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Gordon Shaw; his work led to 'Mozart effect' learning theory

LOS ANGELES -- Gordon Shaw, a physicist whose provocative research on classical music and the brain led -- to his dismay -- to a craze for what was popularly dubbed the ''Mozart effect," died of kidney cancer Tuesday at his Laguna Beach, Calif., home. He was 72.

Dr. Shaw, retired from the University of California, Irvine, was a specialist on particle physics who had studied under Nobel laureate Hans Bethe before he joined the UCI faculty in 1965. Within a decade, however, Dr. Shaw's focus began to shift from quarks and atoms to the effects of classical music on higher-level thinking.

After 20 years of inquiry, he and his collaborators revealed in 1993 the startling results of a study that showed a marked increase in college students' IQs after they listened to Mozart's richly patterned Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major.

Dr. Shaw's intriguing findings struck a chord with the public and spawned an industry eager to capitalize on what became known as the Mozart effect, the idea that certain kinds of music can make people smarter.

Parents signed up for prenatal music classes and snapped up classical CDs for toddlers. Policy-makers jumped on the bandwagon, too, with Florida lawmakers calling for state-funded child-care centers to play Beethoven daily and the state of Georgia working with recording companies to hand out classical CDs to new mothers in the hospital.

In 1998, Dr. Shaw cofounded the nonprofit Music Intelligence Neural Development Institute, or MIND, in Costa Mesa, Calif., which has developed a curriculum now in 67 elementary schools that uses piano keyboard training and a computer program designed to change the neural hardware needed for better math learning. He also published a book, ''Keeping Mozart in Mind."

A native of Atlantic City, N.J., Dr. Shaw earned a bachelor's degree from Case Institute of Technology (now Case Western Reserve University) in Cleveland in 1954 and a doctorate in theoretical physics from Cornell University in 1959. He taught at Stanford, Indiana University, and UC, San Diego, before becoming a founding member of the UCI faculty.

What sparked his turn away from physics was a paper on brain theory he read in 1973. He shifted his focus to research on the brain's capacity for spatial reasoning. He came to believe that the brain has an innate ability to perceive patterns and symmetries and to apply this knowledge in activities such as playing chess or the piano or solving math problems.

He enlisted the help of a graduate student, Xiaodan Leng, to devise a computer model of the brain. They developed a way to match musical notes to the patterns the model brain created when stimulated.

Playing back the notes brought a breakthrough.

''We got recognizable music," Dr. Shaw told the Vancouver Sun a few years ago. ''It wasn't Mozart, but it sounded like Western classical music. . . . It just switched the whole direction of the research."

He began to regard music as ''a window on the brain." If brain activity sounded like music, what would happen, he hypothesized, if they reversed the equation and used music to fire up the brain? Perhaps the Mozart composition primed the brain for higher-level work, he suggested.

With Frances Rauscher, a cellist and psychologist, he obtained a small grant to test his theory on preschool children. Rauscher devised a pilot study involving 3-year-olds. One group would receive piano instruction for six months while the other would learn to sing. It was a small study, involving only 10 children from two schools and no control group, but the results were encouraging. The group that received keyboard training showed a marked improvement in spatial-temporal reasoning.

The scientists mounted another quick experiment, this time with college students.

The students were divided into three groups, each of which was asked to perform a test that involved folding and cutting a sheet of paper into a snowflake shape. Then, one group listened to the first movement of the Mozart sonata, which was chosen for its complexity. Another group listened to a relaxation tape, while the third group was given silence. Afterward, each group was asked to perform the fold-and-cut task again.

The three dozen students in the Mozart group performed 62 percent better on the second try, compared to 14 percent and 11 percent for the other two groups. Use of standard intelligence tests showed that the Mozart listeners' IQ rose by up to 9 points.

The improvement, however, was temporary: Dr. Shaw and Rauscher found that the effects dissipated after 10 minutes. Nonetheless, the spike in scores was substantial enough to generate considerable media attention. The findings made front-page headlines, such as the one that ran in the Los Angeles Times in October 1993 that said, ''Study Finds That Mozart Music Makes You Smarter."

Such oversimplification distressed Dr. Shaw, who suggested that Mozart's music was more like a calisthenic for the brain than a magic pill.

''It is not that the Mozart will make you permanently smarter," he told The Times, ''[but] it may be a warm-up exercise for parts of the brain" that perform high levels of abstract thinking.

The media hype eventually stirred a backlash, with researchers at other institutions saying they could not replicate Dr. Shaw's results.

Dr. Shaw's work nonetheless excited parents, educators, and marketing experts. Almost immediately, music stores began reporting a run on recordings of the Mozart piece.

Although Dr. Shaw distanced himself from the commercial crazes launched by his work, he said he saw no harm in more people listening to classical music and continued to foster research that would lead to innovations in education.

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