Listening Does Much More Than Make You Smarter

Listening Does Much More Than Make You Smarter

Mozart and Vivaldi

Some scientists claim that listening to them makes you smarter. But whether or not they’re right, listening does much more.

“[D]uring passive listening to Mozart music, firing patterns within the brain are similar to those related to higher-order cognitive functions. Indeed, functional magnetic imaging studies concur and have demonstrated that exposure to the Mozart Sonata or other musical pieces with similar qualities … can give rise to activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, occipital cortex, and cerebellum. Similarly, parietal areas (e.g., bilateral superior parietal lobules) are activated during music exposure with these putatively being involved in selective attention processes … [M]usic has the ability to influence, prime, facilitate, or transfer to nonmusic domains and brain functioning. This is hardly surprising given that music (including passive listening to music) involves the engagement of numerous cognitive functions.”
—Leigh M. Riby, “The Joys of Spring: Changes in Mental Alertness and Brain Function.” Experimental Psychology: Volume 60, Number 2 / 2013.

Was even Mozart wrong? Is there something in the nature of the works of the classical concert repertory that makes the acts of performing and listening to them under any circumstances go counter to the way I believe human relationships should be? … I think I have to answer yes.”
—Christopher Small, Musicking, p.220

Since I finished reading Christopher Small’s book Musicking last week, I’ve still been trying to come to terms with the author’s extremely damning conclusions about classical music and how we are expected to listen to it. While much of what Small wrote resonated with me in a very profound way, I believe that his assumption about so-called passive listening being an unhealthy socialization model is completely misguided. This is why…

I was raised by a family that wasn’t particularly good at listening to one another. My mother and her sisters would constantly get into petty disagreements with one another that turned into all-out wars in which they refused to speak to one another. Sometimes this went on for weeks. Thinking about this in hindsight, it seemed quite often that they would talk over each other throughout their arguments, making it clearly impossible for them to fully comprehend what the other was saying, and as a result they misinterpreted the level of the disagreement and things would then escalate based on their mutually incorrect assumptions.

It was often a difficult environment in which to grow up, and luckily there were upright pianos in their homes, albeit ones that were usually terribly out of tune. I think I started playing the piano not so much in order to be listened to, something I intuited would be next to impossible, but as a way to drown out the other sounds. I was a rather harsh key banger—I popped a couple of strings every year as a result of the brutal force with which I attacked the instrument. To this day, I have a hard time playing gently.

The idea that music was something that people could listen to without any other sonic intrusion was completely alien to me. My family would put on records from time to time but always talked over them. The first concerts of so-called classical music I attended were the free outdoor concerts in Central Park where musicians would play to picnickers who chatted throughout and sometimes even added to the sonic environment by turning on a radio they had brought along with them—the ‘70s were not called the “Me Generation” for naught.

A few years later I started going to Broadway shows. Balcony seats were only $12, twice the cost of a movie at the time, but Broadway audiences were much better behaved. They actually sat and didn’t talk throughout the show. (The audience was rarely silent when I went to the movies.) At some point, shortly after that, I was given a free ticket to a concert at Carnegie Hall. I remember sitting there by myself totally bored yet somehow utterly fascinated to see people sitting quietly to listen to music without words. What were these sounds communicating to them?

I made it a point to figure it out and in so doing, worlds opened up to me. I started reading books, which was something I was never able to stay focused on enough to be able to do before I started attentively listening to music. I went on to be the first person in my family ever to attend college. The so-called passive mode of experiencing information—music, books, theatre, film (eventually), visual art, lectures—enabled me to pay attention to others and offered me world views that can span any place or any time. All of this would have been completely out of reach to me otherwise. For this reason, one of Small’s observations is particularly irritating to me…

“[T]hose constructor toys we call musical scores can provide a wide range of models … [n]evertheless, the kind of story we can make up from them is constrained by the limits of the style. … The densely packed and highly purposeful sequence of events with which they present us cannot allow us to use them to model the conceptual universe of a poor black woman in the United States or that of a Zen Buddhist or that of a Tibetan peasant or that of a Spanish Gypsy.” —Small, ibid, p. 217

While it took decades for the music of Beethoven to actually speak to me (which is why I think that new music should be the focal point of all concerts and not just an occasional add-on to otherwise standard repertory programming), learning how to listen enabled just about anyone’s music to speak to me (from Memphis Minnie to the Gyuto Monks to Manitas de Plata, to cite representatives from communities that Small feels classical music excludes). I firmly believe that learning how to listen can do the same for almost anyone else. Small argues that music is a more healthy experience when it is integrated alongside other activities as it is in many of the world’s cultures. But I would argue that there is much to be gained by giving the music of these other cultures the same respect we accord classical music by listening to it with the same level of attentiveness.

