The Mozart effect: An overview for the science-minded

© 2018 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

What is the "Mozart effect"?

The term has multiple meanings.

In the popular culture, it refers to the belief that listening to the music of Mozart can increase your general intelligence. This claim has inspired a mini-industry of products aimed at enhancing the cognitive development of children.

In the scientific community, the "Mozart effect" has referred to something more specific: the claim that people tend to enjoy brief (10-15 minute) improvements in visual-spatial reasoning after listening to short excerpts of Mozart's music.

Fact-checking: Does the balance of evidence support these claims?

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).

So what about the more specific, scientific meaning?

If studies have shown these short-term gains in visual-spatial skills, doesn't that mean that the Mozart effect -- the narrow, scientific sense -- is real?

The answer is "yes and no."

On the "yes" side of things, it looks as if listening to music can indeed produce a short-term 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 have 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 neither Mozart nor classical music is necessary to produce the effect. Indeed, it's possible that this effect isn't even particularly musical.

Instead, the phenomenon may be caused by our emotions -- the improvements in mood and attention levels that some music can provoke. Is the music rousing? Does it make us feel happy or alert?

If so, we may experience a temporary boost in concentration after listening, enabling us to perform better on certain tasks. So it isn't a question of listening to Mozart (or the music of any other composer). It's just a question of a stimulus putting you in the right frame of mind: Alert and engaged, and ready to get some brain work done.

Support for this interpretation comes from a study of more than 8,000 school children living in the United Kingdom.

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 (Schellenberg and Hallam 2005).

So the effect seemed to depend on the kind of music kids liked, not on listening to Mozart or classical 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 small study of 28 college students, researchers compared the effect of listening to classical music with the effect of listening to a short story by Stephen King.

Each student was tested twice -- once after listening to Mozart, and once after listening to the short story. The tests happened on different days, and researchers mixed up the order, so that some individuals experienced the Mozart condition first, and others the short story condition  first.

What happened?  

There was no difference between conditions: Overall, students were just as likely to score well after listening to the short story as they were after listening to Stephen King.

But individuals performed better after whichever treatment they preferred.

If they said they liked listening to Mozart better, they tended to score higher after listening to Mozart.

If they said they preferred the Stephen King story, they performed better after listening to the story (Nantais and Schellenberg 1999).

So if we want an all-embracing term to describe what's going on, we should abandon all references to music.

Instead of the "Mozart effect," or the "pleasant and energizing music effect," what we seem to have is an "arousing and engaging experience effect."

On this basis, one could argue that the Mozart effect has been debunked. But that doesn't mean that music can't stimulate us to pay more attention, or temporarily 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 perform any miraculous changes to our brains.

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.

For more information, see my article about music training and intelligence.

References: The Mozart Effect

He WJ, Wong WC, Hui AN. 2017. Emotional Reactions Mediate the Effect of Music Listening on Creative Thinking: Perspective of the Arousal-and-Mood Hypothesis. Front Psychol. 8:1680.

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.

Pietschnig J, Voracek M, and Formann AK. 2010. Mozart effect–Shmozart effect: A meta-analysis. Intelligence 38(3): 314-323.

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 baby listening to MP3 device by Gideon Tsang/flicker

image of boy studying by Aislinn Ritchie / flickr

image of girl & headphones © S.Young

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