MUSIC SCIENCE DISCOVERIES
Los Angeles Times Headlines, May 01, 2005
Gordon Shaw, 72; Linked Music to Thinking
Gordon Shaw, a retired UC Irvine physicist whose provocative research on
classical music and the brain led — to his dismay — to a mania for
what was popularly dubbed the "Mozart effect," died of kidney cancer Tuesday
at his Laguna Beach home. He was 72.
Shaw was an expert on particle physics who had studied under Nobel laureate Hans
Bethe before he joined the UCI faculty in 1965. Within a decade, however, his
focus began to shift from quarks and atoms to the effects of classical music
on higher-level thinking.
After 20 years of inquiry, he and his collaborators announced in 1993 the startling
results of a study that showed a marked increase in college students' IQs after
they listened to Mozart's richly patterned Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major.
Shaw's intriguing findings struck a chord with the public and spawned an industry
eager to capitalize on what became known as the Mozart effect, the idea that
music can make people smarter.
Prenatal music classes and classical CDs for toddlers became the rage. Policymakers
jumped on the bandwagon too, with Florida lawmakers calling for state-funded
child-care centers to play Beethoven daily and the state of Georgia working with
recording companies to hand out classical CDs to new mothers.
In 1998, Shaw co-founded the nonprofit Music Intelligence Neural Development
Institute, or MIND, in Costa Mesa, which has developed a curriculum now in 67
elementary schools that uses piano keyboard training and a computer program to
change the neural hardware needed for better math learning. He also published
a book, "Keeping Mozart in Mind."
A native of Atlantic City, N.J., Shaw earned a bachelor's degree from Case Institute
of Technology (now Case Western Reserve University) in Cleveland in 1954 before
receiving a doctorate in theoretical physics from Cornell University in 1959.
He taught at Stanford, Indiana University and UC San Diego before becoming a
founding member of the UCI faculty in 1965.
A paper on brain theory that he read by chance in 1973 sparked his turn away
from physics. Over the next 10 years he shifted his focus to research on the
brain's capacity for spatial reasoning. He came to believe that the brain has
an innate ability to perceive patterns and symmetries and to apply this knowledge
in such activities as playing chess or piano and solving math problems.
Early in his work he enlisted the help of a graduate student, Xiaodan Leng, to
devise a computer model of the brain. They came up with a way to match musical
notes to the patterns the model brain created when stimulated.
Playing back the notes brought a breakthrough.
"We got recognizable music," Shaw told the Vancouver Sun a few years ago. "It
wasn't Mozart, but it sounded like Western classical music…. It just switched
the whole direction of the research."
He began to regard music as "a window on the brain." If brain activity sounded
like music, what would happen, he hypothesized, if they reversed the equation
and used music to fire up the brain? Perhaps the Mozart composition primed the
brain for higher-level work.
With Frances Rauscher, a cellist and psychologist, he obtained a small grant
to test his theory on preschool children. Rauscher devised a pilot study involving
3-year-olds. One group would receive piano instruction for six months while the
other would learn to sing. It was a small study, involving only 10 children from
two schools and no control group, but the results were encouraging. The group
that received keyboard training showed a marked improved in spatial-temporal
The scientists mounted another quick experiment, this time with college students.
The students were divided into three groups, each of which was asked to perform
a test that involved folding and cutting a sheet of paper into a snowflake shape.
Then, one group listened to the first movement of the Mozart sonata, which was
chosen for its complexity. Another group listened to a relaxation tape, while
the third group was given silence. Afterward, each group was asked to perform
the fold-and-cut task again.
The three dozen students in the Mozart group performed 62% better on the second
try, compared to 14% and 11% for the other two groups. Before and after administrations
of a standard intelligence test showed that the Mozart listeners' IQ rose by
up to 9 points.
The improvement, alas, was temporary: Shaw and Rauscher found that the effects
dissipated after 10 minutes. Nonetheless, the spike in scores was substantial
enough to generate considerable media hoopla. The findings made front-page headlines,
including one in The Times in October 1993 that said, "Study Finds That Mozart
Music Makes You Smarter."
Such oversimplification distressed Shaw, who suggested that Mozart's music was
more like a calisthenic for the brain than a magic pill.
"It is not that the Mozart will make you permanently smarter," he told The Times, "[but]
it may be a warmup exercise for parts of the brain" that perform high levels
of abstract thinking.
The hype also eventually stirred a backlash, with researchers at other institutions
saying they could not replicate Shaw's and Rauscher's results or found theirs
and others' findings of a Mozart effect statistically insignificant.
Shaw's work nonetheless excited parents, educators and marketing experts. Almost
immediately, music stores began reporting a run on recordings of the Mozart piece.
By 1997, music educator Don Campbell had copyrighted the term "Mozart effect," which
was the title of his bestselling New-Age-style book and CDs advocating music
as a spiritual as well as intellectual booster.
Although Shaw distanced himself from the commercial crazes launched by his work,
he continued to foster research that would lead to education reforms.
One of the dozens of studies he helped conduct over recent years used magnetic
resonance imaging to show that Mozart was better than Beethoven in lighting up
the cortex. But why Mozart stimulated the brain more than music by other composers
continued to stump him.
Shaw is survived by his wife, Lorna; three children, Bruce, Karen and Robin;
and a brother, Arthur.
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