Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Apologia pro Christian rock: Rock music and the brain (part 3)

In this third installment we will be looking at some of the experiments cited by Andrew Pudewa in his talk "The Profound Effect of Music on Life," in which he asserts that rock music is harmful to the human person due to the presence of syncopated rhythms, which he says have a negative effect on the human body. It is important to note that Pudewa, like Fr. Nortz and many who make these arguments, state that the problem with rock music is in the beat of the music itself; thus rock music is universally condemned, even if it is Christian rock music written for the purpose of praising God.

Overall, though Mr. Pudewa is not a scientist, his talk is much more scientific and reliable than the pseudo-science and unwarranted assumptions put forward by Fr. Basil Nortz, and overall Mr. Pudewa is very responsible and restrained in his statements. I also have to say that I have tremendous respect for Mr. Pudewa due to his work with getting kids to excel at writing and in the support he has given to the homeschooling movement. Be that as it may, I still think Mr. Pudewa's argument on the disordered nature of rock music fails in several important aspects. In this post, I will discuss the import of some tests done on rodents and their exposure to rock music, drawing on sources that Mr. Pudewa cites in his own presentation, as well as adding some from my own research. My purpose is to show that the arguments drawn from these experiments are inconclusive at best, false and fallacious at worst.

Pudewa cites seven different studies in his talk. Unfortunately, one of his "studies" cited is the Dorothy Retallack experiment, which we have seen from last time to be unscientific, unrepeated and contradicted by mainstream scientists and by average persons who have attempted to repeat the experiment. In my previous post, botanist Dr. Ross Koning told me that the wilting of the Retallack plants, judging from the pictures, was most likely due to insufficient watering or excessive heat; in any case, "the conclusions drawn are not justified by the quality of information gathered," said Dr. Koning. In my opinion, we can reject the Retallack experiment out of hand.

Next we have the Rauscher and Shaw experiment, in which we find that college students temporarily improved spatial-temporal IQ scores by 8-10 points after listening to Mozart, when compared with relaxation music and no music. This is followed up by a second Rauscher and Shaw experiment, in which we find that preschool children given six months of keyboard instruction increased spatial-temporal IQ scores by an average of 46% over other supplemental instruction (singing, computer, free play).

These experiments are fascinating, but in my opinion, do not help Pudewa's case in the larger sense. Pudewa himself says that these cases are only cited as evidence that music, and musical training, have an effect on the brain. He cites these experiments at the beginning of his talk to make the point that music affects the human body, which I don't think anybody has ever disagreed with.

The tests have no import on the question of rock music, however. In the first test, we see only that listening to Mozart can increase spatial-temporal IQ scores (compared to relaxation and no music). This proves only that Mozart is helpful to listen to, not that rock is positively damaging.

In the second case, that of children who increased IQ scores by learning keyboard, we learn only that the cognitive functions involved in learning a musical instrument are helpful in developing a child's overall mental capacity, which again, nobody ever doubted. Everybody knows that it is beneficial to learn an instrument, but it says nothing about rock music or rock beats.

This is not unlike the egg cooking story from Bob Larson cited by Fr. Nortz - even if the egg cooking story were true, it would only prove what everybody already knows: that standing close to extraordinarily loud noises is bad. These Rauscher and Shaw experiments only prove that classical music and the act of learning and instrument are helpful for a child's development, which is not in dispute. It would be as if we were to make the argument that slang English is bad and then go on to prove it by citing studies on how the study of foreign language improves IQ. It may be true, but it hasn't proved that slang is bad, only that study of foreign language is good.

But again, Pudewa knows this and uses these experiments only to demonstrate that music effects living things, so I won't go on and on about this. For his argument to really take hold, he needs to show an experiment that demonstrates positive IQ drops or reversals in humans who have been exposed to rock (i.e., that show that rock makes you "dumber").; he needs an experiment that measures people's temporal-spatial IQ before listening to rock, and then a corresponding measurement that shows an appreciable drop afterward. Does he produce any such experiments? If any such experiments existed, they would add incalculable weight to the thesis that rock music beats are intrinsically bad.

