You have probably heard of the Mozart effect. It’s the idea that if children or even babies listen to music composed by Mozart they will become more intelligent. A quick internet search reveals plenty of products to assist you in the task. Whatever your age there are CDs and books to help you to harness the power of Mozart’s music, but when it comes to scientific evidence that it can make you more clever, the picture is more mixed.
The phrase “the Mozart effect” was coined in 1991, but it is a study described two years later in the journal Nature that sparked real media and public interest about the idea that listening to classical music somehow improves the brain. It is one of those ideas that feels plausible. Mozart was undoubtedly a genius himself, his music is complex and there is a hope that if we listen to enough of it, a little of that intelligence might rub off on us.
The idea took off, with thousands of parents playing Mozart to their children, and in 1998 Zell Miller, the Governor of the state of Georgia in the US, even asked for money to be set aside in the state budget so that every newborn baby could be sent a CD of classical music. It’s not just babies and children who were deliberately exposed to Mozart’s melodies. When Sergio Della Sala, the psychologist and author of the book Mind Myths, visited a mozzarella farm in Italy, the farmer proudly explained that the buffalos were played Mozart three times a day to help them to produce better milk.
I’ll leave the debate on the impact on milk yield to farmers, but what about the evidence that listening to Mozart makes people more intelligent? Exactly what was it was that the authors of the initial study discovered that took public imagination by storm?
When you look back at the original paper, the first surprise is that the authors from the University of California, Irvine are modest in their claims and don’t even use the “Mozart effect” phrase in the paper. The second surprise is that it wasn’t conducted on children at all: it was in fact conducted with those stalwarts of psychological studies – young adult students. Only 36 students took part. On three occasions they were given a series of mental tasks to complete, and before each task, they listened either to ten minutes of silence, ten minutes of a tape of relaxation instructions, or ten minutes of Mozart’s sonata for two pianos in D major (K448).
The students who listened to Mozart did better at tasks where they had to create shapes in their minds. For a short time the students were better at spatial tasks where they had to look at folded up pieces of paper with cuts in them and to predict how they would appear when unfolded. But unfortunately, as the authors make clear at the time, this effect lasts for about fifteen minutes. So it’s hardly going to bring you a lifetime of enhanced intelligence.
Nevertheless, people began to theorise about why it was that Mozart’s music in particular could have this effect. Did the complexity of music cause patterns of cortical firing in the brain similar to those associated with solving spatial puzzles?
More research followed, and a meta-analysis of sixteen different studies confirmed that listening to music does lead to a temporary improvement in the ability to manipulate shapes mentally, but the benefits are short-lived and it doesn’t make us more intelligent.
Then it began to emerge that perhaps Mozart wasn’t so special after all. In 2010 a larger meta-analysis of a greater number of studies again found a positive effect, but that other kinds of music worked just as well. One study found that listening to Schubert was just as good, and so was hearing a passage read out aloud from a Stephen King novel. But only if you enjoyed it. So, perhaps enjoyment and engagement are key, rather than the exact notes you hear.
Although we tend to associate the Mozart effect with babies and small children, most of these studies were conducted on adults, whose brains are of course at a very different stage of development. But in 2006 a large study was conducted in Britain involving eight thousand children. They listened either to ten minutes of Mozart’s String Quintet in D Major, a discussion about the experiment or to a sequence of three pop songs: Blur’s “Country House,” “Return of the Mack,” by Mark Morrison and PJ and Duncan’s “Stepping Stone”. Once again music improved the ability to predict paper shapes, but this time it wasn’t a Mozart effect, but a Blur effect. The children who listened to Mozart did well, but with pop music they did even better, so prior preference could come into it.
Whatever your musical choice, it seems that all you need to do a bit better at predictive origami is some cognitive arousal. Your mind needs to get a little more active, it needs something to get it going and that’s going to be whichever kind of music appeals to you. In fact, it doesn’t have to be music. Anything that makes you more alert should work just as well – doing a few star jumps or drinking some coffee, for instance.
