Can playing or listening to classical music make you smarter? Yes, according to a recent study from the University of Helsinki published in the journal Scientific Reports. It details experiments by researchers who used brain scans to reveal playing or listening to classical music can give the brain a boost at any age. The conclusion was that music stimulates the genes involved with learning and memory, plus it causes the body to release the happy brain chemical dopamine.

Not to burst the champagne bubbles of the scientists who surely celebrated the study’s publication, but Opera Carolina Maestro James Meena thinks they’re a little late to the party. “It’s poppycock,” he said. “Artists have known this for centuries.”

On the eve of Opera Carolina’s production of Romeo & Juliet (Jan. 24, 28 and 30 at Belk Theater;, Meena elaborated on his thoughts with the passion, intelligence and musical knowledge he’ll bring to the podium when he conducts the performances.

His words stimulated our brains so much, we decided to divide them into two Acts, plus an Intermission. And don’t miss the finale.

“Scientists have been attempting to quantify the effect of classical music on the brain for decades, which I find comical,” he said. “Before science became our deity, we understood the natural world through empirical evidence, essentially what worked and what did not work.  We knew empirically that learning in music was part of a complete individual. That it, like learning math and science, was part of a complete education, not separate from but an equal partner in developing well-educated people. So, science is now quantifying what human societies have known for centuries, which I find amusingly pathetic.”


“This is to me a matter of faith, not in a religion but faith in human instinct,” Meena continued. “We now believe that if we cannot measure, compare and quantify something it has no value. Just as one can observe a sunset and be moved by its magnificence without “quantifying” the refraction of sunlight, so too we can judge that one who is trained in the discipline of music is well-equipped to use that training in other disciplines.”

Here are Meena’s top three picks for arias everyone should know:

  1. Nessun Dorma by Puccini from Turandot. “Not sung by Michael Bolton or Andrea Bocelli but by a (trained opera) singer like Franco Corelli or Luciano Pavarotti,” he said. For video of Pavarotti performing the aria in 1994, go here.
  2. Casta Diva by Vincenzo Bellini as sung by Maria Callas. (To see a video of Callas performing the aria in Paris in 1958, go here.
  3. Wintersturme from Die Walküre by Richard Wagner as sung by Lauritz Melchior. For an audio recording of Melchior performing the aria, go here.

Bravo, Maestro!