Everybody’s heard of the Mozart effect—the notion that you can increase your intelligence by listening to Mozart’s music.
But is it real?
Famous experiments have revealed that people sometimes enjoy a brief improvement in visual-spatial skills immediately after listening to a Mozart sonata (Rauscher et al 1993; Hetland 2000).
However, the results have been inconsistent, with some labs reporting that they were unable to reproduce the effect.
It’s also unclear if it’s really the music that is responsible for the temporary enhancement of intelligence.
Research suggests that the Mozart effect--when it occurs--may be caused by a temporary elevation of mood and arousal. Listening to Mozart makes some people feel happy and alert, allowing them to perform better on intelligence tests (Schellenberg 2004).
If that’s the secret, then we’d expect people to perform better after virtually any enjoyable experience that improved attention and elevated mood. And the evidence supports this idea.
The “pleasurable experience effect”
In one study of British 10- and 11-year olds, researchers tested whether or not the Mozart effect depends on a listener’s preferences (Schellenberg and Hallam 2005).
Kids who preferred popular music were presented with playbacks of either Mozart or the music of “Blur,” a rock band that was very popular at the time of the study (1996).
The results? Kids performed better on a visual-spatial task immediately after listening the music of “Blur.”
Another study found that people are just as likely to improve spatial performance after listening to a story-—it just depends on whether or not they like the story (Nantais and Schellengerg 1999).
So it’s not so much the “Mozart effect” as it is the “pleasurable experience effect.”
Moreover, no one has ever demonstrated that the effect lasts more than 10-15 minutes.
Not a route to higher IQ...but don’t throw Baby Einstein out with the bath water
Okay, so listening to Mozart probably doesn’t make you smarter. But that doesn’t mean that music is not a useful tool for enhancing intellectual performance.
Certain kinds of music do seem to prime the brain for performing visual-spatial tasks—like solving puzzles.
And that’s not all.
A study of Japanese 5-year-olds found that listening to familiar songs had a positive effect on creativity. Kids who listened to familiar songs spent more time drawing pictures. Their pictures were judged to be more creative, too (Schellenberg et al 2007).
So it makes sense to use music in the classroom. And listening to music is certainly an important human experience we should share with our kids.
But we shouldn’t expect that merely listening to music will perform any miraculous changes to our brains.
What about making music? That's another question, and one with a more positive answer: Research strongly supports the idea that music lessons rewire the brain. Read about this more plausible cousin to the Mozart effect.
Hetland, L. (2000). Listening to music enhances spatial-temporal reasoning: Evidence for the "Mozart effect." The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 34(3/4), 105--148.
Nantais KM, and Schellenberg EG. (1999) The Mozart Effect: An Artifact of Preference. Psychological Science 10 (4): 370–373.
Rauscher FH, Shaw GL and Ky, KN. 1993. Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365: 611.
Schellenberg EG. 2004. Music lessons enhance IQ. Psychological Science 15(8) 511-514.
Schellenberg and Hallam. 2005. Music listening and cognitive abilities in 10- and 11- year olds: The Blur Effect. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci 1060: 202-209.
Schellenberg EG, Nakata T, Hunter PG, and Tamota S. 2007. Exposure to music and cognitive performance: tests of children and adults. Psychology of music 35(1): 5-19.image of girl & headphones ©iStockphoto.com/Nicole S.Young