A Tangent to the Perennial Reminder that Mozart Doesn't Make You Smarter
January 21, 2021 6:56 PM   Subscribe

You Don't Need Science to Tell You Why You Like a Song Musicologist Linda Shaver-Gleason points out that we can like music just because... This from a newsletter of WQXR, the NYC classical station, discussing the (lack of) scientific merit to the claim that Mozart makes you smarter. Mozart's birthday is coming up on January 27.
posted by geekP1ng (46 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
Just to mention Linda Shaver-Gleason passed away last year; I didn't know her myself but some of my musicology/theory Twitter peeps did, and she is missed.
posted by daisystomper at 7:48 PM on January 21 [3 favorites]


This article is a hot mess and really doesn't make any sense. I mean, it's nice that someone is saying you don't need an excuse to like the music you like, but I'm not sure they said that. I'm not even sure what they said, other than used the word "scientistic" a lot.

Which is odd coming from an article claiming to be founded in music theory, which is itself a very very limited sort of discourse which results from the 12-tone scale and various modes resulting from that, and entirely leaves out non-Western music development and its own intricacies.

So, it's a subjective subject being used to accuse another subject of not being scientific enough, and as posing as science when it actually isn't.

Which is... well....

I mean, I don't believe that classical music is better or whatever. I grew up playing it on multiple instruments both as an individual and in groups large and small. I understand it as a musical form, and have studied how it is constructed. Theme, development, restatement, blah blah blah.
But there's no numerical value that says this is BETTER than other musical forms. What matters is the effect it has on its audience.

A symphony or string quartet can be played as thrillingly as anything a rock or a blues band might render. The audience buy-in and the players' execution is what matters, not the type of music.

I'm not sure this article got there at all. But it was an interesting read, and got me into this rant, so thanks!
posted by hippybear at 8:38 PM on January 21 [2 favorites]


If you find science threatening to your personal metric for music appreciation, it's because **you don't have one.**

If you had read the article, you would have understood that it was completely the opposite of this. Assigning random value to arbitrary qualities in music to make claims about its "value" is bullshit. This article is well-written and well-considered by an actual musicologist who knew what she was talking about.
posted by daisystomper at 8:43 PM on January 21 [16 favorites]


Oh my god. I thought it was fart jokes that were supposed to make you smarter. I've been listening to fart jokes this whole time. A classic of the genre: The State S02E04, “High Brow / Low Brow”—at around 17:55 in what shows up for me as the second video in this list.
posted by XMLicious at 8:53 PM on January 21 [2 favorites]


So, it's a subjective subject being used to accuse another subject of not being scientific enough, and as posing as science when it actually isn't.

Musicology and music theory are undergoing a sea-change right now. This author almost certainly wouldn't be taking the perspective that musicology has the subjective authority (such as it might be) of hard science.

A generation or two ago, you probably would have found a lot of musicologists and theorists who latched on to the idea that traditional music theory validated the claim that Western classical music is superior, by dint of its complexity, rich tradition, adherence to rules that have been held as some sort of Platonic ideal.

This author was not that kind of musicologist, and the point of this article is that musicology/theory are kind of critical discourse, and pseudoscientific takes that pretend to explain the "genius" or subjective value of a lot of music are largely crap.
posted by daisystomper at 8:56 PM on January 21 [7 favorites]


Assigning random value to arbitrary qualities in music to make claims about its "value" is bullshit.

Not sure the values were random or the qualities arbitrary. The link in the article to Jolij's website is broken, but if the equation is correct, i'd guess Jolij regressed a bunch of variables that characterize a song against human rankings of the 'upliftingness' of a song, and the equation shows just the variables that had a significant influence.

i'm not really defending the approach - i don't think it was ever meant to be a serious piece of science - but there is value in trying to quantify how a person responds to stimuli. the fact that songs are highly complex stimuli makes doing so difficult and prone to oversimplification, which is liable to irk experts in the area.

perhaps there are some trained musicologists who are already attempting this kind of thing?
posted by logicpunk at 9:08 PM on January 21


perhaps there are some trained musicologists who are already attempting this kind of thing?

There are definitely music cognition scholars working on this kind of thing. However, I highly doubt those scholars are extrapolating from observed psycho-musicological responses to lists of "the most *** songs ever."

Why pick 150 bpm as the most "uplifting" tempo? Why assume that major triads are perceived as more uplifting than minor? Maybe the neuroscientist guy had some sort of collection of traits people generally find "uplifting" in music, but how did he get that data? What people did he poll to find general traits that were "uplifiting"? How did he define "uplifting" to them to get their responses? etc.

