Mozart & Microbes

Trey Reely | June July 2012

   The music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has been credited with everything from increasing the intelligence of unborn babies to boosting the milk yield of cows. Now the head of a German sewage plant has introduced the idea of playing Mozart’s music on top-of-the-line stereos to stimulate the activity of microbes that break down waste – and it appears to be working. Early reports seem to indicate that the microbes greatly increased their speed and efficiency, saving the plants thousands of dollars a year.
   Anton Stucki, Swiss-born chief operator of the sewage plant in Treuenbrietzen, located an hour south-west of Berlin, believes the secret is in the vibrations of the music. He believes the music creates a certain resonance that stimulates the microbes and helps them to work better. So far Stucki’s preferred composition is The Magic Flute. “We’re keen to try others as well to see what effect they have,” he said.
   I’ve long been aware of the sundry claims about the effects of Mozart’s music, but I have to admit with a bit of embarrassment that I have never tried to see if his mellifluous strains could really improve my quality of life. I decided to pose some questions about the effects of Mozart’s music and recorded my findings. The results are anecdotal, of course, but you are welcome to try the experiments yourself.

Will Mozart calm a hyperactive dog?
   Some studies show that classical music soothes and calms dogs, but I have strong doubts that it will it work on Bella, our black cocker spaniel. On any given day, let her back into the house from the yard and she runs around like a wild banshee. When my wife and I got her three years ago, I pictured quiet evenings in front of the television, with her head gently lying across my knee as I petted her. The startling reality: she squirms around so uncontrollably that after just a few minutes I have to put her on the floor. Would Mozart be able to soothe this kinetic canine?
   This experiment involved two phases. First, I decided to play some live Mozart for her on my euphonium. Unfortunately, I had hardly even gotten out an “eine kleine” before she tilted her head curiously and then emitted what would best described as a primal scream. After the failed live performance, I played a recording of the Andante (second) movement of Eine kleine Nachtmusik. The music did seem to calm her some, but after about 30 seconds she began to squirm wildly again, displaying very poor concert etiquette.
Conclusion: Mozart may calm some dogs but not ours, particularly if it’s played on the euphonium. I guess we’ll have to wait till she’s so old she can’t run around.

Will Mozart make the cat litter box smell better?
   In our bathroom my wife and I have one of those fancy-schmancy electronic litter boxes for our cat. Although it has the advantage of being self-cleaning, we sadly discovered that when it does its work, the machine emits enough odor to peel wallpaper. We have found that lighting a candle can off-set the smell but it’s getting expensive; the Yankee Candle company made a third-quarter profit just based on sales to us. Could Mozart help us win this olfactory battle?
   To run the experiment I placed a stereo on top of the contraption and once the thing started up, I cranked up Mozart’s Concerto for Flute, Harp and Orchestra in C major, K299. I left and after 20 minutes I returned to find a fragrance not too unlike a landfill; I was surprised the CD had not melted.
Conclusion: Mozart is no match for the electronic litter box. If there were any microbes in there they were deaf. Yankee candle sales are safe.

Will Mozart make me smarter and help me raise my score on the iPhone game Words with Friends?
   Research seems to indicate that Mozart does not raise IQ, but this one was worth a try. I have one main rival in Words with Friends who shall remain nameless. I suspect he uses an app for unscrambling words; either that or he has memorized the Oxford English dictionary. He is so difficult to beat that I need all the help I can get without resorting to a cheater app. Maybe Mozart is just what I need for an edge. It’s certainly not cheating; I’m just trying to stimulate what’s already up there. The problem with this experiment is that Words with Friends is typically played over a period of several days, and I cannot listen to Mozart 24/7. So what I decided to do was listen to Mozart while playing a shorter portion of a game.
Conclusion: The results here are inconclusive. However, the music did have an almost cleansing effect on mind, leaving it free to concentrate in a more relaxed way. At last check I was ahead by 70 points, having just played the word “jaunty,” a word that could be used to describe many of Mozart’s compositions. Coincidence?