A recent psychological study explored the consequences of exposure to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on the subsequent cognitive behaviors of seventeen participants. The data revealed that the most familiar and uplifting musical material enhanced participants’ mental alertness. This is something of a refutation of the recent studies that have been challenging the claims that Mozart makes you smarter. So now tons of NPR-listening parents will probably go out and get Vivaldi recordings for their children to listen to. However, this seems almost as wrong-headed as Christopher Small’s conclusions. It’s really not about whether a certain piece of music has the “it” ingredient that will improve someone’s mental faculties. Rather, listening in and of itself improves those faculties, and it also does a whole lot much more—it makes us better people.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

12 thoughts on “Listening Does Much More Than Make You Smarter

  1. Ana Cervantes

    ¡¡¡BRAVO!!! Music makes us better people: just that unequivocal. It needs no academic justification or any other for that matter: intuitively we all know it to be true.

    1. Ed McKeon

      I’d love to believe that “music makes us better people”, but that’s way too broad a generalisation and the counter-evidence is difficult to refute – notably, the love of chamber music by Nazis serving in the death camps. Would you say the same of death metal? Or perhaps you’d say that well, maybe some death metal is OK (as in Zorn’s ‘Astronome’?).

      1. Ana Cervantes

        You are quite right, of course. I painted with a broad brush when I wrote what I did, and was only too well aware that it’s a generalisation easily challenged, particularly by what happened in the extermination camps. Nevertheless, I stand by it. That the Nazis loved Beethoven string quartets doesn’t mean that music doesn’t make us better people, just that it didn’t make most of THEM better people. Also, we have no way to know how that music might have positively affected some of those who signed on to that deadly ideology: there were more than a few who, either publicly or deep inside, had a crisis of conscience.
        Art is an expression of the noblest side of humans: what the Nazis did, an expression of the basest and most vile. That they coexisted in that moment doesn’t change the inherent nature of either expression, I feel.

        1. ariel

          Art expresses nothing -a painting comes to “life” only if
          there is a viewer, music as sounds mean nothing until there
          is someone to hear the sounds and then attaches meaning to the sounds . There is the great story concerning Heifetz in the green room
          with all the gushing fans and one lady commenting on how wonderful
          the Strad sounded, endlessly going on& on how wonderful an instrument and how lucky Mr. Heifetz was to have such an instrument
          and then Heifetz looks over at the instrument in the open violin case
          and says “funny I don’t hear anything “.

          1. Ana Cervantes

            Ariel, I agree that, as you say, a painting comes to “life” only when there is a viewer. In music, that vital circle of composer-interpreter-listener is broken when one of those elements is not present. Two observations: first, music does indeed affect us -first and foremost- physically, and in that sense it is not inherently meaningless. Second, I smiled when I read your Heifetz anecdote, because for me what first comes to mind is that he was rebuking the gushy lady for not giving credit to his interpretation, how he made that instrument speak and sing.

  2. Alvaro Gallegos

    Sincere as always. I think we should all cross our fingers and expect a book on the subject of LISTENING by Mr. Frank J.Oteri.

    My daddy always said to me that reading a book makes us better people. When I grew up I realized that listening to a piece of music also does that, but only if we listen attentively.

  3. Susan Scheid

    I was reading a book review the other day about a woman who became deaf in adulthood and thought once again how precious a gift it is to be able to listen. I neither play an instrument nor write music, yet music is my almost constant companion. When there is no music playing, I feel a little lost.

  4. ariel

    What utter nonsense — as to making us better people let’s start with Stalin and fill
    in the list……
    Music doen’t make us anything that we don’t bring to it in response -didn’t a certain
    group of Germans slaughter others while often listening to Mozart , Vivaldi etc. dare I
    mention Wagner as a “good” person or Beethoven for that matter .

  5. Eliana

    Mr. Oteri – Although I feel like you’ve touched on the tip of a proverbial iceberg, the brevity of this article is nice. The concept… amazes me so much and really resounds with what I’ve found. It’s wonderful that your learning to listen enabled you to “see” and experience whole new worlds. Best wishes.

  6. Pingback: Mozart activates your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex | Classical 101 - WOSU Public Media

  7. George Marriner Maull

    Frank – Where have you been all my life! A kindred spirit. Please see my recent blog post: Can We Really Multitask and Listen?


    Feel free to comment on it. In fact, we would welcome your comments on our website and Facebook page anytime!

    I am tweeting out the link to your blog post. (My orchestra already did!)

    George Marriner Maull
    Artistic Director
    The Discovery Orchestra

  8. Bernd Willimek

    Music and Emotions

    The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music can’t convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional processes, the music listener identifies with. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our favorite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions.

    An example: If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will “Yes, I want to…”. If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will “I don’t want any more…”. If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will “I don’t want any more…” with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words “I don’t want anymore…” the first time softly and the second time loudly.
    Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed.

    But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the phenomena which early music theorists called “lead”, “leading tone” or “striving effects”. If we reverse this musical phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change – but the listener identifies with a will not to change the sound) we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice, everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be represented musically.

    Further information is available via the free download of the e-book “Music and Emotion – Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration:

    or on the online journal EUNOMIOS:

    Enjoy reading

    Bernd Willimek, music theorist


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