This article has something interesting to say about neoliberalism and the need to justify our preferences, and even our aesthetic experiences, with either proven market value or some sort of scientific-sounding justification for why those things are valuable. I think it's a factor behind the whole "music explainer" genre of YouTube video (brilliantly parodied here).
posted by daisystomper at 9:24 PM on January 21 [11 favorites]


My take on this idea is that music can actually do lots of different things, and the extent to which you value it depends on what you want it to do. Since we don't even agree on the purpose of music the idea of a "best" music is meaningless.
posted by anhedonic at 9:28 PM on January 21 [2 favorites]


I personally want music to "transport" me. I don't know what that means, really, but I know it when I feel it. The kind of music can be very varied.

Do people want music to do something else? I"d be curious to learn what.
posted by hippybear at 9:32 PM on January 21 [1 favorite]


perhaps there are some trained musicologists who are already attempting this kind of thing?

One of the more amusing findings in music psychology is that the more you listen to something, the more you like it, regardless of what it is. Kind of blows away the idea that music's value comes from its intrinsic structural properties.

Repeated Listening Increases the Liking for Music Regardless of Its Complexity: Implications for the Appreciation and Aesthetics of Music
posted by anhedonic at 9:35 PM on January 21 [16 favorites]


Music relies on the ability to predict what it does next as a part of its appeal. DJs use this sometimes for their benefit and sometimes to frustrate the audience and then release a reward. Classical music sometimes does this, rock music sometimes does this, but most of music survives on its ability to have the audience know what is coming next and to emotionally and mentally "participate" in "oh hey, here comes the next bit".

That emotional payoff is what makes music work, really. That payoff, and the frustration of it, is the foundation.

I'm welcome to argument, but I don't have much to offer other than that.

I've seen it from Beethoven to ancient chants to Chemical Brothers to Indigo Girls. It's about expectation and fulfillment and either resolution or frustration. Emotions get involved, it's remarkable.

Is there anything else that does this? I don't know. Remarkable.
posted by hippybear at 9:40 PM on January 21 [1 favorite]


One of the more amusing findings in music psychology is that the more you listen to something, the more you like it, regardless of what it is.

two counterarguments erupt to mind for me:

- Stairway to Heaven
- the entirety of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.

Loved them to the point of overexposure. Allergic reaction to both has been palpable for decades. Do I blame this on neoliberalism? If so, does the same apply to pumpkin pie which I haven't been able to abide since that time around age eight that I ate almost an entire pie. Got sick. It wasn't pleasant.

Triple damn you, neoliberalism.
posted by philip-random at 10:10 PM on January 21 [2 favorites]


Do people want music to do something else? I"d be curious to learn what.

That. Was a major point. Of this article.

People want music that makes them smarter or more productive. Or, more accurately, they want to justify their liking the music they already like with explanations for how it makes you smarter and more productive.

It used to be that music theory and musicology would reliably do the job of justifying why classical music by White male composers was superior and would make you smarter, or at least show that you were already an intellectually superior person. But with a new generation of theorists and musicologists who are actively interested in popular music, non-Western music, and music by people who aren't White, that stamp of authority isn't so reliably there anymore.

Thus the sketchy "scientistic" explanations linking specific kinds of music to specific emotional or cognitive effects. And, more perniciously, the recent vile pushback against music theory and musicology's broadening scope:
- Black scholar points out that traditional music theory is racist
- Very traditional music theory journal edited by White scholars reacts with a poorly edited and more blatantly racist special edition criticizing the Black scholar
- many many students and other music theory faculty sign a letter denouncing the shitty special edition and asking the university to investigate its editorial process
- professor that edits the traditional journal sues grad student for violating his 1st amendment rights and a million shitty right-wing blogs pick up the story

So now musicologists have to thread a needle between "how dare you say Beethoven might not be an eternal genius" and "music is just whatever you like, who even knows how it works" which also devalues the work of music scholars.
posted by daisystomper at 10:26 PM on January 21 [11 favorites]


This is yet more "I feel it so it must be true" bullshit.
I'm having a "did we read the same article" moment. The article is not criticizing science, but things that pretend to be science. Or, in the author's words,
The formula is not scientific but scientistic — having the appearance of science but treating scientific method like a cargo cult.
Personally, I found it to be an enjoyable brief excursion into some interesting topics! Thanks for posting it.
posted by inexorably_forward at 1:56 AM on January 22 [10 favorites]


All that California thrash punk I listened to growing up, did it make me smart? Did it fuck!
posted by chavenet at 2:40 AM on January 22 [3 favorites]


I really enjoyed this article- it made me think about all those other articles I've read trying to find a scientific formula to explain personal preferences. I'm sorry to hear that Linda Shaver-Gleason has passed away.

