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National Perspective | INNOVATION

Classical Music Is Key to Governor's Goal of Sharp Babies at Rest

January 22, 1998|EDITH STANLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — For soothing fussy infants, "Rock-A-Bye Baby" is a parental favorite. But Gov. Zell Miller would rather they use Bach.

Last week, he asked state legislators to approve $105,000 in his 1999 budget to buy every newborn in Georgia a tape or compact disc--explaining that early doses of classical music can increase an infant's native intelligence.

Immediately, Miller's phones lit up. Many taxpayers wanted to know how he could conceive of taking their money to fund such a project.

By week's end, Miller had the answer. So many offers of money and help poured in from the private sector--including major recording companies--that he no longer needed state money. "I can do this and not even involve any taxpayer money," he boasted.

Yoel Levi, the celebrated conductor of the Atlanta Symphony, will select the music. Miller admits he's not up to that task, not having heard classical music in the hills of northern Georgia where he grew up. Bluegrass was more popular there, and it wasn't until he was a junior in college that Miller began to appreciate classical masterpieces. A teacher gave him a season ticket to the Atlanta Symphony, with the understanding that after each performance, Miller would explain what he liked and didn't like.

"I've always had a huge interest in music," the governor said. "I wrote a book called 'They Heard Georgia Singing.' It is an encyclopedia of 300-plus artists, composers, songwriters and so forth who have come from Georgia."

But his interest in the effects of classical music on newborns began last year at a meeting of the Education Commission of the States. An article in Time magazine about infant brain development then intrigued him further.

The most fascinating information he came upon was contained in an academic journal article about work done by Gordon Shaw, physicist and neuroscientist at UC Irvine.

Shaw performed two studies: one on a group of college students, to see how Mozart influenced their spatial reasoning; the other on a group of 3-year-olds, to see how piano training affected their reasoning ability.

In an interview, Shaw said he knew of no controlled studies using infants. He said Miller's plan would offer the perfect opportunity for such a study, and he would like to see some of the parents do anecdotal reporting on their babies' responses to the music.

He says a lot will depend on how often the music is played and for how long.

Miller says the idea of sending a recording home with every baby hit him when his great-grandson was born last year. Miller was amazed at the packet of gifts the hospital provided: Disposable diapers, baby wipes, formula. He knew he'd found the perfect "distribution point" for his musical project.

Although he understands the positive effects of music, Miller knows to avoid crooning to his great-grandson.

"They say that babies even less than 6 months old can tell whether the music is harmonious or discordant," he said. "If I were to try to sing, I think the baby would find out that I was discordant."

Averil McDowell, 31, applauds the governor's plan. The McDowells expect their first child in August.

"I think it sounds lovely," she said. "I don't know if it will make a difference, but it is a nice gesture on the governor's part. It would probably be nice to have some soothing music during those first two weeks."

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