Unfortunately, Pudewa does not bring forward any such studies - instead he devolves to studies on non-human organisms. First, the Retallack plant experiment, which we have already seen does not hold water; second, he brings forward three studies done on rodents. The experiments are:

“Neural plasticity of mus musculus in response to disharmonic sound” (Gervasia Schreckenberg & Harvey H. Bird) Bulletin of the New Jersey Academy of Science, Volume 32, No. 2, pp. 77-86, Fall, 1987

“Improved maze learning through early music exposure in rats” (Rauscher, Robinson, Jens)
Neurological Research, Volume 20, No. 5, 1998

Music, Mice & Mazes: “The Classic/Rock Run” ( 1996, David Merrell, Virginia State Science Fair) Music, Mice & Mazes: “Changes Through the Ages” (1997, David Merrell, Nansemond River High School, Suffolk, VA) [Notice that this one is from a High School Science Fair]

Here are the basic results of the tests, as summarized on Pudewa's website:

Mice exposed to Strauss waltzes showed increased and orderly neuron development, while those exposed to “disharmonic” non-synchronized drum beats showed erratic and pathological growth of neurons.

Rats exposed to Mozart music from before birth to 60 days old were able to learn mazes over twice as fast as those with no music, whereas rats exposed to repetitive “minimalist” music were unable to navigate mazes at all.

Mice exposed for 3 weeks to Mozart were able to run mazes significantly faster than mice with no music, and mice exposed to other forms of music--70’s, 50’s, 90’s and “heavy metal” all performed worse than the control group.

I think these experiments merely confirm what we have already acknowledged - that classical music is the most mentally stimulating than less complex forms of music (and, in case you are wondering, it is the complexity inherent in classical music that makes it so stimulating to the brain. Theoretically, non-classical forms of music that featured similar types of complexity could be as stimulating). But does this prove that rock music is positively harmful, let alone Christian rock?

In my opinion, this is a very subtle bait and switch, because as irrational creatures, rodents do not have an IQ per se. What we can measure is behavior, not real intelligence. Since the Rauscher and Shaw studies dealt with IQ, by switching to the rodent experiments, the implication is made that we are still dealing with the same issue: classical music makes kids smarter, now let's see how rodents are effected by rock music - with the implication that the rodents are "dumber" because of it. But these rodent experiments are looking at behavior, not IQ.

Very well then, so it is behavior, but what accounts for the poor behavior of the heavy metal group of mice? I think it is another bait and switch, and I'll tell you why. In the Merrill experiment the rodents exposed to the heavy metal music did poorly - in fact, they actually killed each other - but this is irrelevant, because nobody is saying that heavy metal music is healthy. Nobody is talking about heavy metal music. I am defending Christian rock music, so I don't see how it is relevant to bring in secular heavy metal.

One other fact that is much more important - in these experiments, the mice were exposed for 10 hours per day to their respective musical styles for weeks. Who listens to music ten hours a day? Of course anybody might feel like killing someone if locked in a cage and forced to listen to heavy metal for ten hours straight, but even I might feel murderous after listening to anything for ten hours, even Pachebel's Canon, the 1812 Overture or Mozart's Turkish March. I recall when watching Morgan Spurlock's documentary Supersize Me, I thought, "Interesting, but nobody really eats only McDonalds for thirty days straight, so this loses some of its import." Similarly, nobody really listens to music of any sort in lab conditions for ten hours a day over sixty days; if any person did do that I think they would go insane. While these experiments are interesting, and do say something about how music affects the behavior of irrational animals, I think it is a leap to say that human beings are so Pavlovian as to be so adversely affected by something as rudimentary as rhythm, which is ultimately nothing more than the timing of two objects banging together. Are we really that delicate?

Interestingly enough, there is one study Pudewa cites where there was data collected on the effects of music on human moods. This was the McCraty experiment, “The effects of different types of music on mood, tension and mental clarity” (McCraty, Barrios-Choplin, Atkinson, Tomassino) Alternative Therapies, Volume 4, No. 1, January 1998. Here is a synopsis of the study from an extract found on the Alternative Therapies website archives:

A total of 144 subjects completed a psychological profile before and after listening for 15 minutes to four types of music (grunge rock, classical, New Age, and designer). With grunge rock music, significant increases were found in hostility, sadness, tension, and fatigue, and significant reductions were observed in caring, relaxation, mental clarity, and vigor. (source)

Aside from wondering how an observer can measure a "significant reduction" in something as immaterial as "caring", I immediately note that the results for classical music are not that much better; indeed, they are "inconclusive", according to the report. The report actually suggests that not classical, but "designer music" is best for "increasing positive feelings and decreasing negative feelings." In case you didn't know, designer music is music artificially designed to specifically produce certain emotions - think elevator music, various mood music CD's, selectively chosen Muzak compositions. According to the study, this music is best as producing positive feelings - and much of it contains syncopated rhythms. Now, if designer music has syncopated rhythms and ranked best, and "grunge", also including syncopated rhythms, ranked worst, could it be that something other than syncopation is to account for these discrepancies?

