A Pitch for the Classics, Slightly Off-Key
By Miles Hoffman
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 5, 1998; Page C1
"BUILD YOUR BABY'S BRAIN Through the Power of Music!"
That's Georgia Gov. Zell Miller's message to the moms and dads of his state, printed in large letters on an audio cassette/compact disc package that he's having sent home from the hospital with every baby born in Georgia over the next year. He wants to give them a head start in what he calls "the spatial, temporal reasoning that underlies math and engineering," and he wants to use music to give it to them.
Rock, rap or country won't do the trick, however. His brain-building music donated by Sony Music Entertainment and introduced to the public at a news conference on June 24 is classical: 11 selections from Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Pachelbel, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.
"Research," says a press release from the governor's office, "shows a link between classical music and the enhanced brain development of infants." This apparent link, an example of what some have called the "Mozart effect," has been in the news for a while now, but Miller is the first high ranking government official to make such a dramatic effort to take advantage of it.
And what are we to make of this effort? Well, it's ... fine.
Even if the program does fit a little too neatly into the categories of "magic bullet," or "a hopeful and genuinely well-meaning but impossibly simplistic approach to an extremely complex phenomenon," what's so terrible? Classical music is a world of riches and wonders, and any program that brings that world even a little bit closer to children, that offers them (and their families) even a few of those riches, is a good thing. No, a wonderful thing. And there's certainly no problem with the musical selections themselves other folks might have made different choices, but the music is all, unquestionably, good:
Bach's "Air on the G String" and "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring," the first movement of Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik," Beethoven's "Fr Elise," a couple of movements from Schubert's "Trout" Quintet, and so forth.
Is the "Mozart effect" real and can it make a difference? I'm not qualified to judge. The cynic in me suspects that, given the way these things usually work, the National Science Foundation will probably announce next week that new studies indicate a child's very best chance for achieving high math scores is to start each day with two cups of black coffee and a rare steak. But if the CDs go out and the scores go up, so much the better.
Why then, do I find myself troubled by Gov. Miller's initiative?
It must be because I'm a musician. And because I have a particular aversion to the idea of Mozart as a kind of vitamin supplement. I don't suppose Mozart and Beethoven were actually against mental growth, or that they would have been bitter at the knowledge that their work helped "those trillions of brain connections to develop, especially the ones related to math," as Miller puts it. But is that really why they wrote music? Didn't they perhaps have a few other goals in mind?
Let's face it, the governor's program isn't about music or musicians. It's about math. Classical music, in the context of such a program, is not valued for itself, for its beauties or brilliance, or for the extraordinary achievement of the human mind and spirit that it represents. It is valued for how it can be used to hike test scores. And for a musician or for any music lover this reduction of classical music to "tool" status is something of a travesty, not to mention completely cockeyed; it would make just as much sense to value mathematical ability for its potential to improve musical achievement. "Life without music would be a mistake," wrote Nietzche. Only because test scores would be lower?
In fact, as state and local legislatures all over the country have cut funds for music education and cultural programs, many educators and music supporters have had to haul out the "Mozart effect" and its cousins as a last resort in their efforts to sway unsympathetic politicians. I have to admit that the tactic sometimes works, and that I'm glad it does. But fundamentally I hate it. I hate that it's not enough simply to argue that classical music is important because it's a wonderful and inexhaustible treasure, and because for as long as civilization lasts on the planet, people will admire and cherish the works of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and their colleagues, and will depend on them.
I'm also a little concerned that the Georgia initiative may reinforce misconceptions about classical music. The emphasis on the supposed connections between math and engineering and classical music, for example, could easily serve to reinforce the notion already much too prevalent that the joys of classical music are fully available only to rocket scientists and intellectuals. And that's just not the case. There may very well be a connection between mathematical aptitude and certain kinds of musical aptitude, but frankly the connection is of use and of interest primarily to those who compose music, and to those who spend time analyzing it on a technical level. Mathematical talent has absolutely nothing to do with the capacity to enjoy and appreciate classical music, to find it moving or stimulating.
I find it interesting, too, and somewhat unfortunate, that in his message to parents on the CD/cassette package, Gov. Miller never actually uses the term "classical music." He calls it "soothing" music. (He used the same term at his press conference.) What exactly does he mean by this? Music to get a massage by? Background music for neuron growth? Not exactly flattering for us classical musician types who hope that people will actually listen to what we do.
Perhaps the governor's just avoiding the term "classical" because he thinks it might scare off people. But by using "soothing," isn't he broadcasting a severely restricted picture of a breathtakingly broad art form? Sure, music hath powers to soothe the savage breast, but it also has powers to excite the peaceful one. Classical music can soothe and comfort, thank goodness, but it can also uplift, thrill, humble, embolden, fascinate, amaze and fill us with awe. Don't we want to convey something of these wonderful and varied possibilities to our children and their families?
The governor's choice of terms is particularly ironic given the distinctly non-soothing character of at least five of the 11 musical selections in his package. Selection number five, for example, the Scherzo movement from the "Trout," is nothing if not a rollicking romp. (And I'm not even bringing up the question of what is classical music. Most of the time we know what we mean by the term or at least what we don't mean. But it is interesting: Does Gregorian chant raise test scores? Wagner? Debussy? Stravinsky? Bartok? Gershwin? Lennon and McCartney? Milton Babbitt?)
Have I been too negative? I don't mean to be. I'll say it again: I'm for Zell Miller's program. It may or may not accomplish what he hopes, but it's got far more potential for good than for harm. Indeed, the great and captivating qualities of the music itself may ensure that the program accomplishes far more than Miller ever intended.
And who knows, if enough legisators in Georgia and elsewhere grow up listening to classical music, perhaps they'll realize one day that when they vote for high-quality, well-funded music education programs in the schools, they won't just be seeing to the care and feeding of zillions of little gray cells. They'll be helping to enrich beyond measure the lives of their children.
Miles Hoffman is a violist, commentator for National Public Radio's "Performance Today" and the author of "The NPR Classical Music Companion: Terms and Concepts From A to Z."
Rock-a-Bye Brainy ...
While Georgia is handing out classical music that the little ones can either listen to or not, as they and their parents please, Florida has gone one step beyond: A law signed by Gov. Lawton Chiles in May requires all state financed child-care centers and preschools to play classical music to their charges.
Like Miller's effort, Florida's "Beethoven's Babies Law," as it has been called, was inspired by the notion that classical music makes kids smarter.
The proposal was treated as a joke by many legislators, but few dared vote against it or even object when it was debated. Who wants to be against making children smarter? Who could argue with its chief backer, state Sen. Bill Turner from Miami, when he said "I want all the kids in the state of Florida to be the best and the brightest."
Of course, this idea is too good to be left to politicians. There's money to be made. Next gift-giving season, instead of "Tickle Me Elmo," consider putting the "Baby Mozart" video on the shopping list for your toddler. "It will stimulate a baby's brain with musical and visual experiences," claims its producer, Julie Clark.
It's designed for little ones ranging in age from 1 month to 3 years. It includes no dangerous small parts that an infant might swallow, no bad language and no guarantee that your 2-year-old will sit still for the fourth movement of Mozart's "Symphony No. 41."
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