Some parents play Mozart CDs to their kids, hoping that it will boost the child’s intelligence. But will it? Many people have heard of the so-called Mozart effect, but where does it actually come from, and most importantly, is it true?
It all started innocently enough in 1993, with a one-page paper in the journal Nature by Frances Rauscher and colleagues. They conducted an experiment where US college students were played ten minutes of Mozart’s Sonata for two Pianos in D major, or listened to relaxation instructions or sat in silence. The researcher then asked the students to complete a test of spatial-temporal reasoning. This type of task (paper-folding, matrices, or pattern analysis) requires you to think in your mind’s eye about shapes and how they might fit together. The researchers found a significantly higher score on the test only after listening to the Mozart piece, which translated to a boost of between eight and nine IQ points.
The researchers went on to replicate their findings but found no similar boost effects after ten minutes of music by Philip Glass, British trance music, relaxation instructions or an audio book. The Mozart effect seemed like a very exciting and important finding that might suggest a particular type of music has a positive effect on our ability to think.
How might this effect work? Rauscher and her colleagues speculated that hearing Mozart’s music might strengthen neural firing in an area of the brain that also supports performance on spatial-temporal tasks.
It all seemed to good to be true: a simple solution (listen to music) to a complex problem (boost mental power). Sure enough it was not all what it appeared.
The first issue is the temporary nature of te effect. To be fair, the original authors stated that the effect only lasts about ten minutes so we were never talking about any permanent boost to thinking. The problem is that in wider pop science culture you often lose an important bit of information like this form the original research, which in fact points to a key limitation with the effect.
A second issue with the effect is its specificity. In a subsequent article the original authors suggested that a researcher needed to use exactly their experimental conditions in order to have a hope of getting an effect. This limitation suggest that the effect is not a very general one.
On top of all of this, more recent studies have shown that you can get a similar boost effect if you play Shubert’s piano music, when people prefer Shubert to Mozart. You can also get the boost effect when you read people of a bit of Stephen King, if they enjoy his writing. Following such results researchers have proposed that the Mozart effect actually relies on a temporary improvement to our mood and arousal states (how awake we feel), which then has a positive effect on our task performance.
The final big issue with the Mozart effect is the failure to replicate. The number of studies that have failed to replicate this effect now outweigh those that have worked. Even when they followed the original paradigm step by step, it still often didn’t work.
Taking all the evidence from the Mozart effect into account over the years, it is now largely accepted that simple passive (listening) exposure to music does not boost IQ, cognitive function, or reasoning ability in the long-term, and that any temporary small boosts to task performance are due to a concurrent increase in mood and arousal.
So by all means, buy a child a Mozart CD if they like listening to his music, enjoy twirling and swaying to the sounds, find it relaxing as part of a sleep routine, or perhaps soothing in times of illness. The lesson from the research in this area is that we must not expect a child’s IQ to grow in response to hearing music as if we were feeding fertiliser to a rose.