The Mozart Effect: Miracle or Myth?

 by Madison Michel, MT-BC

Madison here, on music and the brain. As I am completing my graduate course work at Colorado State University, I hope to share information that is interesting and informative with our followers!

As music therapists, we are often asked about the Mozart Effect which drives us NUTS! Why? The Mozart Effect is probably the most pervasive myth believed about music in our culture. I delve into the research behind this below.

Before you keep reading, let me preface with this: 

I am not telling you that Mozart is bad or exposing children to classical music is bad.

I think those things are wonderful; however, as a music therapy professional, it is my prerogative to make sure you have accurate, researched information about the uses of music, ie. what it does AND does NOT do.

Keep reading through the end of this post for music therapist approved recommendations for early childhood music/music listening!

How did the myth start?

In 1993, researcher Frances Rauscher investigated the hypothesis that “music and spatial reasoning are causally related” (Rauscher, 1994) and published her findings in the scientific publication, Nature.

Rauscher’s original experiment involved a group that listened to a variable soundset, a group that listened to Mozart’s Piano Sonata in D Major K 448, and a control group that listened to silence. All groups were exposed to their sounds or lack thereof for ten minutes before taking the spatial IQ Reasoning subtest of the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale. The Mozart group had a mean score that was 8-9 points higher than the other two conditions, but researchers found that the effect did not extend beyond 10-15 minutes.

Rauscher never said in her study results that Mozart improves intelligence, but simply that Mozart’s music temporarily improved spatial reasoning, and that there needed to be further research.

A New York Times reporter saw these results and published the attention-grabbing headline, “Researchers Find Mozart’s Music Makes You Smarter,” which is much catchier than, “Researchers Find Mozart listening temporarily improved spatial reasoning in college students, and lends implications for further research.”

Despite the researcher never making claims that listening to Mozart makes you smarter, with the help of the snowballing press, this rumor perpetuated and soon became a national phenomenon.

Musician Don Campbell capitalized on this, publishing his book, “The Mozart Effect,” in 1997 followed by a large number of children’s products and recordings that quickly grew into a multimillion-dollar industry. In 1998, Governor of Georgia, Zell Miller, sent every newborn baby in the state home with a cassette tape or CD of classical music. In Florida, the state government passed a law requiring day cares to play an hour of classical music a day.

All of this happened despite the fact that the original study was not conducted with children.   

Is any of it true?

The Mozart effect rose to popularity in pop culture even though it was never proven to be true. So is there any truth to the idea that listening to music makes children smarter?

It is of extreme importance here to distinguish between music listening and music training, as follow up research has been done on both, and while they can be complementary to study, they are NOT interchangeable.

In 2010, a research team in Vienna conducted a meta-analysis of all of the follow-up studies done in response to the Mozart Effect and published their findings in the scientific journal, Intelligence. They concluded that it was clear-cut based on the evidence of 40 independent studies and a number of other academic theses totaling more than 3000 participants over 15 years that there is no support for the idea that listening to Mozart improves your intelligence.

Head researcher Jakob Pietschnig said, “I recommend listening to Mozart to everyone, but it will not meet expectations of boosting cognitive abilities” (“Mozart’s Music,” 2010, May 10). So while listening to Mozart is not something that is bad, the idea that it makes anyone smarter is absolutely bogus.

What about music training?

Being trained to play Mozart or other music is not the same as listening and does show evidence-based promise for educational benefit.

In Rauscher’s study, “Music training causes long term enhancement of preschool children’s spatial-temporal reasoning” (Rauscher, 1997), it was found that children who received music training on keyboard showed statistically significant improvement on the spatial-temporal reasoning test over computer training or other variable lessons.

In the study, “A neurocognitive approach to music reading,” it was found that in adults who were taught to read and play music over a three month period, “Specific learning-related changes were seen in the superior parietal cortex and fusiform gyrus, for melody reading and rhythm reading, respectively” (Stewart, 2005).

Another study, “Music and nonmusical abilities,” stated, “Several studies have reported positive associations between formal music lessons and abilities in nonmusical (e.g., linguistic, mathematical, and spatial) domains,” but go on to say, “Nonetheless, compelling evidence for a causal link remains elusive” (Schellenberg, 2001).

So what do all of these studies mean?

While it can now conclusively be said that music listening does not improve spatial-temporal abilities long term, trends in research show that there is a correlation between music training and cognition in other areas that calls for further study.

So listening to Mozart doesn’t help, but can it hurt?

It is important to note that while scientific evidence linking music training to cognitive abilities is exciting and compelling, leaping to conclusions based on emotion can lead to more harm than good.

The bogus Mozart Effect still perpetuates in society and generates millions of dollars of industry based on something that is just not true, but rather emotionally compelling.

Music is intrinsic to the human experience and has played a role in cultures all over the world for as long as records indicate. Music is moving. It is compelling for culture to believe that music could be used as a quick fix, so it’s no wonder that five of Don Campbell’s Mozart Effect albums were in the Billboard Top 100 selling albums in 1998 and 1999.

Yet, harm can come from this purely emotional approach.

For example, one of the biggest fallacies about the Mozart Effect is that it aids the baby’s brain development. Dr. Jayne Standley, PhD, MT-BC and Dr. Darcy Walworth, PhD, MT-BC wrote in the preface to their book, Music Therapy with Premature Infants, “the body of research reported here shows music therapy to provide many physiological, behavioral, and developmental benefits for premature infants while revealing a distinct absence of adverse side effects when care is taken for control of volume, duration, and type of music stimuli” (Standley, 2010, xvii).

Just in this preface alone, we see a note about how care must be taken in regards to musical variables. In fact, because babies (and particularly premature babies) are not at a level of development to adequately process the complexity of Mozart’s music, it can actually be physiologically detrimental to play Mozart for these most fragile members of our society, thus the Bogus Mozart Effect has potential to harm.

If Mozart doesn’t work, what kind of music can?

The idea of the Mozart Effect sounds far more cost-effective than hiring a certified professional, whether it be a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit Music Therapist (NICU-MT) in a hospital, a music educator with a music education degree in a preschool classroom, or a board-certified music therapist (MT-BC) working with a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

In all of these circumstances, there is evidence-based research to attest to the benefits of music with these populations, yet there is no evidence that there is a “fix-it-quick” mega-pill to be used with music like the myth that the Mozart Effect perpetuates.

Music is valuable to our society, it is compelling, and there is research-based evidence that music can be used to benefit many; however, caution must be exercised in our emotion-driven society to not let emotions alone drive belief and practice before factoring in what is true and scientific.

With the emergence of technological research methods along with the practice of behavioral research, researchers in the fields of music therapy, music education, cognitive psychology, and cognitive neuroscience continue to investigate the phenomenon that is music, and practitioners in these fields have a responsibility to take special care to promote only what is evidence-based and true.

As the volume of research grows, so does the hope that myths like the Mozart Effect in western and world culture will dissipate.

Madison Michel, MT-BC

Music Therapist – Board Certified

Internship Director

madison@heartandharmony.com