At this point you are probably thinking, "Boniface, you are grasping for straws here. You have just acknowledged that the study says that rock music significantly increases hostility and depression, as well as another one in which mice exposed to rock did significantly worse than other mice. Even if we can't say that rock music is equivalently harmful to human beings, surely these studies suggest that it is in some degree harmful?"

The only problem I have with that is there are other studies contradicting that supposition. In a 2003 study from Penn State (note, not a high school science fair), researchers Valerie Statton and Annette Zalonowski set out to study the effects of music on mood, but very quickly realized that many previous studies on the subject were defective. They say:

'We've been looking at music and behavior for quite a few years, and it finally struck us that most of the things we were doing, and most of the things that other people were doing, were within lab settings. There was really very little out there that looked at how people listened to music in their daily lives.' (source)

This was one of my beefs with all the mice experiments - people don't listen to music like that, in isolated lab settings. Music is something that people listen to while doing something else by and large, like driving, cooking, working, etc. The Penn State experiment thus sought to examine the effects of music on mood in the real world settings where music is actually listened to. So the researchers recruited 47 college students, including 25 music majors, and asked them to keep a diary for 14 days, noting the kinds of music they listened to. They were also asked to pick various moods from a list, showing their moods before, during and after listening to the music.

The results were very different from those of the lab experiments with mice or of the McCraty experiment. When done on humans, and in real environments, the Penn State experiment found that the type of music was less important in determining mood than whether or not the listeners really liked whatever they were listening to; i.e., if the students like jazz, jazz made them feel relaxed and peaceful; if they were fans of rock or country, these genres had similar effects. The style of music was irrelevant. One form of music did very well across the board, however: rock. Rock, the music of choice, made just about all the students "optimistic, joyful, friendly, relaxed and calm," according to the findings.

This study clearly contradicts the McCraty experiment and the mice experiments. Another fascinating experiment was done by Virgil Griffiths on band tastes and intelligence, measured by SAT scores. This experiment was more of a broad survey than a real experiment done according to scientific method; here's how Griffiths worked it out (from his website):
  1. Got colleagues to download, using Facebook, the ten most frequent "favorite music" at every college via that college's Network Statistics page on Facebook. These ten "favorite musics" are perhaps indicative of the overall intellectual milieu of that college.
  2. Download the average SAT/ACT score (from CollegeBoard) for students attending every college.
  3. Presto! We have a correlation between musical tastes and dumbitude (smartitude too)!

    Music <=> Colleges <=> Average SAT Scores
  4. Plot the average SAT of each "favorite music", discarding those with too few samples to have a reliable average.
Though not very scientific, Griffith's experiment has the import of a broad poll - the results are interesting. Below you will see the graph plotting Griffith's results. The X axis is the SAT scores, which get higher as you go to the right. The Y axis does not mean anything, but the colors of the bands denote musical style (a key is at the bottom). Notice the following as you scroll down (if you can read it because it's so small):

1) Beethoven is way out in front, which is not too surprising (I know you can't see it because I couldn't fit the whole graph in the post - you can see the full size chart here). But, the next highest after Beethoven is the Christian-inspired Indie Rocker Sufjan Stephens, whose alternative and Indie rock most definitely make use of syncopation and have even been described as "electronica" and "minimalist."

2) Note that at the bottom of the SATs, furthest left along the X axis, we have Lil Wayne, Ludicris, T.I. and Jay-Z, all in the rap/hip-hop category, associated with the urban African American culture.

3) Beethoven is far out in the lead, by far the most musical groups that come closest to him are not classical but rock: Counting Crows, Radiohead, Guster, Ben Folds, The Shins, Phish, Norah Jones, The Killers, Death Cab For Cutie, etc. These are all rock bands that are considered somewhat independent and would be listened to by the nerdy college intelligensia.

After looking at this chart, and noticing that (a) indie rock is at the front just behind Beethoven, and (b) rap is at the bottom, with (c) contemporary/classic rock in the middle, that perhaps this has more to do with culture, socio-economic status and one's peer groups than it does with what objectively makes you smarter or dumber?

To wrap up this necessarily long post, let me summarize my arguments:

While it is evident that classical music, due to its complexity, is the most stimulating to the brain, and that mental processes are even more stimulated by learning an instrument, it does not therefore follow that the results of the tests in which rock music is blared to rodents ten hours a day for three weeks straight (in the rigorous scientific atmosphere a high school science fair, mind you) are transferable to humans. When similar experiments are carried out in real-life situations, with music being listened to casually as people really do, we find that the music that makes people the most optimistic is whatever style they happen to like the most. Furthermore, what style a person finds aesthetically pleasing has a lot to do with socio-economic status, culture and what peer group one identifies with. Therefore, those arguments which claim on the basis of the rodent studies to make any claim that rock music (Christian or otherwise) is always a positive evil irresponsibly oversimplify the case.

