignite simultaneously.

It's beautiful and curious and mesmerising. Like watching a hammy technicolour sci-fi movie set in the weird landscape of your own head. But again, it left me stumped over what it tells us about classical music.

On some level I guess, both the mouse experiment and the brain animation promote the idea that classical music has a profound, physiological effect on us - literally healing our bodies or giving us a strengthening brain workout, like an audible Sudoku puzzle.

But here's the thing. This 'Mozart Effect' (the theory that listening to Mozart makes you cleverer, that you can therefore improve a child's IQ by exposure to it) has elsewhere been rejected as bogus.

It does enliven the brain, scientists have proved, but guess how long for. Go on, guess. Twenty paltry minutes. Less than half an hour after listening to it, you're just as stupid or clever as you would have been if you'd listened only to One Direction for your whole life. As an exercise in brain training, classical music is almost as pointless as holistic mouse therapy.

The mouse-experiment and the (far more beautiful) exhibit show that the brain responds, in the moment, in some profound way to classical music. But what of it? I imagine that those who already enjoy classical work know this instinctively, without science's seal of approval. And is it really a good idea for those of us who don't quite get it yet to approach it as a worthy exercise in brain boosting or physiotherapy?

For me, at least, this avenue of exploring classical music is a dead end. If I've learnt anything from this, it's that Enya should come with a health warning (then again, I think I knew that instinctively already).

 

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