Review of "The Mozart Effect"

By Don Campbell
Avon, 1997
Review by Anne Philbrow on Mar 26th 2002
The Mozart Effect

The basic message of this book is that music is a Good Thing, or as Don Campbell more poetically puts it:  'Music helps plants grow, drives our neighbors to distraction, lulls children to sleep and marches men to war.'  He also describes it fittingly as 'the speech of angels and atoms'.

He is preaching to an already converted reader in my case.  Having spent many hours playing the piano during a lengthy period of reactive depression, I am well convinced of the therapeutic aspects of music. 

Unfortunately, the importance of music is not universally understood as vital for one's mental (and indeed, physical) well-being.  It is often relegated to the 'hobby' category; amusing, but not significant.  Here in the UK, many schools fail to recognize it as a serious subject, where it is regarded as an 'extra', a frippery.  Not a serious core subject alongside English, Math or a science.

Campbell illustrates his thesis with wide ranging documentation of examples where music has apparently helped to heal people on a physical and mental level, raise their IQ and emotional well-being. 

His illustrations run from scientific evidence through to anecdotal.  Mostly he cites experiments that have been academically written up both in mainstream medical journals and alternative therapy literature.  All sources are given.

Some of the stories – and that is what much of it is, stories about how music has dramatically changed someone's life – are less rigorous, especially where music is used in conjunction with other therapies.  There is also a New Age feel to some of the writing, which is not to my taste.

It is difficult to know where to start with this book, as its good qualities are also its deficiencies, being a vast collection of observations and anecdotes.  It is almost like reading a mini-encyclopedia. 

Campbell sets the scene by describing the physiological effects of sound, and distinguishes between hearing and listening.  The alarming effects of sound pollution are well documented.  For example, (pp 36/7) 'A study at a public elementary school found that, in the course of four years, students whose class faced the elevated subway were eleven months behind students not directly exposed to the noise of passing trains.  When the students were moved, their achievement levels returned to normal.'

Common sense, really.  If we are busy filtering out or being distracted by excessive sound, we are inevitably going to find it difficult to concentrate.  Yet such considerations are routinely ignored in schools and workplaces. 

A third of the 60 million Americans identified as having hearing loss, have lost it through exposure to loud sounds.  According to Dr Samuel Rosen, the average 60 year old in traditional African society hears as well, or better, than the average 25 year old North American. 

Campbell writes a lot about the work of the Tomatis Centre, Paris.  The French doctor, Alfred Tomatis has tested more than 100,000 clients in his listening centers for aural, psychological, learning and vocal disabilities.  In the early 1950's, Tomatis discovered that the fetus is capable of hearing while in the womb, despite the skepticism of his peers. 

Later he developed the idea of Sonic Birth.  He had been approached by a medical colleague who thought he could help a 12-year-old autistic child whom the colleague thought was 'psychologically not yet born.'  Tomatis simulated aural womb conditions by playing filtered high frequency sounds of the mother's voice which resulted in the boy instantly switching off the room light and getting physically very close to his mother in – according to Tomatis' interpretation – an effort to re-create the conditions within the womb.  Remarkably, 'It was the first time in ten years the boy had shown any signs of recognition for his mother, much less affection.'

Why 'The Mozart Effect'?  Tomatis has experimented and continues to experiment with many different musical forms, but has the best consistent results with Mozart's music.  Tomatis says 'Mozart is a very good mother...The powers of Mozart, especially the violin concertos, create the greatest healing effect on the human body'.  Campbell devotes a short section describing the circumstances of Mozart's life as a child prodigy, himself surrounded by music in utero, which Campbell feels partly explains why Mozart's music is particularly helpful in healing.

Campbell makes many fascinating observations on how music can affect every aspect of everyday life, through the physical effects of the vibrations to the emotional effects.  There is a lot of emphasis on healing.  In particular, Campbell describes and recommends toning (i.e., 'making sound with an elongated vowel for an extended period'), the practice of which dates back at least to the fourteenth century.  He describes people who have eased physical pain, eliminated migraines, lowered blood pressure and relieved insomnia through toning.  I tried toning through my last migraine, but got bored quickly and reached for the pills, so I can't attest to its effectiveness or otherwise. 

One of the endearing aspects of the book is that it is dotted with simple exercises and suggestions how you can use music to improve your own life, or just have fun with it.  For instance, you are shown how to sing a simple Gregorian chant, and at the other extreme, encouraged to make up your own rap.  I tried (and enjoyed) both.

This book is packed with fascinating insights on the psychology of music, and Campbell combines a readerly approach with solid research.  It is a joy to read a book by someone whose own love of music and desire to share it is apparent on every page.

A copy should be given to every hard-bitten educationalist who has a hand in concocting school curricula, politicians and planners.  Campbell describes a business executive who learnt shamanic drumming; perhaps it should be a staple of every business course, to remind students not to lose their souls in the cynical world of commerce.

Fundamentally, I do not think that appreciation and performance of music needs further justification.  It sings for itself.


©  2001 Anne Philbrow

Anne Philbrow writes of herself:

I am a self-employed video producer and teach music and drama on a part-time basis. I have a BA Hons in Philosophy from UCW, Aberystwyth, UK and have done postgraduate research in Moral and Social Philosophy, specializing in Animal Rights. In my spare time, I do some freelance writing (book and theater reviews, articles) and have contributed to Philosophy in Review. I am a user of mental health services.


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