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Mindfulness and Music: Fact-Checking the Field

By Steven Halpern

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With the presidential primary in full swing now, I find the Fact Checking websites and program segments some of the most valuable. 
 
Over the years, I’ve provided quite a bit of truth telling with respect to the sound healing and New Age music field.
 
One of my favorite principles is, “You’re allowed to have your own opinions. You’re not allowed to make up your own facts.”
 
It’s amazing how often this principle is violated, sometimes out of ignorance, other times out of disingenuousness.
 
Disclaimer: I’ve been an active participant and leader in these fields since their onset in the 1970s. As Dr. Phil is fond of saying, “I have a dog in this fight.”
 
As you may know, I was chosen to write the introduction to the two definitive books on New Age Music, including The International Guide to New Age Music, published by Billboard Books, and authored by Henk Werkhoven.  Prior to that, I was honored to add an insider’s perspective to The New Age Music Guide by Patti Jean Birosik, a leading reviewer in the field.
 
My own book Sound Health, published in 1985 by Harper & Row, was the first book to focus on sound, health, music and healing, and introduce the concept to mainstream audiences and integrative health practitioners worldwide.
 
Most of what I have written and will continue to write relates to preserving the positive aspects of these fields, rather than undermine, politically or economically. I’m also passionate about not having fraudsters or rookies set listeners up for failure.
 
The Truth about “The Mozart Effect”
I wonder how many of you remember the initial news coverage of what became known as “The Mozart Effect” when it first splashed across newspaper headlines in 1993?  I read about it in USA Today at the Chicago O’Hare airport. The lead scientist, Dr. Gordon Shaw, made no claims, only that their initial ‘pilot study’ (which had no placebo control or double blind factors in the experimental design) was suggestive of a need for serious research.
 
Then in 1997, a book of the same name was published, with Don Campbell credited as the author. What casual readers of the book, or media coverage of the book, took away was that only Mozart’s music was capable of providing a wide range of benefits, including “making you smarter.”
 
Dr. Shaw was so personally and professionally upset that his research had been appropriated and exploited by Campbell (who made millions from the book and related recordings) that he launched a lawsuit to defend his own branding and professional standing. Dr. Shaw’s essential critique: “We never made the claim that “Mozart makes you smarter. That trivializes and distorts our work.”
 
Since I had spoken out publicly in 1993 about the manufacturing of a ‘fact’ based on unsubstantiated research, I was deposed by his lawyer.  I viewed the process as being analogous to planting a rumor, then acting as if it were true.  It was, in effect, a marvelous misuse of the ‘hundredth monkey’ phenomenon.
 
Alas, Dr. Shaw passed away before the lawsuit could proceed further. Many of the benefits proclaimed in the book have subsequently been proven false.
 
And I bet that you didn’t know that many college professors who bought into the ruse lost their tenure due to its shoddy scholarship.
 
Apparently, I was one of the few who asked what I felt was an obvious question: “Smarter than what?” and “Compared to what?”
 
According to one of the music therapists who looked into the matter, Mozart was compared to rap music. She quipped, “Maybe Mozart doesn’t make you smarter, but rap makes you dumber.”
 
The other obvious consideration that most everyone in the media never considered was: Which Mozart?  Which recording?
 
I really did have folks say to me during radio interviews and during workshops, “I used Mozart’s ‘Marriage of Figaro,’ and it sure didn’t make me any smarter.”
 
Well, that was not the composition that Dr. Shaw tested.  Yet people tried to use it. That’s like drinking coffee and trying to fall asleep.
 
(I’m also one of the very few who visited Dr. Shaw in his office and ‘laboratory’, but that’s another story.)
 
Mindful Music and (Un)Mindful Music
Mindfulness has been the cover story on TIME magazine and that helped millions of people become aware of the concept.
 
Mindfulness involves being present, tuning in to the present moment, rather than thinking about the past or future.  
 
Mindfulness has been described as ‘meditation without the dogma; or related rituals and philosophies of many spiritual traditions.
 
Being present, as in ‘Human being…rather than human doing.’
 
That’s always the state of mind I’m in when I’m composing and recording. I tune in to “the gap between thoughts,” as Deepak Chopra and Wayne Dyer described it, and listen to the space between the notes.
 
The over 100 albums that I’ve produced over the last 41 years help listeners tune in to their own experience of mindfulness. As I discovered during my research studies as a graduate student and thereafter, my music has a characteristic ability to orchestrate a virtually instant ‘relaxation response’ for most listeners.
 
Furthermore, brainwave biofeedback studies at the leading lab in the UK in 1977 demonstrated the music’s unique ability to balance both hemispheres of the brain.
 
Why is this so unusual?  Because most music is processed mostly by the more analytical left hemisphere, which creates hemispheric unbalance. 
 
The “Scalus Interruptus Syndrome” vs. Mindfulness
I discovered this effect simply by observing my own breathing, or rather, how I would often find myself breathing shallowly, or even holding my breath during certain musical passages.
 
I developed what turned out to be a highly effective demonstration that has helped my workshop participants, and now readers and video viewers prove it to themselves.
 
If you can imagine me singing a simple scale…observe what happens if I don’t sing the final note in the predictable sequence. Most people found themselves holding their breath, waiting for…that note.
 
It’s like waiting for the other shoe to drop. By the way, if you can’t imagine this, check out my video at  https://youtu.be/-Ml8KiWH_1E.
 
“Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma”
Mindfulness is a very simple concept. It’s why my latest album, which was recorded in a deep state of meditation, came with the title, MINDFUL PIANO
 
As I played each note, I was totally in the moment.
 
The feedback I get directly in presentations at various conferences is that it does the same for the vast majority of listeners.
 
So, imagine my chagrin when, shortly after I released the album and wrote about it in this column, several knock-off versions appeared on the market.
 
That wasn’t the worst of it. I bought and listened to all that I could find.
 
To my astonishment–and somewhat perverse delight–they were terrible! They were the exact opposite of mindfulness! 
 
The classical and original compositions they included were perfect examples of the non-mindful “scalus interruptus syndrome” in full force.
 
I wondered how many people were suckered in by this.  How many would be turned off from trying any other music for meditation, due to these shysters?
 
Then I found yet another scam:  “A Tribute to Steven Halpern” by Steven Snow.  Not one of his compositions was anything like mine.
 
And I should know; I am, after all, unquestionably, the world’s leading authority on the music of Steven Halpern.
 
I could hear both Ray Charles and Billy Preston singing in my head, “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma.”
 
My concern was relieved a bit when Amazon let me know I might also be interested in “A Tribute to Deepak Chopra” by the same Snow job.
 
It was such an obvious scam.  I don’t know if Deepak’s people got to Amazon before my reps did, but the album was pulled down shortly thereafter. If you see it showing up in your search, please let me know. 
 
Yours for mindfulness through music,
Steven Halpern
 
 
Read more at StevenHalpern.com, and watch his videos at YouTube.com/StevenHalpernMusic.