The Mozart Effect

Greetings, gentle reader.  In his prior post Dr. Cranky discussed the myth of the Natural and outlined why belief in such a fictitious character is dangerous to anyone who wants to achieve something in life.  Your esteemed medical misanthrope would now like to expand upon those thoughts and introduce you to the first of four maxims he believes are responsible for his own success.  The first maxim, and perhaps the most important, is something your earnest author likes to refer to as “The Mozart Effect.”

“Dr. Cranky,” you might say to yourself, “for once we’re on familiar ground.  Isn’t the Mozart Effect the idea that one can instill genius in a child by exposing him, in utero, to the music of that famous Austrian composer?  Are you saying the Cranky Mother sowed the seeds of your future achievements via prenatal harkening to the melodic complexities of a musical master?”  Of course not.  Life is not that simple.  Once more, dear reader, allow your diligent host to explain.

Most people believe they are familiar with Mozart’s life after watching the 1984 movie Amadeus.  This titular young prodigy, according to a court composer and devout catholic by the name of Antonio Salieri, had indeed received the divine spark of melodic genius.  Early on the the movie, Salieri is speaking to a priest about his impressions following an examination of some of Mozart’s manuscripts.  He relates his reaction when told they were first drafts and remarks, “Astounding.  It was actually beyond belief.  These were first, and only, drafts of music but they showed no corrections of any kind.  Not one.  He had simply written down music already finished in his head.  Page after page of it, as if he were just taking dictation.”

Later on it is revealed that Mozart had promised to write an opera for an impresario by the name of Emanuel Schikaneder.  The following exchange takes place:

Schikaneder:  Look, I asked you if we could start rehearsals next week and you said yes.

Mozart:  Well, we can.

Schikaneder (obviously irritated):  So let me see it. Where is it?

Mozart (pointing to his head):  Here. It’s all right here in my noodle. The rest is just scribbling. Scribbling and bibbling, bibbling and scribbling.

Scribbling and bibbling is so exhausting!

Ah yes, we have seen this before.  Complex ideas, in this case musical compositions, manifest themselves fully-formed via spontaneous generation in a young Natural’s fertile mind.  There’s no effort on his part, it just happens.  As Jean-Jacques Rousseau once said, “Don’t ask, young artist, ‘what is genius?’  Either you have it – then you feel it yourself, or you don’t – then you will never know it.”

And as Voltaire once said of Rousseau, "What a pretentious putz."

All that’s left for Mozart to do is the tedious task of setting pen to paper so he might share his creative inspirations with the world.  How unbecoming of his ethereal abilities.  But in this cinematic drama there is a twist.  Not only is the young Mozart touched by ecclesiastic brilliance, he is also profane!  In fact, the central premise of the movie centers around Salieri’s religious disillusion and his decision to seek vengeance against God for choosing such a crude, vulgar and immature urchin as His divine instrument of musical expression.

Hollywood's idea of a divine instrument of musical expression

But is this an accurate picture of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?  Did he effortlessly possess the gift of heavenly genius as portrayed above?  And how does this relate to “The Mozart Effect” your host has previously alluded to?  Quite simply, such stories make for good fiction but are far from accurate.  In fact, it is the irony surrounding the actual versus commonly perceived circumstances of this composer’s “gift” which has prompted Dr. Cranky to name his first maxim of success after him:

The Mozart Effect:  Hard Work Begets Brilliance

Consider, dear reader, the following:

1.  Mozart came from the family of an accomplished musical expert.  His father, Leopold, was a widely acclaimed musician, composer and educator.  He had written an influential text on the fundamental principles of violin playing and had attained the position of vice-kapellmeister (court composer) of Salzburg.  The only reason he had not attained the top post was because of all the time he spend touring Europe performing expositions with his son and daughter.  He is currently regarded as being centuries ahead of his time in his advocacy of musical instruction for young children.

2.  Leopold honed and perfected his teaching skills with Mozart’s sister, Nannerl, and began her musical education when she was just seven years old.  Under her father’s tutelage she became an accomplished pianist and violinist in her own right.

3.  It is documented that Mozart began his career sitting by his sister’s side, imitating her at the keyboard, when he was just three years old.  It was shortly after this that Leopold began to instruct his son intensively, literally from the time he was a toddler.

4.  Leopold’s interest in his son’s musical development was such that he soon decided to ignore his own official court duties and instruct his progeny full-time.  The young Mozart was expected to practice tirelessly and for many long hours.

Just your typical, everyday Salzburg family

Of course Dr. Cranky realizes there must have been some natural predispostion.  One could even argue that familial genetics played some sort of role.  However, it is your author’s contention that all the predilection in the world would have meant nothing had it not been for the practice, effort and just plain hard work young Wolfgang was expected to engage in.

You host has encountered many intelligent people in his travels.  It might be said that he has been fortunate enough to rub elbows with some who are truly brilliant.  It has also been Dr. Cranky’s observation that brilliance alone is not enough to carry the day.  Your faithful raconteur remembers an acquaintance he once met as a freshman in college.  It was said that this callow youth was quite exceptional and had been blessed with a sterling academic record and almost perfect SAT score.  Great things were expected of this young man.  And yet, by the end of the first semester he returned home in disgrace after having failed every course he had signed up for.  As it turned out, he lived to “party hard” and never attended class.  He honestly believed his superior intellect would allow him to prevail over the rest of us.

What does this mean for you, dear reader?  Quite simply, real life is a rat-race and if you have any ambition at all your competition will likely consist of some very big and incredibly smart rats.  More than a few of them will have an intellectual capacity that greatly exceeds your own.  This can be intimidating at first glance.  In fact, it is tempting for one to give up, step back, and consign himself to living as a second-tier drone on a cubicle farm somewhere in corporate America.  This does not have to be your fate.  The more you apply yourself, the more you will achieve.  How far you go in life is entirely up to you.  But what about those gigantic, intellectually-robust rodents who seem to have every advantage?

One way to think about competition can be found in Bryan Singer’s 1995 cinematic masterpiece The Usual Suspects.  A supposed grifter by the name of Verbal Kint explains the nature of criminal success to US Customs agent David Kujan:

 “There was a gang of Hungarians that wanted their own mob.  They realized that to be in power they didn’t need guns or money or even numbers.  You just needed the will to do what the other guy wouldn’t.”

Is Dr. Cranky suggesting that when faced with stiff competitors you should “kill their kids, kill their wives, kill their parents and their parents’ friends, burn down the houses they live in, the stores they work in and kill people that owe them money?”

And then like that, you'll be gone!

Of course not!   Your earnest scrivener works hard because he loves what he does, and for him the practice of medicine is its own reward.   He also realizes that most people don’t feel this way and are unwilling to exert themselves any more than they absolutely have to.  This is not a pejorative statement, it is simply human nature to take the path of least resistance.   Those big, smart rats most people are intimidated by tend to sit back and rely on the processing ability of their cerebral cortices just a wee bit too much.  Dr. Cranky suggests you take the hint from Verbal Kint:  So long as you’re willing work harder than your competition, you will have the edge in life.


About Dr. Cranky

Dr. Cranky is a residency-trained, board-certified emergency physician who has been fighting in the trenches of American medicine for far too long. Each day he tries to stay one step ahead of burnout. Despite his best efforts, burnout seems to be closing in fast.
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