Andrew Pudewa and Musical Pseudoscience
By R.L Stollar, HA Community Coordinator
My mom loves writing.
She loves to write, she loves to teach others how to write, and she loves attending workshops on how to write better. As far back as I can remember, she emphasized the importance of writing well to her children. My siblings and I grew up being encouraged to write short stories, book reports, poems, and — in my case — even musical productions.
Two decades ago, my mom brought Andrew Pudewa to Los Gatos Christian Church in the San Jose, California area to teach homeschool kids about good writing. Pudewa runs the Institute for Excellence in Writing (IEW). IEW describes itself as an “award-winning approach” that “will give you the tools you need to confidently teach your students to write well, think clearly, and express themselves eloquently and persuasively.” The cornerstone of the IEW program is “Teaching Writing: Structure and Style,” a course for parents and teachers on how to teach writing.
About Andrew Pudewa
Pudewa has been the principle speaker and director of IEW since the 1990’s. While he does not have a college degree, he does have two stated credentials: First, he is a “graduate of the Talent Education Institute in Matsumoto, Japan.” This means he has a “Suzuki Violin Teacher” certificate. Second, he has a “Certificate of Child Brain Development from the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.” (The Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential is a non-profit organization whose programs for brain injured children have provoked significant controversy over the last few decades.)
While Pudewa primarily focuses on writing, his opinions on other matters have popped up online from time to time. Pudewa believes public schools are “temples of relativism.” He has argued that multiple-choice tests are “evil” and “part of a clandestine effort by the inner sanctum of social scientists.” He also calls the Civil War “the War of Northern Aggression.”
I vividly remember three things from attending Pudewa’s writing classes:
1) Pudewa’s notion of the ideal paragraph.
2) Group massages.
3) Rock music kills plants and hurts rats.
The first — Pudewa’s notion of the ideal paragraph — I remember with fondness. Pudewa has these strategies for making a paragraph interesting. Each paragraph is supposed to include different “types” of sentences — a sentence beginning with a declarative, like “There is…,” a sentence beginning with an “-ing” verb, like “Thinking he was late, the boy rushed…,” a “very short sentence” with five words or less, and so forth. I have heard from other homeschool graduates that they hated this part of Pudewa’s program, that it was stifling and led to poor writing habits that took years to overcome. I even found a homeschooling mom express this sentiment recently in such a spot-on way it was simultaneously humorous and heartbreaking:
“[My child’s] paragraph on Noah is all stilted and weird because she HAD to include that who clause and that ‘ly word.
While I understand those criticisms, I personally appreciated the idea of intentionally changing your sentence structure to make each paragraph more arresting.
The second — group massages — was just weird. Pudewa would make all the class attendees — homeschool kids and homeschooling mothers — stand up and give each other back massages. When you’re a kid and your teacher makes you give a back massage to not only strangers but much older adult woman, and vice-versa, it is… weird.
The third — Pudewa’s tangential lessons on the “effects of music on life” — are what I am interested in discussing here.
Pudewa has a fascination with music and its alleged effects on the human brain and children’s ability to learn. This fascination makes sense considering Pudewa is not only a writing teacher, but also a Suzuki-method violin teacher. In fact, it might interest homeschool graduates who disliked Pudewa’s writing instruction methods to know that Pudewa’s methods are an experiment in applying Suzuki’s method for teaching violin to something other than music — namely, writing.
The Profound (New Age) Effects of Music on Life
It wasn’t random happenstance that other children and I learned about the detrimental impact certain types of music can have on rats, plants, and students two decades ago. Pudewa has been teaching this lesson since the 1990’s.
More important, he still is.
Just a couple years ago in 2011, Andrea Schwartz — who works with the Christian Reconstructionist organization the Chalcedon Foundation and who oversees the Chalcedon Teacher Training Institute — interviewed Pudewa. In that interview, Pudewa brings up the same plant and rat stories I heard as a kid.
As of today, in November of 2013, the Institute for Excellence in Writing sells Pudewa’s presentation on music, entitled “The Profound Effects of Music on Life.” The presentation description says the listener will “discover the fascinating effects that different kinds of music have on our brains,” a discovery that will “transform your thinking” and make you “never listen to music in quite the same way again.” How does Pudewa accomplish this? Well, “Dramatic evidence regarding potentially harmful music is introduced with both scientific data and spiritual insight.”