(There's a Metatalk that I'd urge everyone to read)
posted by daybeforetheday at 3:16 AM on January 22 [5 favorites]


Everybody in the court of the House of Habsburg were very stable geniuses.
posted by Chitownfats at 3:54 AM on January 22 [1 favorite]


Funny, Arts Journal just had a link to study released in August showing there is perhaps some meaningful link between music and reading and math achievement.

Study shows strong links between music and math, reading achievement.

The study itself
(which I haven't yet looked at in detail, so no claims about it from my end.)
posted by gusottertrout at 4:17 AM on January 22


Now that I've read the main linked article, I just want to add my appreciation for it having been posted as I think it is noting something of importance.
posted by gusottertrout at 4:58 AM on January 22


[One early, nasty comment removed. No one is obligated to comment in any given thread.]
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane (staff) at 5:01 AM on January 22 [5 favorites]


I rely on Rick Beato to tell me why I like a song. Even though I have no idea what he’s talking about most of the time, his enthusiasm is pretty contagious.
posted by TedW at 5:23 AM on January 22 [1 favorite]


Sadly, we no longer have copies of his predecessor’s pamphlet series, “What Maketh Thif Symphonie Great?”
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:20 AM on January 22 [5 favorites]


I'm listening to Desiderii Marginis right now, and though one could certainly describe it as "bleak" I bet it makes me feel better under many circumstances than Jolij's list.

Trying to measure or maximize the "utility" of music in this way is basically phrenology.
posted by Foosnark at 6:31 AM on January 22


And if you're new to the "Music Theory and White Supremacy" line of thinking, Adam Neely did a good 45 minute overview of it a few months back that covers the background behind the first of daisystomper's points, I think? It's related to the same sort of weird western-focused thinking this article is criticising that somehow, over hundreds of years of recorded music from the whole wide world, somehow the music created in this specific era by these specific western artists is the most a or b music ever, and here's "science" to prove it!

Bah. Hogwash. Like whatcha like.
posted by Kyol at 6:34 AM on January 22 [3 favorites]


>"how dare you say Beethoven might not be an eternal genius"
To this straw figure in the argument: isn't it Bach in Gödel, Escher, Bachman, Turner, Overdrive?
posted by k3ninho at 6:49 AM on January 22 [2 favorites]


Do people want music to do something else? I"d be curious to learn what.

That is an interesting question. I think that most people who seriously listen to music are seeking something like what you say - they want it to transport them - but I can think of several other common things that people want out of it: to create motivation and energy (like workout or housecleaning playlists, or to keep you going on a long drive), to foster social cohesion and to assert membership in a group (remember high school?), or simply to stave off boredom. Some listeners relate to it mostly intellectually (see the Youtube theory nerd channels). Then there is the music you don't choose. It can be used to try to soothe anxiety (my dentist has a lot of bossa nova on whatever service they pipe in), or to induce shoppers to stay in a store longer. Music has even been used to torture people, by the USA in fact.

Now, the idea of "transport" is very broad, and maybe some of the things I mentioned can be seen to come under the concept. In my defense, you ould probably get a Ph.D exploring this, and this is just stuff off the top of my head.
posted by thelonius at 7:10 AM on January 22 [4 favorites]


I live in a town that has (during normal years) large beethoven and shakespeare festivals and the type of people who attend them very often want to let you know how very erudite and cultured they are because of the fact they consume those types of art. It's exhausting.

Me? I'm gonna be hanging out in the kitchen dancing to Donna Summer and making bread with zero shame and no pretention that I'm being improved via my song selection.
posted by Ferreous at 7:15 AM on January 22 [3 favorites]


I am here to share with you a great show title from my local classical station radio.

It is thirty minutes of Johann Sebastian Bach at 12 PM every noon day.

And it is called ... Bach's lunch.
posted by NoThisIsPatrick at 8:05 AM on January 22 [6 favorites]


Confucius says: “If one should desire to know whether a kingdom is well governed, if its morals are good or bad, the quality of its music will furnish the answer.”
posted by No Robots at 8:12 AM on January 22 [1 favorite]


It's got a good beat and you can dance to it.
posted by SoberHighland at 8:26 AM on January 22 [1 favorite]


okay, so to be clearer than previously, here's my issue with this piece.

Much as I agree with its dismissal of those scientistic attempts to nail the why of how "... particular songs earned their warhorse status", I'm also inclined to reject the critique that this scientism it's all about "... making a case for music in a neoliberal society." Which is bluntly an ideological assertion that I don't buy. It's too reductive. It's on the way to something but it falls way short, ultimately as lazy (to me) as the scientism.

