If you want music to sharpen your senses, boost your ability to focus and perhaps even improve your memory, you need to be a participant, not just a listener.
Five months after we are conceived, music begins to capture our attention and wire our brains for a lifetime of aural experience. At the other end of life, musical memories can be imprinted on the brain so indelibly that they can be retrieved, perfectly intact, from the depths of a mind ravaged by Alzheimer's disease.
In between, music can puncture stress, dissipate anger and comfort us in sadness.
As if all that weren't enough, for years parents have been seduced by even loftier promises from an industry hawking the recorded music of Mozart and other classical composers as a means to ensure brilliant babies.
But for all its beauty, power and capacity to move, researchers have concluded that music is little more than ear candy for the brain if it is consumed only passively. If you want music to sharpen your senses, boost your ability to focus and perhaps even improve your memory, the latest word from science is you'll need more than hype and a loaded iPod.
You gotta get in there and play. Or sing, bang or pluck.
"The Mozart effect? That's just crap," says Glenn Schellenberg, a psychologist at the University of Toronto who conducts research on the effect of music and musical instruction.
Even the author of the 1993 study that set off the commercial frenzy says her group's findings — from an experiment that had college students, not babies, listen to Mozart — were "grossly misapplied and over-exaggerated." Psychologist Frances Rauscher, along with the rest of the field studying music's effects on the brain, has long since moved on to explore the effect of active musical instruction on cognitive performance.
The upshot of their work is clear: Learning to make music changes the brain and boosts broad academic performance. Findings across the board suggest that, even for a kid who will not grow up to be a Wynton Marsalis or a Joshua Bell, spending money and time on music lessons and practice is a solid investment in mental fitness.