Yes, “dramatic evidence.”
You could spend $15 and buy his presentation to find out more. Or you can check out the presentation handout that IEW has available for free on their website. A quick perusal of this handout verifies for me that this is exactly the same presentation with the exact same “dramatic evidence” that I heard as a child, years and years ago at Los Gatos Christian Church.
So what is this “dramatic evidence” that leads Pudewa to teach young, impressionable children for two decades now that rock music could “potentially harm” their bodies and brains? Well, the evidence comes from a number of sources, the most notable being: Dorothy Retallack, Frances Rauscher, and Inge and Ron Cannon.
The New Age Pseudoscience of Dorothy Retallack
Rock music kills plants.
If there is anything for which I will forever remember Andrew Pudewa, it is this claim.
He made the claim almost two decades ago. He is still making the claim today.
In Pudewa’s aforementioned presentation outline, you can see this for yourself. He claims that, “Plants exposed to classical music flourished while those exposed to rock and heavily percussive music were less healthy and turned away from the source of sound, many finally dying.” He then provides a footnote to the “primary source” for this “research citation.”
Pudewa’s primary source for his musical plant claim is Dorothy Retallack’s book The Sound of Music and Plants.
Dorothy Retallack was a professional mezza-soprano who described herself as a “doctor’s wife, housekeeper, and grandmother to fifteen.” In 1964, after her last child graduated from college, she enrolled as a freshman at the now-nonexistent Temple Buell College. Note that she was a professional musician, not a scientist. In order to fulfill her basic general ed science requirements, Retallack took an Introduction to Biology course. Her teacher asked her to conduct an experiment — any experiment that would interest her. This experiment led to her claim to fame: the musical plant myth.
According to Dr. Daniel Chamovitz (Ph.D. Genetics, Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Director of the Manna Center for Plant Biosciences at Tel Aviv University, Retallack was “a unique mixture of a social conservative who believed that loud rock music correlated with antisocial behavior among college students and a New Age spiritualist who saw a sacred harmony between music and physics and all of nature.” She was inspired for her experiment by a 1959 book called The Power of Prayer on Plants. This book was written by the late Reverend Franklin Loehr, who founded the Religious Research Foundation.
Do me a quick favor, by the way, and go look at his “foundation” website. This will tell you all you need to know.
But just in case that doesn’t clue you in, let me add: Loehr was a “past life reader” who believed he channeled an “entity” that called itself “Dr. John Christopher Daniels.” This entity was a “research librarian” 4300 years ago.
So Retallack’s experiment on plants was inspired by the ancient librarian-channeling Reverend’s book about plants. In his book, Loehr claimed that plants bombarded with prayers fared better than plants bombarded with hateful thoughts. This claim caused Retallack to wonder if music could impact plants in the same way. She exposed a variety of plants to Bach, Schoenberg, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin. Her experiments, she claimed, demonstrated that plants exposed to soft classical music (and even elevator music) were healthy, whereas plants exposed to rock music — in particular, the drum beats of rock music — died. She wrote up her conclusions in the 1973 book The Sound of Music and Plants.
And there you have it. This is the origin of the idea that rock music kills plants. This is the entirety of the evidence that Andrew Pudewa cites for the idea as well.
But there are some problems. I will let Dr. Chamovitz explain:
Retallack’s studies were drought with scientific shortcomings… The number of replicates in her studies was so small that it was not sufficient for statistical analysis. The experimental design was poor—some of the studies were carried out in her friend’s house—and parameters, such as soil moisture, were determined by touching the soil with a finger. While Retallack cites a number of experts in her book, almost none of them are biologists. They are experts in music, physics, and theology, and quite a few citations are from sources with no scientific credentials. Most important, however, is the fact that her research has not been replicated in a credible lab… Retallack’s musical plants have been relegated to the garbage bin of science.
What Dr. Chamovitz states is the universal scientific consensus. Because — spoiler alert — plants don’t have ears. Plants can technically see, smell, and feel. But they cannot hear. As Eastern Connecticut State University professor of Botany, Ross Koning, has stated:
Plants have no ears to hear and no brain to process or develop musical taste or music appreciation…so any attempts to show relationships between music forms and growth or other responses have met with total failure in the hands of true scientists. This explains the lack of literature you find to read on the subject.
