What is "the Mozart effect"?
In the popular culture, "the Mozart effect" refers to the claim that listening to Mozart's music can increase your general intelligence.
In the scientific community, the term refers to something more specific: the contention that people enjoy brief (10-15 minute) improvements in visual-spatial reasoning after listening to short excerpts of Mozart's music.
The term has also been used to describe the apparent health benefits of listening to music -- including benefits for people suffering from anxiety, hypertension, and epilepsy.
Claims about Mozart's music have fueled a mini-industry of "smart baby" products and developmental toys. Is there strong evidence to back these claims up?
With regard to the popular meaning of the "Mozart
effect," the answer is no.
No research has ever demonstrated that merely listening to Mozart's music can have a lasting impact on general intelligence or IQ.
On the contrary, when peer-reviewed studies have reported an effect, it has been of an immediate, fleeting nature.
Study volunteers listened to music for about 10 minutes, and experienced brief enhancements in visual-spatial performance immediately afterwards (Rauscher et al 1993; Hetland 2000; Pietsching et al 2010).
What about those studies? Don't they prove that the Mozart effect is real -- at least when it comes to short-term cognitive improvements?
The answer is "yes and no."
On the "yes" side of things, it looks as if listening to music can indeed produce a temporary boost in visual-spatial reasoning.
Not every lab has been able to reproduce the effect. And when researchers analyzed the general trend across studies, they calculated that the overall effect -- if it exists -- is small. But it does look as if something is there (Pietsching et al 2010).
On the "no" side of things, this isn't truly a Mozart effect, because other types of music -- including rock music -- may produce similar results.
In fact, it's possible that the effect isn't even directly related to music.
Instead, the phenomenon may be caused by our emotions -- the improvements in mood and attention levels that music can provoke.
Certain pieces of music can make us feel more happier and more energized, and that may give us a temporary boost in our ability to concentrate. We become more alert and engaged, so we perform better on visual-spatial tasks.
Support for this interpretation comes from a study of more than 8,000 school children living in the United Kingdom (Schellenberg and Hallam 2005).
It was 1996, when the rock band, Blur, was very popular among British youth. So researchers randomly assigned some of the kids to listen to Mozart, and others to listen to Blur.
After 10 minute listening sessions, the students took a short test of visual-spatial ability, and their performance depended on group assignment:
Kids who'd just listened to Blur performed better than kids who'd just listened to Mozart.
So the effect seemed to depend on the kind of music kids liked, not on listening to Mozart's music.
We might therefore argue that the Mozart effect is not supported by the evidence. Or, at the very least, that it's badly named. It might better be termed the "pleasant and energizing music effect."
But what if you don't even need music to induce these short-term enhancements in visual-spatial ability?
In a study of 28 college students, researchers tested two conditions:
The experiment used a within-subject design, meaning that each participant underwent both conditions (on different days). And what the researchers found was that individuals performed better after whichever experience they preferred -- listening the Mozart, or listening to the short story (Nantais and Schellenberg 1999).
It's a small study, and one that needs to be replicated. But assuming that some people really do get a boost from Stephen King (and not from Mozart), we need to rename our effect yet again.
Instead of "the Mozart effect," or "the pleasant and energizing music effect," a more accurate label might be "the pleasant and energizing experience effect."
Is there a Mozart effect on health?
Some studies have indeed reported that patients enjoy improved outcomes after listening to the music of Mozart.
But would people experience similar outcomes if they listened to other music? Or engaged in some other, pleasurable, non-musical activity? That isn't entirely clear.
A few studies have taken the step of testing different kinds of music. For example, in experiments, people who listened to Mozart's music experienced greater drops in blood pressure than did people listening to the music of Johann Strauss, ABBA, or the Beatles (Trapp and Voit 2016; Gruhlke et al 2015).
But other studies have suggested that personal preferences are important. For instance, research on anxiety suggests that patients enjoy the greatest anti-anxiety effects when they get to choose the music they listen to (Bradt et al 2013).
And when researchers have reviewed the field as a whole, they tend to agree: There simply haven't been enough studies -- randomized, controlled studies -- to make strong inferences (Dastgheib et al 2014; Pauwels et al 2014; Kühlmann et al 2016).
Yes, music listening probably has beneficial health effects, if for no other reason that it can help us cope with stress (Pauwels et al 2014; Kühlmann et al 2016). There are also some intriguing clinical studies suggesting that a daily dose of Mozart can reduce the frequency of seizures in people with epilepsy (Dastgheib et al 2014).
But future studies may support different conclusions. We must wait and see.
One could reasonably argue that the Mozart effect has been debunked -- if we're talking about the notion that Mozart's music has special effects on visual-spatial performance. For health outcomes, it's too early to say.
But that doesn't mean that listening to music can't stimulate us to pay more attention, or enhance our moods.
If you are feeling bored or sluggish, a few minutes of pleasant, rousing music might make you feel more alert and engaged. It's not the only way to get there, but it can be a very enjoyable way.
Thus, there is reason for teachers to use music in the classroom. And of course listening to music is a profound and important part of the human experience. It's something we should share with our children regardless of any practical uses it might have.
But we shouldn't expect that merely listening to music will make us smarter.
What about learning to play a musical instrument? That's another question, and an active area of research.
Learning to play a musical instrument trains the ear and develops hand-eye coordination. It changes the way the brain processes sound, including speech sounds (e.g., Chobert et al 2014; Carpentier et al 2016). And some experiments support the idea that music training can lead to small improvements in cognitive function.
And for more information about helping children learn, see these pages.
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image of baby listening to MP3 device by Gideon Tsang/flicker
image of boy studying by Aislinn Ritchie / flickr
image of girl and headphones ©iStockphoto.com/Nicole S.Young
Content last modified 5/2018