I'm sorry to my normal readers if you find this topic horribly boring, but it is something I've been dealing with for a long time and I do think that somebody needs to try to clear it up. Next time I come back to this I am going to talk about syncopation itself and why the argument that syncopated rhythms in rock music are disordered or dangerous is fallacious and errant.


Andrea said...

More than anything Christian rock music is nonsensical and a contradiction more than it is an evil. If one plans on praising God in song, I would say that something like the Gregorian chant would tend to push us humans to a higher reverence and bring us closer to God, due to the higher spiritual value in such music. On the other hand, Christian rock seems to try and bring God down to our level of passing musical fads. Rock music is frequently very dumbed down in terms of lyrics and musical complexity. God is the highest form of intelligence and complexity. Rock music is a watered down musical style from the mixtures of many other musical styles. God is something pure. Rock music really does not allow for much spiritual reflection as the background beats are distracting. With time, all things human seem to degrade: our bodies, our societies, our literature, our music, etc.
In any case, the value of Christian rock music is more based upon common sense than scientific studies.

Boniface said...


I would agree with you if we were talking about liturgical or sacred music. But to say that ALL music must be sacred music denies that there is a legitimate place for secular (in this sense meaning only not liturgical/sacred) music.

If our society was thoroughly Christian, all our folk and secular music would also be Christian-themed (think old time bluegrass, African American spirituals, etc) because our culture would be formed by the religion. Since our culture is divorced from religion, those elements of our culture which still seek to give glory to God even in the secular things they do (art, music) end up becoming their own clique ("Christian musicians"). There is a legitimate place for men and women to use their creative abilities to praise God; obviously Chant is more suited to the liturgy, but that doesn't mean it's the most suited for every situation in life (like sitting around a campfire drinking a beer).

As a musician who plays guitar and piano, I want to use my music to praise God. What would I write about if I couldn't write about God for fear of "bringing Him down?" Would I write about purely human things? If so, how would that be any better? I used to write music about human things, relationships, etc. but then I realized that Jesus Christ was really the only thing worth singing about.

Remember, too, that in the absolute sense, even Gregorian Chant "brings God down" to our level, since it is a far cry short of the blessed music sang by the seraphim before the throne; and even that fails to capture God's true majesty.

Andrea said...

If you include God, it is obviously sacred music. You had mentioned Christian rock music, and that is what my response dealt with...

As we evolve spiritually, our secular tastes tend to change and hopefully we begin to separate ourselves from the secular. If we are concerned about our spiritual lives, and ideally we should have such in mind at all times, it is much more beneficial for our souls to spend ones free time listening to music that elevates the human mind. Classical is secular, but it allows humans a greater freedom in that there are no lyrics to tell someone how to think, how to feel, what to do... Thus, in my mind it would be superior to most secular music with lyrics. There is a rating system I suppose of how spiritually valuable a certain style of music is... As we Catholics are always reaching for the ideal, it is only natural that we should strive to be very selective with what we allow to enter our ears and minds.

I still can't bring myself to listen to modern Christian music for pleasure. It tends to leave a Protestant taste in my mouth as it is mostly of an emotional, superficial, touchy sort, and you can't run religion on emotion. If God is the subject, I'd rather go straight to the Gregorian or traditional hymns.

But since of course I'm only human and a work in progress, I enjoy plenty of music unrelated to God. But at least I have become more selective now a days in terms of the lyrics and sound.

I think by playing guitar and piano, you praise God in using these instruments to the best of your ability in terms of skill. There is a proper way to include God in music, and I'm not too keen on modernizing Him through styles of music. Musical styles represent the culture and the state of a society.

Music has degraded with time, and we shouldn't drag God through with it, as He is constant and unchangeable and the music involving God as the topic should be the highest form humanly possible.

Anonymous said...

Bonifice I wish you would stop defending or making a case for Christian rock. There is nothing Christian in a music that even though it has Christian lyrics in it, it is copied from music that it has and is used to blaspheme, to cause noise and scandal, mass hysteria, drug induce orgies and filthy sexual gestures, and swearing and cursing and promoting sex, even animals are abuse in rock concerts among many other horrible and evil and simply sinful things.

I enjoy some of the pop music, I am not a puritan, but I notice that as I grow older I have broken many CD's that contained music that don't bring me spiritual peace.