The popular TV show MythBusters even had a segment on this myth, entitled “Talking to Plants.” Like Retallack, they too used bad scientific methods. But unlike Retallack, their conclusions were in favor of beat-driven music: the plants they exposed to intense death metal grew the most.
Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott, who has a PhD in Horticulture and is the Extension Urban Horticulturist at Puyallup Research and Extension Center at Washington State University, has also written a scatching review of Retallack’s “research.” Dr. Chalker-Scott points out that, among many other problems, Retallack’s book should not be considered valid because: (1) out of the 40 footnotes only two are relevant to the subject of plant growth and sound; (2) Retallack “anthropomorphizes,” comparing “plants to humans in terms of having ‘likes and dislikes, their feelings and idiosyncrasies'”; and (3) “the potting containers were Styrofoam drinking cups with no drainage.”
Most curiously, Dr. Chalker-Scott also makes the following observation: “The book is published by a company that specializes in New Age literature, not science.”
Yes, New Age literature. Dr. Chamovitz also points this out: “Her book was eventually published as New Age literature.”
Andrew Pudewa has been teaching New Age literature to Christian homeschoolers for two decades.
Misinterpreting Frances Rauscher
It’s not just plants that rock music hurts, though, according to Pudewa. Rats are also negatively impacted; in contrast, Mozart can positively benefit — via the “Mozart Effect” — students and children. Again from his presentation handout:
College students temporarily improved spatial-temporal IQ scores by 8-10 points after listening to Mozart, when compared with relaxation music and no music… Preschool children given six months of keyboard instruction increased spatial-temporal IQ scores by an average of 46% over other supplemental instruction (singing, computer, free play)… Rats exposed to Mozart music from before birth to 60 days old were able to learn mazes over twice as fast as those with no music, whereas rats exposed to repetitive “minimalist” music were unable to navigate mazes at all.
For all of these claims, Pudewa cites studies by Dr. Frances Rauscher. Dr. Rauscher (PhD, Experimental Psychology, Columbia University) is widely considered the pioneer of the “Mozart Effect,” the idea that listening to Mozart can positively impact young children and students. But this is sort of like the case of Brian Ray and the state of homeschooling research: the research does not really prove what people think it proves. Here is NPR’s summary of what Rauscher demonstrated:
In the spring of 1993 a psychologist named Francis [sic] Rauscher played 10 minutes of a Mozart Piano Sonata to 36 college students, and after the excerpt, gave the students a test of spatial reasoning. Rauscher also asked the students to take a spatial reasoning test after listening to 10 minutes of silence, and, after listening to 10 minutes of a person with a monotone speaking voice.And Rauscher says, the results of this experiment seemed pretty clear. “What we found was that the students who had listened to the Mozart Sonata scored significantly higher on the spatial temporal task.”
While this seems simple enough, it got quickly and increasingly complicated. J.S. Jenkins (MD, Fellow at the Royal College of Physicians) explains: “Some investigators were unable to reproduce the findings,” while “others confirmed that listening to Mozart’s sonata K448 produced a small increase in spatial-temporal performance.” Rauscher herself “stressed that the Mozart effect is limited to spatial temporal reasoning and that there is no enhancement of general intelligence.”
She also cautioned that her test might have involved “inappropriate test procedures.”
Many attempts to replicate Rauscher’s studies were conducted, many of which were unsuccessful. According to Andrew Gorman, Research Associate at the Institute of Cognitive Science at University of Colorado, Boulder,
In an effort to replicate and extend the results from UC, Irvine [Rauscher’s study], Stough, Kerkin, Bates, and Mangan performed a similar study using 30 subjects… The results of their test showed that while there was a small mean difference in scores across conditions in the predicted direction, these differences were not significant… The researchers concluded that further research in this area would not be of any benefit.
…Citing other studies that failed to show a “Mozart Effect” (Kenealy, 1994; Stough et al., 1994), Newman, Rosenbach, Burns, Latimer, Matocha, and Vogt tried to duplicate the conditions of the original study by Rauscher et al… This showed no significant difference between condition group and thus did not support the Rauscher et al. experiments. In analyzing the scores using music training as the factor, no significant difference was found. Interest- ingly, the subjects who reported liking classical music scored significantly lower than those who did not.
Gorman canvasses a good number of other studies, some backing up Rauscher’s study and some undermining it. Gorman’s conclusion of all the contradictory studies is as follows:
It is clear that there is growing evidence that support the claims that music can enhance verbal and spatial-temporal ability. However, this is by no means a panacea. The short-term effects that have been found are so ephemeral and are confined to such a narrow range of tasks that it is questionable as to whether any practical applications will come from this research. Any hope that these results will directly influence educational policy seems misguided.
