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The Mozart Effect

Debunking – The Mozart Effect


The Mozart Effect is a term used to describe an experiment that took place in 1993.


It’s the idea that if we listen to music composed by Mozart, we will become more intelligent.


It was supposed to show that the 36 teenagers who listened to Mozart’s 1781 Sonata for Two Pianos in D major, performed better in reasoning tests than adolescents who listened to something else, or who had been in a silent room.


The study found that the 36 college students, who listened to a Mozart sonata for a few minutes before taking a test that measured spatial relationship skills, did better than students who took the test after listening to another musician or no music at all.


This experiment 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 even babies.

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.

Crèches in America started playing classical music to children and the southern US state of Georgia even gave newborns a free classical CD.


So 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.


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 only 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.

But there has been an ongoing debate since, about whether the effect exists.


The Mozart Effect is a myth

A report, published in the journal Pediatrics, said it was unclear whether the original study in 1993 has detected a “Mozart effect” or a potential benefit of music in general.

A team from Vienna University’s Faculty of Psychology looked at 3,000 individuals in 40 studies conducted around the world,  analysed all studies since 1993 that have sought to reproduce the Mozart effect, and found no proof of the phenomenon’s existence.

A study in Nature in 1999 by Christopher Chabris, a psychologist, adding up the results of 16 studies on the Mozart effect, found only a one and a half point increase in IQ and any improvements in spatial ability limited solely to a paper-folding task.


“Those who listened to music, Mozart or something else – Bach, Pearl Jam – had better results than the silent group. But we already knew people perform better if they have a stimulus,” said Jakob Pietschnig, who led the study.

“I recommend everyone listen to Mozart, but it’s not going to improve cognitive abilities as some people hope,” he added.


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.


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.



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.

Learning to play an instrument can have longer-lasting effects on spatial reasoning.

In several studies, children who took piano lessons for six months improved their ability to work puzzles and solve other spatial tasks by as much as 30 percent.


Why does playing an instrument make such a difference? Researchers believe that musical training creates new pathways in the brain.

Listening to, and playing, any kind of music helps build music-related pathways in the brain. And music can have positive effects on our moods that may make learning easier.

There is evidence that learning to play music and being involved in music helps improve a child’s math and language abilities. Additionally, there are tangible social benefits to being involved in music, as well as emotional and self-expression rewards.


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