The Truth, Mainly - 08/25/1997

If Mozart Effect can help mice, think what it can do for humans
by Leon Satterfield

You've all heard by now, I imagine, about the really serious problem many college students are having this fall:

They can't stand their dorm roommates' music.

"If you loathe the other person's music," the NY Times quotes Daniel Smith, a Brandeis junior, "it's the biggest problem you can have in sharing a room."

It's such a colossal problem that many colleges are housing students according the kind of music they like. "Cross out any music you cannot tolerate," Randolph-Macon forms tell entering freshmen. Connecticut College has students choose from a list of 23 kinds of music, and Yale wants to know whether its young aristocrats prefer classical or rock.

As a certified Old Geezer—I got tenure last year in AARP—I say balderdash. I say to hell with giving students musical choices.

I say we tie them up and make them listen to Mozart.

Before you write me off as an elitist snob, let me say that I certainly would not have wanted to be tied up and made to listen to Mozart when I was a college student. Back then I thought Mozart was pansy music. Back then it was on a long list of things I feared might make me anatomically incorrect.

My tastes ran towards Lefty Frizzell. "I'd walk a mile, cry or smile, for my momma and daddy," I'd twang along with the radio. "I want them to know I love them so."

They don't write songs like that any more, but even if they did, I'd still push for Mozart in the dorms. Not because old Amadeus will give students pleasure, but because he'll help them do what they come to college to do.

Get smart.

You already know, of course, about the Mozart Effect. Unless you've been listening to Grunge Rock again, in which case you've probably forgotten.

To remind you, the Mozart Effect was discovered several years ago by researchers who found that the mean IQ of a group of California students went up by 8-9 points after they listened to Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major (K448). The theory was that the complexity of the piece enhances abstract reasoning and makes listeners smarter. The researchers speculated further that less complex music (they specified Grunge Rock) makes listeners dumber.

The study made many of us academics uneasy because it reached a conclusion about humans by watching human subjects. We all know that you reachvalid conclusions about humans only by watching white lab mice.

So now comes David Merrell to reassure us.

David is a precocious 16-year-old high school kid in Suffolk, Va, whose parents had told him that really heavy metal music would rot his brain. He naturally wanted to see if his parents knew what they were talking about, so he conducted an experiment.

He bought 72 brand new, experimentally naive white male lab mice, put each in its own little cage, and divided them into three groups of 24. In the first week, he let them get comfortable in their new surroundings—a kind of freshman orientation week—and he ran them through a maze three times. By the third run, they were completing the course in an average of 10 minutes.

Then came the music.

He put one set of 24 mice—the control group—in a room without music. Another set went to a room where they heard over and over a compact disc of "The Best of Mozart." And a third were in a room filled with the dulcet tones of a heavy metal group called "Anthrax" on a CD called "Stomp 442."

Both CDs were played at the same volume—70 decibels—for 10 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 4 weeks. And three times each week, all three sets of mice were run through the maze.

At the end of the four weeks, the control group's average maze time dropped from 10 minutes to 5 minutes. The Anthrax group time increased from 10 minutes to 30 minutes. The Mozart group went from 10 minutes to a minute and a half.

Merrell's conclusion: Mozart improves the thinking of white male mice; Anthrax deteriorates the thinking of white male mice.

So as an educator, I conclude that white, male students—note how carefully I refuse to generalize beyond the evidence—shouldn't be given a choice in music while they're caught up in the maze of higher education. Mozart should be piped into every dorm room they occupy.

And one more thing: Merrell says he put each mouse in its own cage because of the clinical catastrophe of an earlier effort in which he kept his three groups in three large cages, one group in each cage.

The Mozart group was the very model of an amiable lab mouse society living in perfect harmony. My guess is they smiled politely at each other's witticisms while they sipped from tiny glasses of sherry.


Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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