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Mozart Effect or Mozart Myth?

The term “Mozart effect” was first coined by Alfred A. Tomatis, who used Mozart’s music as the listening stimulus in his work in an attempt to cure various disorders. Don Campbell popularized the approach in a book and trademarked the term after a 1993 experiment published in Nature suggested that listening to Mozart temporarily boosted students’ IQ by 8 points.

Listening to Mozart boosts IQ

In the 1993 study, 36 students at the University of California at Irvine listened to 10 minutes of a Mozart sonata before taking a test that measures spatial intelligence.

There has been a common misconception that Rauscher et al.’s study described a temporary increase in IQ. The fact is, Rauscher et al. specified an increase in ‘spatial intelligence’ and stated that the enhancing effect of the music condition is only temporary. No student had effects extending beyond the 15-minute period they were tested.

The Mozart effect gets wide publicity

This misconception and the fact that the music used in the study was by Mozart had an obvious appeal to those who valued this music, and the Mozart effect was widely reported.

In 1994, New York Times music columnist Alex Ross wrote in a light-hearted article, “Researchers [Rauscher et al.] have determined that listening to Mozart actually makes you smarter,” and presented this as the final piece of evidence that Mozart has dethroned Beethoven as “the world’s greatest composer.”

The popular impact of the theory was demonstrated on January 13, 1998, when Zell Miller, governor of Georgia, announced that his proposed state budget would include $105,000 a year to provide every child born in Georgia with a tape or CD of classical music.

Florida’s legislature passed a law requiring that classical music be played daily in state-funded childcare and educational programs, and hundreds of hospitals were given free classical music CDs in May of 1999 by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Foundation.

Bellarmine College tests the theory

To ensure the Mozart effect was consistent, the Department of Psychology at Bellarmine College tested the spatial reasoning of the participants in a study by having them complete pencil-and-paper mazes of varying complexity.

The students were given eight minutes to complete as many mazes as possible. If the Mozart effect is replicable, then the participant’s performances on the mazes should be enhanced after listening to Mozart’s music relative to the other two listening conditions.

Of the 22 volunteers, the average student completed 2.68 mazes in 8 minutes after listening to Mozart’s music. After listening to different types of music, the average student only completed 2.2 mazes, and after being in silence, the average student completed 1.73 mazes.

Steele and colleagues find it a myth

However, Kenneth Steele, a psychology professor at Appalachian State University, and John Bruer, head of the James S. McDonnell Foundation in St. Louis, say there is no real intelligence enhancing or health benefit to listening to Mozart.

Steele and his colleagues Karen Bass and Melissa Crook claim that they followed the protocols set forth by Rauscher et al. but could not “find any kind of effect at all,” even though their study tested 125 students. They concluded: “There is little evidence to support intervention programs based on the existence of the Mozart effect.” Their research appears in the July 1999 issue of Psychological Science.

Two years later, several researchers reported in the same journal that when an effect is observed after intervention with music, it is due to “a boost in mood and arousal.”

More studies confirm the Mozart myth

At the Decade of the Mind symposium in Berlin, Germany, Glenn Schellenberg of the University of Toronto Mississauga in Canada presented a review of various efforts to track down the Mozart effect, including some of his own. His findings suggest there is nothing special about Mozart. “We also found a ‘Schubert effect’ and a ‘Blur effect’ as well as evidence that some people perform better on tests after being read Stephen King if they prefer this over Mozart,” he said. 

In another study, Schellenberg showed that the creative quality of drawings made by 5-year-old Japanese children improved more after listening to their favorite play songs than after listening to Mozart. Music helps you learn, he concludes, but so do other activities you enjoy.

Even if music improves performance in some settings and on some tasks, there is evidence that the effect is not general because it does not apply to other tasks. Bridget and Cuevas (2000) found that listening to music by Bach or Mozart for 10 minutes did not affect subsequent mathematical problem-solving performance compared to a no-music condition.

A report published by the German Research Ministry in 2007 and analyzing presumably all the scientific literature on music and intelligence concluded that “… passively listening to Mozart — or indeed any other music you enjoy — does not make you smarter. But more studies should be done to find out whether music lessons could raise your child’s IQ in the long term.”

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