In presenting his $12.5 billion budget proposal for fiscal 1999 to the Georgia state legislature on January 13, 1998, Democratic Governor Zell Miller covered all of the expected basics, such as schools, roads, hospitals and the like. And then he got to an interesting and unexpected item: a request for $105,000 of taxpayer money to provide Classical music CDs to every child born in the state of Georgia. At this point, the governor hit “Play” on a tape recorder he had brought with him and he treated the gathered lawmakers to an excerpt from the “Ode to Joy” section of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. “Now don’t you feel smarter already?” asked Miller. “Smart enough to vote for this budget item, I hope.”
What Governor Miller was alluding to was something called “The Mozart effect”—a term coined by writer Don Campbell in his 1997 book, The Mozart Effect: Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the Mind, and Unlock the Creative Spirit. Campbell’s book helped popularize the notion that listening to classical music generally, and the music of Mozart particularly, could bring about an increase in certain cognitive abilities. The theory rested on extraordinarily slim scientific evidence concerning temporary and barely measurable performance increases on standardized tests of visual-spatial reasoning capabilities among adults. But when jumbled around and distilled down to the idea that “Mozart makes babies smarter,” it made irresistibly great copy. It also made one woman very rich. The putative Mozart effect inspired Julie Aigner-Clark to market a cheaply produced videotape of spinning toys and public-domain classical recordings under the name Baby Mozart.
In the years since 1997, academic researchers have cast grave doubt on any claims of a measurable “Mozart effect.” Researchers at the University of Washington even reported observing a decrease in performance on standard language-development tests among infants exposed to “educational” video products like those produced by Aigner-Clark’s Baby Einstein company, now owned by the Walt Disney Corporation. Which makes the comments of one vocal skeptic of Zell Miller’s 1997 proposal sound all the more reasonable in retrospect: “I asked about the possibility of some Charlie Daniels or something like that,” Representative Homer M. (Buddy) DeLoach told the New York Times, “but they said they thought the classical music has a greater positive impact. Mr. DeLoach added, “I guess I’ll just have to take their word for that.”
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