The Mozart effect?

Posted on Oct 07 1999

What with all the talk about our Public School System, ever tighter budget constraints, and what seems to be general discontent with the education system here, consider the angle taken by some schools in Georgia: They’re giving parents CDs of classical music to play to their kids.

Music? Say what?

Evidently, some researchers found that those who listen to classical jams are brighter than those who listen to other types of music. But does that mean that listening to classical music will actually make you (or students) smarter?

We’re up against the tangled intersection of two realms here. One, correlation, is a mere measurement of how often certain events occur at the same (or roughly the same) time. The other, causation, examines how one event causes other events to happen.

Causation will have a strong flavor of correlation to it. For example, it you hit your thumb with a ball peen hammer, your thumb will hurt. We can safely label this as a case of cause and effect. We’ll also have a perfect correlation between two events: hitting your thumb, and feeling pain in your thumb.

A lot of things, however, aren’t so straightforward. Take the “hem line” index, for example. Somebody figured that when hem lines in New York go up (i.e. shorter skirts and dresses are in fashion) the stock market goes up too. There is, in other words, a correlation between hems and stocks. But how in the world can hem lines actually influence the stock market? They can’t. Therefore, buying stocks merely because hem lines have gone up wouldn’t be such a bright idea, because hem lines, though correlated with stock prices, don’t really make the market move. In other words, we’ve got correlation but no causation.

I strongly suspect that if you measured the IQ of classical music audiences and measured the IQ of folks at rap concerts, you’d find the former group to be brighter than the latter. Fair enough. We’ve got correlation here. But did listening to classical music make the smart folks smart?

To further muddle the issue, consider also that precisely measuring IQ would seem to be a dicey proposition. I doubt it’s precise to the exact point, and I’m not aware of anyone taking more than one test and getting the exact same score each time.

Some scientists who study such things, however, have evidently crunched the numbers, waded through the statistics, and concluded in their studies that a “Mozart effect” does indeed exist. You’d have to dig into the numbers and do some pretty serious analysis to form an opinion on the subject, but it seems pretty weird to me that music can improve brains.

Well, they’re convinced in Georgia. It seems like a desperate play by the educrats over there, and this is one idea our PSS can probably afford to skip. Personally, I’m all in favor of anything that holds the promise of snuffing out rap music, but in this case, I think we’re up against a case of mistaking correlation with causation.

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