News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

October 3, 2011

The Off Season: Listening to Mozart is a ‘purr-fect’ way to relax

TERRE HAUTE — Regardless of what some people may believe, classical music fans are not snobs. They come from all walks of life, fall into all income brackets, and they’re not required to understand or analyze anything to which they’re listening; they just need to enjoy themselves.

Why, one of the most devoted listeners I know has a tail and four paws, has no gainful employment, and sleeps in a garage. He licks his own feet and rarely passes up the chance to sleep on a warm car hood, too…

I have been relaxing to classical music since I was in the fifth grade; I think the first record I could call my own was a scratchy old copy of Camille Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macbre,” first played for me on a rainy day when we stayed inside for recess at school. I thought it pretty neat that I could hear the souls of the dead and their rattling bones in the midnight graveyard party that Saint-Saens wanted us to imagine in that piece.

Not having the patience, and in all probability, the talent, to tackle learning an instrument — there was an aborted and painful attempt to play the violin — I listened to my records instead. It is a habit I have never regretted.

I still enjoy all kinds of music — particularly jazz — but sooner or later, I come back to my Vaughn Williams and Copland and Gershwin and the glories of an orchestra. And, of course, I listen to Mozart.

Oddly, when I do have Wolfgang Amadeus spinning on my CD player, my tiger-striped cat, Henry, is usually there with me, as he is now as I write this story. He particularly enjoys the “Piano Concerto No. 21” (often called “Elvira Madigan”), and he’s fond of the “Clarinet Concerto,” too.

In fact, if I happen to have my cabin windows open and the stereo on, and Henry is nearby — perhaps taking a break from sniffing this or scratching that — he comes to my door and asks for a better seat, most often on the rug near my writing table.

I know, you must think I’m another one of those “cat nuts” who’s taken a second mortgage on his house so he can buy catnip toys, jeweled kitty collars, and multi-colored claw covers; that I’ve named Henry and his buddies in my will; that we’ve ordered the new paint for his room. Not really. Our home is hardly a one-animal household, and Henry has to vie for a place at the cat pan like everyone else. But, how can I deny anyone the pleasure of listening to Mozart, even if he does shed on my couch and occasionally throw up on the living room carpet? I can’t.

Much has been written about the effects of Mozart and his music on our brains, and by that, I mean the human brain. In 1993, University of California Ervine researchers Frances Rauscher, Gordon Shaw and Katherine Ky published a brief article in “Nature” magazine called “Music and Spatial Task Performance,” and “The Mozart Effect” was born.

What the researchers said was pretty simple: Their study, involving college students, suggested that listening to just 10 minutes of Mozart’s “Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major” was enough to improve their subjects’ scores on spatial reasoning tests — at least when compared to listening to nothing or a relaxation tape. Spatial reasoning is — and this is in layman’s terms, seeing that I’m not exactly a behavioral scientist — our ability to conceptualize solutions to multi-step problems in our heads. The students basically had to answer questions on the Stanford-Binet intelligence test.

Not long after the study was released, the “Mozart Effect” became the rage, and it didn’t take long before hundreds of thousands of American babies were listening to Mozart’s music as they played in cribs, sat in strollers and squirmed on changing tables. Books, instructional tapes, CDs and videos touting the benefits of Mozart took the country by storm. A number of state legislatures even stretched budgets to pick up the tab of sending recordings of the composer’s works home with mothers of newborns. Teachers, including this one, played Mozart during study time, and Mozart literally became the king of classical radio stations from coast to coast.

But, the Mozart Effect is probably too good to be true. In fact, more than 40 studies have been conducted that prove it unlikely, including one released recently at the University of Vienna, that, according to “ScienceDaily,” “suggests no evidence for specific cognitive enhancements.” In fact, Emory University psychologist Scott Lilienfeld placed the Mozart Effect as number 6 on his “50 Greatest Myths of Popular Psychology.” 

It really doesn’t matter. I don’t listen to Mozart because it makes me smarter, and Henry certainly doesn’t know anything about the Mozart Effect or spatial reasoning or the Stanford-Binet intelligence test. He just wants to laze in the sun and listen to something that’s comforting and peaceful, much like the man who drops a glop of food into his bowl near the refrigerator every morning. Whether it be the “Clarinet Quintet,” the “Concerto for Flute and Harp,” or an aria from “The Marriage of Figaro,” my furry friend most often plops down near my feet or in my big leather recliner and spends so much time stretching that you’d suspect he’s just been released from a sweat box on the River Kwai. 

But, after a while, Henry’s eyes are closed, he’s purring, and he’s wearing a grin of such utter contentment that I have to admit that perhaps it is this spindly legged little goofball who understands Mozart best of all.

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at hickory913@aol.com or by writing to him c/o The Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com. His third collection of stories, “A Place Near Home,” is available through his website and in some stores now. Mike will be signing books from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Friday at BookNation in downtown Terre Haute.

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