A New York Times Fluff Piece

In the Sunday edition of the New York Times’ Arts & Leisure section, Matthew Gurewitsch wrote and unbelievably horrible pseudo-science article on music psychology called Concerto In the Key Of Rx Retardation.  Now the principal issue with this article is that it takes simple properties of music (and one misguided music producer) and blows the science behind it out of proportion.  This is one of the worst things the media can do to science, as it misinforms the public by either taking things out of context or blowing a simple conclusion out of proportion.  The sad thing is that the writer begins the article by referencing one of the biggest musico-media-malpractices of occur in my memory, The Mozart Effect.

To start the deconstruction of this article here is Mr. Gurewitsch’s opening:

REMEMBER the Mozart Effect? As propounded by the news media, the message was that listening to Mozart made children smarter. The science was full of holes, but the notion appealed, and a growing body of research has since suggested that music, classical music in particular, is somehow good for us.

Mr. Gurewitsch begins this article by just being plain wrong about how the “Mozart Effect” science was full of holes. (Truth be told, it is exactly as he says, though, as the media indeed “propounded” their own fictional garbage to the public about what the mozart effect was.  The sad thing is, that judging that he should have learned better caution based on the past miserable pop-articles written, that he wouldn’t do the same thing with this article.  He failed.)  The original paper that eventually set off the Mozart effect was quite specific in the effects it produced.  Among college students that listened to Mozart Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major K448, there was a temporary and small boost to the students temporal-spatial reasoning.  The science was very specific in the conditions that begot the 15 minute boost.  The assumed high level of reading comprehension that scientists have did not stop a lot of misreadings/poor replications of  the experiment.  This eventually led to a heated debate a heated debate that hasn’t stopped.  This seems to be the exact opposite of what the media’s self designated job is. They often like to hash things down to be as simple as possible for their readers, often messing the truth of the matter up.  This gives snake oil salesmen an opportunity to rip people off.

This hashing of science is exactly what is going on in the article.  Along with me and everybody’s mother, it would be hard to find someone who doesn’t know that music is a mood regulator (at least implicitly, because people feel when they listen).  This is essentially the product that they are selling at http://www.sanoson.at/.  A mood regulator without any of the wonderful aspects of music as art.  Instead, they’ve canned, “music of all kinds to tease out its ‘active ingredients,’ which are then blended and balanced into medicinal compounds.”  Hell, the article says what I said 2 sentences ago:

“they claim their methods have broad application in psychosomatic disorders, pain management and what Ms. Brandes calls ‘diseases of civilization’: anxiety, depression, insomnia and certain types of arrhythmia.”

There is nothing wrong with saying music can do this.  The mood regulating properties of music are well known and documented.  My quarrel is that this article is helping these scammers make money off of something that is by no means new.  I would venture that the mood regulating properties of real art music is far superior to their “patent pending” 55 DRM original compositions (Mea Culpa for not having the research to back this up).

Another quarrel I have with this article, is that part of it is made entirely of Ms. Brandes’ personal anecdotes on the powerful miracles of music along with the fact that no statistics are offered from the study she wrote.

“I broke Vertebrae 11 and 12, missing the spinal cord by a millimeter,” Ms. Brandes said. “The doctor said, ‘I can’t do much for you for a while, but you can sing if you like.’ ” The medical team expected to keep her immobilized for 10 to 14 weeks.

As it happened, Ms. Brandes was sharing her room with a Buddhist, whose friends came and chanted daily. After just two weeks in the hospital, an M.R.I. showed that her spine was completely healed. “Everyone said it was a miracle,” Ms. Brandes said. “They sent me home. It got me thinking.”


Three years later, even more decisive for the work that was to follow, Ms. Brandes spent three months at the bedside of her mother, who was in a coma with a rare blood cancer.

“I gave her a headset, and I played music for her,” Ms. Brandes said. “Because I knew her so well, I could tell from the subtlest changes in her hands and face what she liked and what she didn’t like. My mother was my first case study.”

Initially the dying woman responded best to the classical Spanish guitar music she had always enjoyed: Andrés Segovia, Narciso Yepes. But as her condition worsened, those old favorites seemed to distress her, and gentle Minimalism — “nothing complex,” Ms. Brandes said — proved more beneficial.

The funny thing about all this, is that as I go over to Ms. Brandes’ site and look under the studies tab, none of the links work, eventually ending up at 404’s or pages of conferences past, not actual content.  There is a two page paper under “regulation diagnostics & stress research” which makes no mention of the clinical trials the NYT article claims have occured.

It is disappointing when music, which is cared about so deeply, by so many, has it’s expectations raised to implicitly perform tasks that are beyond the actual scope of its powers.  I find it extremely sad when a full two pages in the New York Times is dedicated to shoddy alternative medicine when people in the music-therapy world are doing incredible work with Parkinson’s patients or autistic children. The editors at The NYT have been had.

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