Listening to classical music does not, in fact, make you smarter.
The Mozart Effect has been debunked. But that study — undertaken in the 1990s with students who performed better on tests after listening to a few minutes of Mozart — has left lasting traces on our culture, in the form of widespread eagerness to demonstrate music’s quantifiable, beneficial effects. Last month, someone pitched me a story about a “healing frequency music project that has been proved to help reduce stress and anxiety, aid sleep and boost productivity.” (It’s called Wholetones; you can look it up.) Ain’t music grand?
Music as an art form may be struggling, but music as a commodity is a booming business. There’s a whole field of study devoted to measuring its powers, and a whole shelf of pop-psychology books focused on the gee-whiz aspects of the field. At the top end of this scale is Oliver Sacks’s “Musicophilia,” a dream-like chain of literary narratives about remarkable interplays between music and the human brain. On the airport-bookstore end of the scale is the new book “Why You Love Music,” by John Powell, a follow-up to his 2010 opus, “How Music Works.”
The book’s title perfectly sums up its content. If you look at it blankly and say, “But I already know why I love music,” this is not the book for you. But if you want an easy beach read that mingles platitudes and common sense, you’ve found your read for the summer — or rather, for the next couple of days. It won’t take you long.
Powell doesn’t so much write a book as bind together outline points: “Are You Musically Talented?” “What’s in a Tune?” The content amounts to a sequence of summations of scientific studies (most apostrophized as “excellent”) of the psychology and physiology of music; a sprinkling of assertions not backed up by any studies at all (“Many music fans become attracted to [classical music and jazz] later in life”); and a relentless stream of weak jokes through which the author, puppy-like, begs the reader to like him and not be too put off.
There’s a saying in the news business that people actually want to read what they already know: A story about a rising star nobody’s ever heard of will get less attention than one about a familiar name. Powell seems to hold strongly to this belief. A lot of what he offers amounts to laborious explanations of common sense. In the chapter on film music, he explains that “music can provide clues to when and where the action is taking place. For example, a flashback to the 1930s might be accompanied by jazz — played on a suitably dated, crackly radio.” I’m glad he was able to clarify that.
Indeed, when Powell is not resorting to common-sense platitudes himself, he is attempting to elucidate them for the reader, discussing how the brain recognizes tunes, for example, with the earnestness of someone attempting to instruct a hairless person in the use of a comb. (After a couple of pages of pseudo-theory about pattern recognition and our ability to hear a tune as distinct from its accompaniment, he concedes that the tune is often played by a different instrument, such as a human voice — which makes it easier to pick out. Um, yeah.) It’s hard to imagine anyone interested enough in music to read this book is actually starting from the level of zero knowledge this author presupposes in his laborious explanations of dissonance, timbre, tuning and the like. In the introduction, he even seems to think he needs to explain how a book works: “If you see something that you want to look into further, just turn to the references section at the back of the book, which contains details about where to find the original research.”
The book has its moments — mainly when Powell actually conveys some real information. His debunking of the Mozart Effect myth, for instance, is concise and accurate. His observations on improvisation are worthwhile. And he has a couple of recommendations that show that he actually does like music himself, such as a compendium of world music, which he mentions in the footnotes.
That’s the book’s problem: Its real interest is pushed to the margins in favor of what amounts to a motley compendium of Power Point nuggets, without a coherent argument. The opening sentence is a buzzkill: “Your musical taste says quite a lot about you.” And the final paragraphs could have existed without anything intervening and have nothing to do with musical taste at all. “Music,” Powell writes, “has the power to alleviate depression, reduce perceived pain, help you cope with various illnesses and disorders, reduce boredom, aid relaxation, help you focus on a physical task, help you bond with others, reduce stress, improve your mood, and fill your life with emotions from nostalgia to joy. No wonder you love it.”
But what, a reader may ask, does this have to do with my taste? And why did I read this book? “I’m sure we’ll never run out of questions,” Powell reassures us, “and frankly, I think that’s a good thing.” From which I infer: Listening to classical music may not make you smarter, and reading this book certainly won’t.
Anne Midgette is the classical music critic of The Washington Post.
By John Powell
Little, Brown. 310 pp. $26