Music as I've known it and experienced is magnitudes bigger, weirder, stronger, wilder, more magical than any argument I've ever encountered. It exists to serve neither marketing nor ideology even as many continue to endeavour to try to force it into such molding. It's as simple and as complicated as negotiating various screening services and their attempts to pigeonhole my listening preferences. I mean, just because I listened to a bunch of Carol King last night doesn't mean I have some great love for female singer songwriters. No, I just like good f***ing music. Tonight it's going to be The Tubes, or maybe some of that King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard madness. Or maybe I'll finally haul out some of that old classical vinyl that my friend Allie dumped on me a while back.
posted by philip-random at 9:15 AM on January 22 [2 favorites]


I was ready to mock Jacob Jolij, the creator of the list, for trying to operationalize and quantify music in a hamfisted way. He took down the article Shaver-Gleason links to, so I did a bit of internet archive searching and came across this follow up to the list. Given the context, it's pretty obvious that Jolij doesn't think that what he's doing is real science and understands the limitations of his list. At the end of the story, I had to cook up a formula. My client had asked me to come up with a formula for PR-purposes: a formula can nicely explain the ‘main’ ingredients of a feel good song at a glance.
posted by Larry David Syndrome at 9:19 AM on January 22 [4 favorites]


Do people want music to do something else? I"d be curious to learn what.

Thelonius's answer to this was nice, but also I'd add that certain kinds of music has a subject matter that we might be in the mood to connect with.

Punk Rock, for example, is largely about your snide feelings about authority, society, and the man - you are not going to get that from Haydn. Even "the music itself" (if you want to strip away the verbal content, for some reason) is oriented around this purpose.

Also, some music is made by people who are quite different from you, and listening to their music creates a connection to the people who made it. Perhaps you are interested in these people.

Treating music like it's just abstract patterning of sounds, independent of words, ideas, places, people, and history is another arbitrary choice.
posted by anhedonic at 9:48 AM on January 22 [4 favorites]


“If one should desire to know whether a kingdom is well governed, if its morals are good or bad, the quality of its music will furnish the answer.”

I recall another Confucius quote: "Why use an axe to kill a chicken when a hatchet will do?"
(note: He was commenting on how contemporary music was getting too loud.)
posted by ovvl at 10:00 AM on January 22 [1 favorite]


Music as I've known it and experienced is magnitudes bigger, weirder, stronger, wilder, more magical than any argument I've ever encountered.

With all respect, this seems like a dangerously naive way of thinking about music. Beethoven's 9th Symphony is intended as a joyous celebration of human brotherhood, but that didn't stop Hitler from using it for propaganda. "YMCA" as we all know is an anthem celebrating gay culture, but that sure didn't stop Trump from appropriating it. Or "Fortunate Son", played without a shred of irony at his rallies.

I say this as a person who loves music and makes it and teaches it for a living: there is NO music so blessed and pure that it can't be misused for the very opposite of the purpose it was intended for.

And not every "what makes this music great?" fluffy pseudo-analysis is actively harmful; but the appropriation of classical music into a means to an end definitely is, whether that end is having a sterile icon of *White musical greatness*, or convincing people the Mozart effect is real, or undercutting the current generation of composers by insisting on programming "the classics," or dispersing "undesirable" people from public areas.

The response of "not MY music that I love! I'm immune to the algorithm" is frustrating to me because it puts all the burden of saving music from serving the status quo on music itself. And that will never work.

Given the context, it's pretty obvious that Jolij doesn't think that what he's doing is real science and understands the limitations of his list.


Why would someone pay for this list then? It doesn't matter what his intentions were. It matters what the people with money hoped to get out of this bit of PR.
posted by daisystomper at 10:56 AM on January 22 [3 favorites]


contemporary music was getting too loud.

I supposed that scientism can only evaluate music in terms of decibels. That and "too many notes."
posted by No Robots at 10:59 AM on January 22 [1 favorite]


I've seen some interesting sciencey analysis of music done that seems more reasonable, like this Vox video on Why we really really really like repetition in music.

However, I'm neither a scientist nor a music theorist, so take my assessment for what it's worth.
posted by Lexica at 1:04 PM on January 22


Whatever. I’m still telling children that the secret to getting smarter is more Wu-Tang Clan.
posted by thivaia at 1:51 PM on January 22 [1 favorite]


Is there some reason people need to show up in this thread just to mention their own musical faves and be flippant about the article and topic?