Will Mozart improve my one-mile time when running?
   This component of my research involved two phases. Running a mile with no music and then running a mile to the Canadian Brass version of “Rondo alla Turca” three days later. With no music I ran the mile in 9 minutes, 34 seconds. With the addition of the Rondo all turca my time improved to 9 minutes, 23 seconds.
Conclusion: There’s no denying that I ran better the second time. I think the key was the fast tempo and the psychological distraction. Without music, my main thought process was “How much longer? How much longer? How much longer?” With the music, my thought process was more like “The Canadian Brass has a nice sound.”; “How much longer?”; “What great technique!”; “How much longer?” I admit the thought processes were very similar but just different enough to help me forget how tired I was for part of the time. Still, Mozart did not help me improve my time enough to get me onto the podium at the Senior Olympics; my only chance to get on a podium is still when conducting my band.

Will Mozart make me stronger?
   Using an infomercial item called The Perfect Push-up (developed by a former Navy Seal no less), I tried push-ups with no music and managed 21 push-ups. (Before you laugh, they’re harder to do than regular push-ups; that being said, I am out of shape.) Two days later after proper rest I put on the “Rondo alla Turca” and recorded 25 push-ups.
Conclusion: Without music, my main thought was thinking entirely about the task at hand and how tired I was getting. Like in the running experiment, the faster tempo and distractive properties of the music made for more push-ups.

Will Mozart calm my nerves while watching the Indiana Pacers lose to the Miami Heat?
   I cannot stand the Miami Heat. There is really no rational reason other than the fact that I like rooting for the underdog and they always seem to be the favorite. And there’s something about LeBron James’s “I’m taking my talents to South Beach” quote that really rubbed me the wrong way. Whenever the Heat win a playoff game, particularly a close game, I really get ticked off. So to test the power of Mozart to relieve stress and calm the nerves, I put on my headphones and listen to Mozart’s Serenade No. 13 for Strings in G during a close game between the Heat and Pacers in their first game of a seven-game series.
  The game took on a surreal quality as the players seemed to glide with the music only to have the flow interrupted by a LeBron James sforzando-like dunk. My fist pump after a Heat missed free throw seemed highly inappropriate given the music I was listening to. Sometimes I would get peeved and completely block out the music but it did not take me long to recover and relax again.
Conclusion: The music did seem to take the steam out of the 95-86 Heat victory. However, a real test would be a game seven, all-or-nothing battle.

Will Mozart make food taste better?
   I have always possessed a real aversion to baked beans and sweet potatoes. I cannot even swallow sweet potatoes and the only time I have successfully downed a helping of baked beans was in the third grade when I alternated bites with a glazed donut at a church fellowship to please my grandmother who had boasted that she was famous among church locals for her baked beans.
   I had my wife whip up a candied sweet potato dish and some baked beans. I had a Diet Coke on hand along with a glazed donut looking very much like a life-preserver. After starting up the Allegro from Eine kleine Nachtmusik I began my assault on the baked beans. The baked beans were as sickly-sweetly distasteful as ever but I did manage to eat three bites without the donut; however, I drank about a two liters of Diet Coke to wash down each bite. As for the sweet potato, I stared at it for all of the second movement before I could muster enough courage to take a bite at the beginning of the Menuetto. I still could not swallow even one bite. I will spare you the gory details.
Conclusion: While Mozart’s music may add some valuable ambience to a candlelight dinner, it doesn’t seem to have the power to overcome a life-long aversion to baked beans and sweet potatoes.

Will Mozart help me sleep better?
   I have no problem going to sleep at night. However, I consistently wake up at 4:45 a.m. and cannot go back to sleep. To see if Mozart would help with this problem, I got my iPhone cued-up and when I woke up on cue at 4:45 I tapped the Pandora app and relaxed as James Galway performed Mozart’s Flute Concerto in C.
Conclusion: Mozart did not help me go to sleep. It actually filled my head with thoughts like “I forgot how much I liked this piece.”; “I wonder if one of my flute players could play this.” Also, I guess I felt guilty trying to sleep while someone was performing. Ironically, this never seems to be a problem when I am at someone’s recital.

Will Mozart help me come up with a conclusion for this column?
   Writer’s block can strike at any time. I’ve found that the most critical parts of an article are the beginning and the end; once I compose those two components the rest is usually easy. However, sometimes I can have everything done but the conclusion and struggle with it for days or even weeks. This column is no exception. Hoping to put the finishing touches on this column, I cued up Mozart’s “Tuba Mirum” from Requiem, K. 626, A fitting piece since a requiem is a way of wrapping things up.
Conclusion: It didn’t help me at all.