I respect everyone choice of music no matter how much I disagree with their taste of music, but I don't think that justifying or using your blog to write an Apologia pro Christian Rock it is very helpful for the state of apostasy the Catholic world is going through, or the world in general for that matter.

Many young kids and older adults get caught up in the music, the rythem, the lyrics and so on, but the reality and truth be told Rock and Roll or the so called Christian rock it is an imitation of the music that leads people specially kids to dangerous waters not to say blasphemy, and sacrilege since this Christian rock, it's use in some Youth Conferences and even during the Youth Masses this Christian or Catholic Youth conferences offer.

PS:I understood that in the middle ages rock and roll meant to cause scandal or chaos and have sex.
Not a good message.

Boniface said...


I understand your point, but the Church defines sacred music as that music which is used in the liturgy.

We have to remember to the issue of fittingness - Gregorian Chant is the most fitting for the liturgy, but it is not fitting for all occasions. There are some occasions that call for something more informal - but just because something is informal does not mean it is dragging God down.


I will deal with many of those points later, but I think they are largely irrelevant. The debauchery that goes on at secular rock concerts does not translate to the recreational listening to of Christian rock. Besides, those things aren't even true universally, nor are they induced by the music - if they were induced by the music itself, we should expect the same behavior at a concert by Michael W. Smith or Stephen Curtis Chapman. The fact that we don't demonstrates that it is not the music itself which leads to the behavior you describe but something different...

Anonymous said...

Boniface in response to my comment on why you should not have a apologia to rock or christians rock, have it your way.

But I disagree with your commment on "it's not the music but it's cause by something else"
Give me a break! a big one please.

You're in denial because you like rock and christian rock I have done enough study on the so called rock roll and to me that something else it's the devil's influence in the creators of that music.

Now let agree you don't have to agree with me but I got some of the info from some sites on rock and roll being under the influence of satan.

"The Rock 'N' Roll industry is infamous for worshipping Pan, who is the very embodiment of Rock music. Pan represents Satan, which is what the ever-so-popular Satanic hand sign shows, allegiance to the Devil."

"There is a definite spirit invoked in rock music, secular or Christian — and it's NOT the Holy Spirit! And many times, people involved in rock music get "caught up in this unholy spirit"!"

During a 1993 Oprah Winfrey interview, Michael Jackson, explained the reason for some of his filthy sexual gestures during his concerts:

"It happens subliminally. IT'S THE MUSIC THAT COMPELS ME TO DO IT. You don't think about it, it just happens. I'M SLAVE TO THE RHYTHM."

“I felt like a hollow temple filled with many spirits, each one passing through me, each inhabiting me for a little time and then leaving to be replaced by another” (John Lennon, People, Aug. 22, 1988, p. 70)."

"Rock music is sex. The beat matches the body rhythms." (Frank Zappa, superstar of 'Mothers of Invention' fame.)"

""Rock 'n' roll is 99% sex." (John Oates)"

""I'm in rock music for the sex and narcotics." (Glenn Frey of 'The Eagles')"

"" meditate and you got the candles, you got the incense and you've been chanting, and all of a sudden you hear this voice: 'Write this down'" (Carlos Santana, Rolling Stone magazine, March 16, 2000, p. 41)"

""Rock concerts are the churches of today." (Guitarist Craig Chaquico of the group 'Jefferson Starship.')"

" Believe it or not! Here's Amy Grant, on the Michael W. Smith, In Concert (Reunion Records, 1985) video tape flashing the El Diablo "satanic salute." Amy flashes the "satanic salute" at least two separate times on the video, displaying it for several seconds."There is a definite spirit invoked in Rock music, secular or Christian — and it's NOT the Holy Spirit! And many times, people involved in Rock music get caught up in its unholy spirit!"

Boniface have it your way.
I still think your apologia on Christian rock is wrong.

Boniface said...


Quoting Zappa on the meaning of rock music is like asking Hitler's opinion on politics. Who made Zappa (or any of these guys) spokespeople for a style of music? I'm sure there are just as many musicians, especially Christian ones, who would disagree.

The stuff about Grant and Michael W Smith making the El Diablo salute is silly - are you saying the are devil worshipers? If so, better watch out, because here's one of Pope Benedict doing it too!

Anonymous said...

Let me respond and correct you I didn't say:
"The stuff about Grant and Michael W Smith making the El Diablo salute is silly - are you saying the are devil worshipers? If so, better watch out, because here's one of Pope Benedict doing it too!"

I got it from a website.

Don't get so defensive!

Like I say, have it your way.