While Rauscher’s studies created a storm of arguments, Rauscher herself was surprised and confused by the ways people took the results. The results were often misinterpreted or misapplied. Rauscher states,
“Generalizing these results to children is one of the first things that went wrong. Somehow or another the myth started exploding that children that listen to classical music from a young age will do better on the SAT, they’ll score better on intelligence tests in general, and so forth.”
Ironically, Rauscher sees her study as supporting a love of music in general, not a love of any particular type of music. She says,
“The key to it is that you have to enjoy the music. If you hate Mozart you’re not going to find a Mozart Effect. If you love Pearl Jam, you’re going to find a Pearl Jam effect.”
Yes, the person that Pudewa cites in favor of “the Mozart Effect” actually believes “the Pearl Jam Effect” is just as valid a conclusion.
And what about those rats that listened to Mozart non-stop? Well, I could point out that Dr. Kenneth M. Steele (PhD, University of Tennessee-Knoxville), Professor of Psychology at Appalachian State University, conducted his own Mozart/rat experiments. He concluded that, “in the context of piano note frequencies,” rats were “deaf to most of the notes (69%) in the sonata.” Thus, “Whatever the rats hear, it is not the sonata written by Mozart.”
But I think Rauscher probably gives the best response to her own study, albeit indirectly:
Rauscher, at age 42, hears more Mozart in the lab than she did 15 years ago when she burned out and abandoned a more traditional pursuit of music. Even now she has mixed feelings–at least about the ‘all Mozart all the time’ auditory diet that she feeds her research subjects. ‘I’m so sick of it I could die,” she says. “Sometimes I can’t get it out of my head. It’s so annoying.'”
I think the lesson here is (1) listen to music you love and (2) don’t listen to any type of music (whether you love it or hate it) for 12 hours a day, day after day after day.
The Cannons Strive for Excellence
Another “citation” that Pudewa provides on his presentation handout is this:
Striving for Excellence (audiotape set), IBLP, Box One, Oak Brook, IL 60522
Published by Bill Gothard’s Institute for Basic Life Principles, Striving for Excellence: How to Evaluate Music consists of two audio cassettes and a booklet. The booklet lists no author. The material on the cassettes is presented by Inge & Ron Cannon. Inge Cannon helped launch Bill Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute (ATI) in 1984. In 1990 she became the director of HSLDA’s National Center for Home Education. Dr. Ron Cannon, Inge’s spouse, earned his PhD in 1985 in theology from Trinity Seminary.
The Cannons began with some music theory that was way over our heads… Then there were some odd bits and pieces about rhythms causing riots or neural damage in mice… Another doctor translated DNA into musical scores. (Don’t ask me how.)… Now we came to the heart of the argument: rock music, the very beat itself, was equated with rebellion and unbridled sensuality. It would make listeners want to take drugs and have sex… And if we still weren’t convinced, the Cannons explained that rock songs were imbalanced, like asymmetrical architecture. The best forms of art or music were those from the Age of Classicism: a definite beginning, a climax point, and a satisfying conclusion. With echoes of David Noebel’s publications against rock music, this one deprecated Impressionism and Cubism while celebrating the Baroque and the Classical periods.
This series by the Cannons is chockfull of so much debunked pseudoscience and conspiracy theories that I am unsure why Pudewa would direct anyone in its direction. Furthermore, notice what Jeri says Striving for Excellence mentions: “neural damage in mice.” Yes, the Cannons themselves reference Rauscher’s studies — and like Pudewa, they do so haphazardly. Should someone tell me that the Cannons also reference Dorothy Retallack, I will not be surprised.
Andrew Pudewa, David Noebel, and Bill Gothard
Ultimately, my criticism here is much bigger than Andrew Pudewa. It absolutely does bother me that Pudewa — as an instructor of young, impressionable students — would perpetuate pseudoscience and alarmist myths through his teaching position.
That is bad enough.
But this is bigger than Pudewa.
The Retallack and Rauscher experiments have inspired a longstanding trend within evangelical circles — and the Christian homeschooling movement — to spread fear and panic about any music with a beat. Since the 1960’s, people like Bill Gothard — from IBLP and ATI— and David Noebel — from Summit Ministries — have spread inaccurate and unintelligent claims about rock music. Gothard has argued that rock music leads “to rebellion, drugs, immorality, and the occult,” associating just about every possible sin with the musical genre.