There is a way in which music can make a difference to your IQ, though. Unfortunately it requires a bit more effort than putting on a CD. Learning to play a musical instrument can have a beneficial effect on your brain. Jessica Grahn, a cognitive scientist at Western University in London, Ontario says that a year of piano lessons, combined with regular practice can increase IQ by as much as three points.
So listening to Mozart won’t do you or your children any harm and could be the start of a life-long love of classical music. But unless you and your family have some urgent imaginary origami to do, the chances are that sticking on a sonata is not going to make you better at anything.
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Don't be so sure that playing music to your baby will make him or her smarter. iStockphoto.com hide caption
Don't be so sure that playing music to your baby will make him or her smarter.iStockphoto.com
The newest issue of the journal Intelligence has the largest review ever of research on the so-called Mozart Effect, the popular idea that listening to classical music can enhance the intelligence of people in general and babies in particular.
The review is titled "Mozart Effect, Schmozart Effect," which should give you some idea of its conclusion: there ain't no such thing.
But even if listening to Beethoven won't make us smarter, the history of how the Mozart Effect ultimately became fashionable does have something to teach us. It's a story about careful science, less careful journalism, and of course, death threats.
How It All Began
In the spring of 1993 a psychologist named Francis 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."
Now Rauscher is quick to emphasize that the test she gave measured only a certain kind of spatial intelligence. "It's very important to note that we did not find effects for general intelligence," Rauscher says, "just for this one aspect of intelligence. It's a small gain and it doesn't last very long."
In fact the cognitive gains produced by the so-called "Mozart Effect" lasted only about 10 to 15 minutes.
And this is what Rauscher wrote in the single page paper she subsequently published in the journal Nature. She reported that listening to Mozart's music improved spatial reasoning for about 10 minutes.
And though Rauscher personally thought the finding was neat, she never really expected other people to be interested.
Then, came the call.
A Molehill Becomes A Mountain
The first call came from Associated Press before Rauscher had even realized that her paper was due to be published. Once the Associated Press printed its story the Mozart Effect was everywhere.
"I mean we were on the nightly news with Tom Brokaw. We had people coming to our house for live television," Rauscher says. "I had to hire someone to manage all the calls I had coming in."
The headlines in the papers were less subtle than her findings: "Mozart makes you smart" was the general idea. And for some reason, Rauscher says, this notion completely gripped the imagination of the American public.
"I mean we walked into Virgin Records one day and there was a whole kiosk of Mozart music and quotations from our paper," Rauscher says.
At first, all the attention was fun, but then things started to go south. For example, Rauscher says she got misquoted by a TV program which aired a segment that made her seem like she believed rock music wasn't cognitively good.
"When that happened I started getting phone calls," Rauscher says. "Literally death threats from people that were so offended that I would say that rock music was bad for the brain ... which is not what I had said at all. So I had to get an unlisted number. It was crazy."
But worse, says Rauscher, was that her very modest finding started to be wildly distorted.
"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."
In fact after hearing about the research, in 1998, Georgia's then Gov. Zell Miller decided to distribute free classical music CDs to every baby born in the state of Georgia. Tennessee followed suit. Eventually a small cottage industry of Mozart CDs for toddlers and babies sprung up.
Why is it that all of this came from such a modest study?
It's probably a couple of things, Rauscher says. Americans believe in self-improvement, but also are fond of quick fixes. And as Rauscher points out, parents care desperately about their children.
"I mean they want to do everything they possibly can for their children, and if there's a possibility that this might help in some way and give their child an advantage when they get to school, then that is what they are going to do."
Rauscher still stands by her original finding, but says subsequent research has shown that it's not really about Mozart. Any music that you find engaging will do the same thing, because compared to something like sitting in silence, the brain finds it stimulating.
"The key to it is that you have to enjoy the music," Rauscher says. "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."
There's something to contemplate: the Christina Aguilera Effect. Sure to be a hit with the toddler set.