People not taking music seriously is part of the problem. When you dismiss an art form as mere entertainment, you're opening the door to uncritical acceptance of how people exploit it in shitty ways.

Sorry to be no fun about this, but this is kind of a fraught time in musicology/theory.
posted by daisystomper at 2:45 PM on January 22 [3 favorites]


Study shows strong links between music and math, reading achievement.

gusottertrout, I'm inclined to think there is a real cognitive advantage in learning to play, sing, or read music; it's certainly a field of study that uses the whole brain. This study seems too small to be really conclusive, but it's something music educators have said for a long time now.

But that's very different from claiming that listening to or liking one particular musical genre makes you superior in some way.

And also the attitude "let's teach music so students are better at reading/math" is a little repugnant to me, because it doesn't value music for its own sake. It's shoehorning the "A" into STEM to make STEAM, etc.
posted by daisystomper at 3:28 PM on January 22 [4 favorites]


As a general comment, my understanding of current research is that it's the act of music-making that has cognitive/other additional value, rather than the particular music being made (much like the value of reading as an act in cognitive development being more important than the material being read). [on preview: ditto daisystomper]

Specific to this thread, I agree very much that people not taking music seriously is part of the problem. I have been dumbfounded nearly all my life that people can be so flippant about a collaborative creative practice that is woven throughout our lives and cultures--and has been for all of human history.

daisystomper, I'm keenly interested in the progressive and innovative directions that musicology/theory are moving, especially w/r/t anti-racist curricula creation. Do you have any specific reading or follow or etc. recommendations? (Happy to follow up via memail, too)
posted by LooseFilter at 3:32 PM on January 22 [1 favorite]


Do you have any specific reading or follow or etc. recommendations?

LooseFilter: I definitely want to recommend some resources, but I also want to think carefully and find some good ones...I'll follow up soon.
posted by daisystomper at 5:58 PM on January 22


gusottertrout, I'm inclined to think there is a real cognitive advantage in learning to play, sing, or read music; it's certainly a field of study that uses the whole brain. This study seems too small to be really conclusive, but it's something music educators have said for a long time now.

But that's very different from claiming that listening to or liking one particular musical genre makes you superior in some way.


I agree completely with your concluding statement there. Just found the coincidental posting of the this thread with the Arts Journal one interesting.

I'm a bit more ambivalent about the talking about music as anything other than music, not because I disagree with main arguments in the article or your mention of not valuing music for its own sake, but because the way the discussions are framed often tends to lead to what I think is over-correction, where it becomes there is no difference or importance at all to music beyond what I like. Music is music, it's all the same and only my reaction to it matters. Which, as you spoke to above, also carries a large weight of bias with it in a number of forms.

How music and other arts are discussed, I think, is of great importance, as LooseFilter and I discussed a bit in a another thread not long ago, so I won't go into it here other than say how that is best addressed is debatable, but that it need be taken seriously is less so. I'll also second LooseFilter's request for any links you find, as I'm also very interested.
posted by gusottertrout at 6:28 PM on January 22


contemporary music was getting too loud.

UH, not much left after 11 (thank you Spinal Tap!)
posted by geekP1ng at 6:29 PM on January 22


philip-random: That reference to neoliberalism jumped out at me as well, I think it was an attempt to speak to the perceived need for utility. That does relate to discussions about "welfare to work", meritocracy, etc.

Some thought-provoking discussion on meritocracy in Michael Sandel's recent book "The Tyranny of Merit".

Which brings up "They Tyranny of Words" by Stuart Chase, I suppose Sandel's book is titled after Chase? Chase speaks as a layman discovering semantics and declares that (in political discourse) no-one agrees about the meaning of such terms as "socialism." Ironic that the same could be said about meritocracy and neoliberalism. (Full disclosure, I did yard work for Chase as a teen.)
posted by geekP1ng at 6:50 PM on January 22 [1 favorite]


So here's a few resources for those who are interested. Frankly, the musicologists are out ahead of the theorists on developing an antiracist music curriculum (not suprising really).

Dr. Robin James has an excellent reading list on race and music here. That looks to be an excellent starting point.

Here's an article on general strategies for decolonizing music theory education; it's definitely more targeted toward music teachers than a lay audience.

Nate Holder has a blog on music education and race which I haven't read much, but it looks like there's a lot of good content there.

I'll post more as I find them. As I said, it's a fraught (but exciting?) time in music theory/musicology; on the one hand, people are really taking the possibility of change seriously, and on the other hand we're getting shitty music theory bad takes from Ben Shapiro. What a time to be alive.
posted by daisystomper at 9:42 AM on January 23 [6 favorites]


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