The Mozart Effect: Not so Noteworthy?

Though popular belief may claim listening to classical music makes children more intelligent, there are no scientific studies demonstrating such a correlation. Courtesy of “Journal of a Mom.”

In 1998, Governor Zell Miller’s budget proposition allocated $105,000 to buying classical music CDs for every newborn in the state of Georgia. In 2000, a South China Morning Post article read that “babies who hear Così Fan Tutte or the ‘Mass in C Minor’ during gestation are likely to come out of the womb smarter than their peers,” and the Times of India has referred to the Mozart effect as “music curry for the soul.” Although the idea that listening to classical music increases intelligence has become popular worldwide, most scientific evidence fails to support such a connection.

The “scientific origin” of the Mozart effect myth stems from a study published in Nature in 1993. Researchers at the University of California, Irvine tested the spatial skills of college students after exposing them to three ten-minute listening conditions: Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D major, a relaxation tape, and silence. Results showed that students scored the highest after listening to Mozart’s music: On Stanford-Binet spatial IQ tests involving the visualization of folded paper shapes, scores rose 8-9 points, though only for a period of 10-15 minutes. A leading researcher of the study, Frances Rauscher, continued for two more years to conduct similar studies with comparable results.

However, Rauscher’s results have faced much contradictory research. Three studies conducted by other researchers in 1994, 1995, and 1997 attempted to replicate her findings using other spatial tests, but none showed significant score enhancement. Another study in 1994 used parts of the Stanford-Binet spatial test but also failed to corroborate her findings. Some researchers suggest that music’s temporary enhancement of arousal could explain the positive results of the original studies. In a 1999 study that supported this arousal hypothesis, subjects listened to music by Mozart and a narrated story. The study asked subjects which condition they preferred, and results showed higher scores on spatial tests correlated with exposure to preferred stimuli. Another study in 2001 involved three listening conditions — silence, an upbeat Mozart piece, and a slow, sad piece by a different composer — and found that elevated spatial test scores corresponded to high arousal rates following the Mozart condition. These studies either argued that listening to music has no influence on spatial cognition, or that it has short-term effects attributed wholly to arousal.

Nevertheless, Rauscher’s 1993 experiment struck a chord in the public sphere. Media outlets quickly began to suggest a connection between listening to classical music and intelligence, an overgeneralization that Rauscher has deemed “scientific legend.” Capitalists then began turning myth into money, generating a “Mozart effect industry,” as exemplified by the company Baby Einstein’s 1998 video “Baby Mozart,” which was recognized as “Video of the Year” by Parenting Magazine and “Top Selling Video of the Year” by Specialty Realtor Magazine. Writer Don Campbell, credited with coining and reserving legal rights to the phrase “Mozart effect,” profited from the sensation as well, publishing his book The Mozart Effect in 1997.

Recent interest has been focused on the rapid proliferation of the Mozart effect myth and what it may imply about the state of education. In one study, researchers observed that the Mozart effect received more newspaper coverage in American states with weaker educational systems. Professor Chip Heath of Stanford University, one of the leading researchers, proposes that people always grapple for solutions to complex problems, even if those solutions are “highly distorted, bogus things like the Mozart effect.” Along these lines, Yale Professor Edward Zigler and Harvard Assistant Professor Stephanie M. Jones state in their article “The Mozart Effect: Not Learning from History” that serious solutions have “nothing to do with Mozart or any other sort of magic inoculations,” advocating instead long-term programs that provide for impoverished families and develop children’s social skills. The Mozart effect myth may be an oversimplified attempt to solve the complex problems presented by child education.

Despite the popularity of the Mozart effect, experiments on the relationship between music and spatial reasoning have produced inconsistent results, and there has been no direct evidence for enhancement of overall intelligence. That is not to say, however, that all investigation of music and cognition should be dismissed. According to Andrew Kobets, MED ’11, “Studying this phenomenon and other effects of music on our neurobiology will certainly be continued in the future, but it is extremely difficult to do well-controlled studies. Progress will require controlling the musical experiences of several individuals over a period of time to demonstrate if cognitive changes can be maintained.” For this reason, while popular myth may have easily provoked a $105,000 stipend in 1998, today’s research finds money in much shorter supply.