David Noebel’s first claim to fame is the 1965 book Communism, Hypnotism, and the Beatles, where he alleges — no joke — that “Rock ‘n’ roll is turning kids into gay, Communist, miscegenators.”
David Noebel, the founder of our beloved Summit Ministries, was against interracial marriage as much as he is against gay marriage. And rock music was the root of the evil that was interracial marriage. What, you ask, led him to such an asinine, racist conclusion? Well, according to Dr. James Kennaway, a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow at the Centre for the History of Medicine and Disease at Durham University, Noebel brought to light “a less common aspect of music’s dangers – the threat posed to plants. He reported an experiment conducted by Mrs Dorothy Retallack of Denver that demonstrated, he claimed, that avant-garde classical music made plants wilt and Led Zeppelin made them die.”
Yes, with David Noebel we have come full circle to Doroth Retallack.
But Bill Gothard’s claims about music do not make Retallack’s look much better. W. Terry Lindley, Professor of History at Union University, explains that, in Gothard’s 1993 book, How to Conquer the Addiction of Rock Music, Gothard “recalls a life-threatening incident involving Christian rock”:
A seventeen-year old girl, while undergoing a routine operation to cut a non-cancerous tumor from her finger, suddenly developed what appeared to be a heart problem. However, when the girl’s headset turned off, her heart returned to normal rhythm. She had been listening to the rock album “Beyond Belief” by Petra.
Cue the horror movie music.
Dr. Kennaway situates these fears of the Religious Right in the broader context of what he describes as “the development of fears that music can make listeners ill.” He explains that, “For the last two hundred years many doctors, critics and writers have suggested that certain kinds of music have the power to cause neurosis, madness, hysteria and even death.”
One of the most significant factors in this fearmongering, according to Dr. Kennaway, is racism.
“Race,” he explains, “has played a major role in most medical panics about music since ragtime. Already in 1904, an American critic commented on the popularity of the argument that the ‘peculiar accent and syncopated time’ of ragtime could have a ‘disintegrating effect on nerve tissue and a similar result upon moral integrity’.” One sees this unfortunate sentiment in Noebel’s miscegnation comment. Noebel gets even more upfront about his racism, saying that rock music is a Communist plot to replace classical music with, and I quote, “the beat of African music.” One also sees it — whether intentionally or not — in Andrew Pudewa, the Cannons, Bill Gothard, and David Noebel whenever they make comments about “beats.” Because, see, each and every musical type has a beat. What all these individuals are objecting to is what they abstractly refer to as “syncopated” or “tribal” beats — in other words, beats brought to the U.S. by Africans.
So not only is this shared narrative anti-intellectual and unscientific, it is also an inherently racist narrative. I think the most vivid example of this fact comes from Dr. Roger Chapman (PhD, American Culture Studies, Bowling Green State University), Professor of History at Palm Beach Atlantic University. Dr. Chapman states,
Interracial concert audiences concerned Christian fundamentalists and the Ku Klux Klan, who called for a ban on the “devil’s music” to prevent the spread of juvenile delinquency and the “mongrelization” of white teens.
For two decades, Andrew Pudewa has taught young students flawed science about music. But the science is more than merely flawed. It originated from a man who thought he channeled a 5000-year-old spirit and then promoted by a New Age spiritualist. Why is such pseudoscience being taught by Pudewa to Christian homeschoolers? Why is something so untrue — and something that is actually New Age literature — being repeated over and over for decades by evangelicals and Christian homeschool leaders so concerned about New Age literature and African spiritualism — by Bill Gothard, David Noebel, and others like Bob Larson, Jimmy Swaggart, Geoffrey Botkin, and “Little Bear” Wheeler?
This is not only the height of bad scholarship, it is the height of irony.
Growing up, Christian homeschoolers were cautioned about how listening to rock music could cause you to be demon possessed. Now come to find out, that very alarmism was inspired by a man who quite literally claimed to be possessed himself.
I could end this whole post with some conclusion that wraps everything up nicely and neatly. But that would be too classical, if you know what I mean. So I will conclude with the best critique of the whole “rock music kills plants” myth that exists, courtesy of Audio Adrenaline: