The "Mozart effect" made big waves in the United States during the mid-1990's. Many people thought they had found the key to cognitive power. But soon the theory drew many detractors, and by the turn of the 21st century, people weren't as convinced about the power of Mozart.
We have always known that music can have a profound effect on us. It's one of the most powerful ways we have to activate most of the brain. But we have never been able to conclusively prove how, why, or to what extent music impacts our brains.
Science has only recently been able to measure music's effects in the brain with imaging tools like fMRI and EEG. But even with new information, our answers are far from concrete. Is music just mental fluff?
Cognitive psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker suggests it's basically "cheesecake for the brain."<1> But could there be a more causal relationship between listening to music and cognitive enhancement?
Let's delve into the Mozart effect so you can decide for yourself.
Prelude - Mozart Effect
The Mozart effect is a theory that suggests people can improve cognition simply by listening to Mozart’s music. After an initial study was introduced to the public in a 1993 issue of Nature magazine, ambitious parents flocked to adopt the practice in their homes in hopes that it would make them smarter.
The one-page article, titled “Music and spatial task performance,” examined a research trial conducted by researchers Frances Rauscher, Gordon Shaw, and Katherine Ky.<2>
- During the trial, 36 college students were exposed to ten minutes with one of three stimuli. One group listened to a relaxation track; another sat in silence; the third listened to Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major (K. 448). Afterward, the students took a spatial reasoning test from the Stanford-Binet intelligence exam. The study’s results showed significantly significant higher scores in the Mozart group.
Accelerando - All the Hype
People went wild with enthusiasm. In response, the press coined the term “Mozart effect” even though in reality, the initial research had very little to do with Mozart - it just happened to be the chosen composition. If Rauscher had used a Bach piece, we would be talking about the Bach effect.
While the study was using classical music (Mozart in particular) it was actually not about whether or not listening to music can make you smarter. Researchers clearly stated that students did score higher after listening to the Mozart piece, BUT
- the effects were temporary, and they only tested spatial reasoning and not any other type of cognition. So the "Mozart effect" is really a catchy phrase invented by a media journalist.
Nonetheless, the trend was set. Mozart recordings sold out in Boston. Georgia’s governor, Zell Miller, drafted a bill to distribute free classical music recordings to every new mother in the state. Even though the Mozart effect had never even been tested on children, Tennessee quickly followed suit.
Florida passed a law requiring preschools to play classical music in the background. And a New York community college created a "Mozart effect" study room.
Though the hype was initially built to sell newspapers, it worked so well that for the following decade a cascade of classical music-themed, Mozart effect-inspired commercial goods flowed onto the market and into consumer's hands.
Festoso - Money For Nothing?
Political pundits, high-profile musicians, music educators, and cognitive psychologists rushed to promote the Mozart effect in schools and communities. Classical music stations were quick to tout the newly documented benefits of their playlists.
It got so big, even the U.S. President got in on the act. In June 2000, Vh1's Save the Music Foundation donated $5 million to an East Harlem school, with then-President Bill Clinton and musician Billy Joel giving public speeches at the school promoting musical education as a powerful cognitive tool.
And that May, New York City public school chancellor Harold O'Levy surprised 43 school superintendents with a group violin lesson designed to illustrate the importance of music programs in their schools.
Parents bought books, CD collections, and videos for themselves and their children. Entrepreneur Don Campbell authored a book that officially trademarked the "Mozart effect" and sold tens of thousands of accompanying materials like "Mozart-to-Go" and "Baroque-a-Bye-Baby" CDs.
Today, you can still find websites, online forums, resource catalogues, children's groups, and thousands of YouTube videos designed to support the Mozart effect. But does it really work?
The Mozart effect took the Western world by storm. But not everyone was convinced. Soon, cognitive psychologists, linguists, scientists, and researchers were attempting to replicate Rauscher's initial study by conducting their own research trials.
The Mozart effect became a hotly debated topic, both sides launching studies with results that seemed to show results consistent with the researcher's motive - prove or disprove.
Studies were inconsistent, with neither side gaining much evidence over the other. But the scientific method favors proof over belief. If the pro-music cognition tribe couldn't prove the validity of the theory with consistent, significant results, then the debunkers would win out in the end.
The initial studies that fueled the classical music craze of the late 1990's and early 2000's showed promising results that hinted listening to "higher-minded" music could enhance specific cognitive functions.
Though Dr. Rauscher's study was the first one published in a major journal, it wasn't the only one that suggested classical music could enhance cognitive prowess.
- Rideout and Taylor's 1997 study measured classical music's effects on spatial IQ and appeared to confirm Rauscher's earlier findings with "small but significant improvement (in visual-spatial test scores) immediately following presentation of the music."<5>
- Another 1997 study suggested there was some validity to the Mozart effect, but with varying degrees of success. Any positive results were also directly linked to spatial reasoning abilities.<6>
Other studies failed to replicate the initial results of Rauscher and her colleagues, finding little or no correlation between listening to Mozart and improved cognition.
- Professor Kenneth M Steele and his colleagues attempted to replicate the results of an unpublished study (Nantais, 1997) cited in Rauscher's article and showed no significant differences between the group who listened to Mozart pre-test and the two groups who did not.<7>
- Similarly, a 2010 study seemed to debunk Rauscher's early claims, suggesting "the Mozart effect is so ephemeral that it is questionable as to whether any practical application will come from it."<8>
Affettuoso - Getting Moody
One thing everyone agrees on is the fact that music can light up more areas of our brain than any other thing we know of. And the premise behind the Mozart effect isn't all just fluff. It's true that purely instrumental music stimulates widespread activation of the brain.
No one disagrees that playing an instrument improves cognition and can even increase the amount of gray matter in the brain. So why is it so hard to agree on what listening to music does to the brain? We can clearly see an expanding area of gray matter over time. But other effects of music on the brain are more ephemeral and difficult to measure.
When it comes to the Mozart effect, it may be harder to prove because we've looking at one specific genre of music. And that one genre really isn't just one. It includes many different types of songs.
Sonatas, Nocturnes, and Requiems are not created equal. Each different type of composition, and each composer for that matter, can illicit a completely different reaction from listeners - even from lovers of classical music.
It's Not Old, It's Classic
The term classical music is used to refer to both both a specific musical era and to encompass early Western art music in general. The latter spans several hundred years of music wherein musical styles changed a great deal.
The Renaissance (1400-1600) includes too many composers to pick just one. Music like Johann Sebastian Bach's of the Baroque period (1600-1750) is often used alongside Mozart's to illustrate music's brain benefits. Mozart's music came from the actual Classical era (1750-1820), along with Haydn and Beethoven. The Romantic period closed out the 19th century, with Beethoven bridging the gap and new greats like Chopin and Brahms being born.
All of these eras produced music with very specific types of music particular to those eras. And music from each of those eras can produce very different effects on listeners. While someone may love Bach, they may detest Mozart, and vice versa.
If you listen to music you can't stand just before test time, you'll probably be distracted which could lead to lower test scores. On the other hand, if you listen to music you enjoy beforehand you will likely be in a better mood and able to focus and remember better.
Brillante - Arousal and Cognition
Several studies, including a collaboration by two Toronto, Canada universities, proposes that the Mozart effect's efficacy relies on arousal and mood. This study analyzed undergraduate and grad students who had taken instrumental lessons for an average of 2.75 years. The students listened to either silence, Mozart's Sonata for two pianos in Dmajor K.488 (as in the original Rauscher study) or Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor for Organ and Strings.<9>
- When students listened to the uplifting Mozart sonata, their scores improved on spatial tests and positive mood and arousal tests compared to sitting in silence while their negative mood scores decreased compared to Albinoni listeners. Conversely, students who listened to the sad, slow Albinoni adagio showed no change over sitting in silence.
While music is universal, it is often a very personal thing, reflecting mood and emotion to listeners. Chain stores know this and play music to make you buy over their loudspeakers. Ad agencies live off the effects of music on consumers. And movies would never be as engaging without music.
So, could the Mozart effect be purely preferential? Or is there more to it than meets the ear?
Dr. Mozart and Sonic Rebirth
French physician Alfred Tomatis, MD, known as Dr. Mozart, established the foundation for the Mozart Effect in the 1950's. Pretty much every culture throughout the ages has used music as a healing modality. But by the 20th century Western medicine had forgotten the power of music to soothe and aid the healing process. Tomatis helped us remember.
Dr. Mozart proposed that many emotional, social, and mental disorders result from a breakdown in the normal chain of sonic reassurance. So he recreated the sounds the fetus hears in utero and developed a technique called Sonic Rebirth. Through Sonic Rebirth patients can relive the safety and harmony of the uterine environment and experience a kind of rebirth.
Hearing comes first.
Dr. Tomatis made a breakthrough discovery in the 1950's when he found that the human fetus can hear sounds from within the womb. We now know the ear is the first of the five external senses to develop. The human fetus can hear as early as ten weeks into gestation and becomes fully functional by four and a half months in the womb.
The fetus predominantly hears a combination of low-frequency sounds and the mother’s voice, resulting in an aural environment like that of an African bush at twilight. Sounds like “distant calls, echoes, stealthy rustlings, and the lapping of waves” provide the unborn child with a sense of security and harmony.
His research indicated that although a mother’s voice is the best stimuli, Mozart's music is the best substitute for it. Tomatis’s Sonic Rebirth treatment has improved social interactions and interpersonal communications in some autistic children and others who demonstrate difficulty with speech development, listening, and response. And Sonic Rebirth has benefited premature infants in neonatal units.<10>
Sonic Rebirth uses specific sound and frequencies and musical patterns to induce alpha and theta states of consciousness, effectively changing programmed perceptions within the patient’s beta consciousness. This brainwave change soothes anxiety, tension, fear, and other emotional and cognitive patterns often associated with beta waves.
A child’s brain is far more impressionable than an adult’s. But music affects adults more intensely on another level. Arthur Schopenhauer wrote
“The inexpressible depth of music, so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain…Music expresses only the quintessence of life and of its events, never these themselves.”<11>
Music on the Brain
Cognitive neuroscientists think humans may possess a neural "music box" similar to the "language box" proposed by linguist Noam Chomsky. If that is the case, parts of the neural network may process music like it does language, and entraining this network could improve cognition.
"Father of neuroscience" Vernon Mountcastle discovered that the cerebral cortex was organized into a mini-column of neurons that fires on three consecutive levels. This vertical stacking of auditory neurons causes them to emit a pattern of activity that actually "sounds" like baroque or new age music.<12>
If the brain's neural activity resembles music, then it would follow that music would inherently effect the brain - and that the type of music would matter. And we know it does. The right music can help surgery patients prep and withstand surgery better, and it can help them recover faster with less pain medication.
The type of music that can help people learn, remember, and process spatial patterns better isn't necessarily Mozart or any other classical music. But it can be. Studies show that both medical patients and academic learners can benefit from the right music.<13><14>
Both groups do better while listening to songs in major keys with a consistent rhythm and a slow to medium tempo - what we generally consider uplifting music. But while surgical patients benefit more from slower music, learners do better with a bit of a faster tempo but not too fast - more allegro than adagio, but still far shy of prestissimo.
If music can help our bodies heal better, why couldn't it boost our brainpower? Here are some cognitive areas the "Mozart effect" could potentially improve.
Studies show that music can actually change physiology by:
- Reducing anxiety. A study measuring anxiety, heart, and respiratory rates in patients who had recently survived heart attacks showed significant reductions in all three areas after subjects listened to relaxing music.<15>
- Lowering stress. Scientists at Michigan State University published a 1993 study that reported levels of interleukin-1, an immune-cell messenger molecule, increased 12.5 to 14 percent when participants listened to music for 15 minutes. Subjects who chose their own music from a selection featuring Mozart, light jazz, or New Age showed a 25 percent drop in cortisol levels, a stress hormone that can decrease cognitive function and depress mood.<16>
- Boosting natural opiates. Raymond Bahr, M.D., Director of Coronary Care at St. Agnes Hospital believes “half an hour of music produces the same effect as ten milligrams of Valium.”
Numerous studies show that patients need less anesthesia and experience less anxiety before and during surgery when music is used along with anesthesia. Patients also tend to use less pain medication during recovery when they listen to music.
Music's anxiolytic effects are well-documented, even in the most extreme of circumstances like surgery. Cognitively, anxiety impedes memory, learning ability, concentration, focus, attention, problem solving, critical thinking, and more. So if music reduces anxiety then cognitive functions affected by stress should improve with music.
According to neuroscientist Robert Zatorre, the frontal cortex has dense connections with auditory regions in the brain, linking sounds with motor actions - either hand or articulatory. That is one reason why music can affect walking gait, how fast we eat, repetitive hand motions like assembling or typing, and other motor tasks.<17>
This is why most of our music is set to relative tempos of the human heartbeat. Ballads are generally set to a tempo of 65 to 80 beats per minute at rest, while dance beats speed up to around 150 beats per minute.
Rhythm and tempo are so effective, music with a moderate rhythm and tempo can help people with Parkinson's walk better just by popping on a pair of headphones. Just like with medical patients and students, rhythm and tempo make a critical difference.
The motor cortex is synonymous with mental processing. Perception and action are intertwined, and while perception helps us process information, motor cognition drives action that helps us use that information.
In monkeys, mirror neurons in the parietal cortex help them observe and carry out goal-driven actions.<18>In humans, scientists have discovered a similar motor resonance mechanism in the premotor and parietal cortices.<19>
This is a valuable type of learning that allows us to build new skills and improve relationships.
Music can influence both short and long term memory. You probably remember at least one theme song from a long-ago TV series or jingle from a commercial ad. Children memorize the alphabet through song. In fact, one of the best ways to remember complicated information for an upcoming test is to set it to a tune.
Music can even help improve memory in people with Alzheimer's and other dementias. Extensive research documents music's memory-boosting powers. Some people claim it's nothing short of miraculous. But here again, the listener has to like the music or it is not nearly as effective.
Some people claim listening to music helps them concentrate. Music fires up the "happy" neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin in the brain and dampens the stress hormone cortisol. This hot/cold combo improves task performance and elevates mood, allowing us to focus better for longer.
But that's not all. A team of researchers at Stanford found that music's ability to help us focus may be an evolutionary adaptation. Their study found that the brief pauses which occur in classical music when one movement ends and another begins stimulate brain regions that control attention and working memory.
This is how it works:
- When one movement ends, the blank space activates the ventral fronto-temporal network.
- After the next movement begins, the dorsal fronto-parietal network turns our attention to the change and updates working memory.
So, listening to music could be a way for the brain to anticipate events and sustain attention despite variable stimuli.
Spatial intelligence is the ability to see things around them correctly. It is primarily a function of the right brain and has to do with perception, visualization, and understanding relationships between objects.
People with high spatial IQ are good at recognizing and remembering visual cues - faces, images, and other visual patterns. They are detail-oriented and notice things others may not, like when a friend gets a haircut or wears a new sweater.
These types of people tend to excel at problem-solving and innovation because they are better at recognizing patterns and noticing differences. And they're good at visualizing how something will look in the future based on limited information.
The Mozart effect first gained credibility because of its seeming ability to improve spatial IQ in children. Good visual-spatial recognition is especially important for children to learn.
It's how we learn depth perception, distances, and awareness of our own bodies in relation to space. Low spatial intelligence makes it difficult to play sports, dance, move in a crowd, drive, and even just walk without bumping into things.
Spatial IQ has been largely left out of the academic curriculum. But now it's more important than ever to nurture visual-spatial reasoning. Today's youth will pioneer future techs in fields like engineering, physical sciences, mathematics, and computer science.
People with high spatial IQ excel at modeling and imagineering, but they also show greater interest than their peers in working with their hands. And both science and medicine need people who are good at both.
While Mozart was truly a compositional genius, his music - or any other classical music for that matter - probably won't make you smarter. But, it can boost brain function, and a better-functioning brain can help you study and remember information better.
If you don't like Mozart, it probably won't boost your cognitive function. But remember, the real Mozart effect isn't really about Mozart or any specific type of music.
In the end, the hype around the Mozart effect is just a broad, commercialized generalization - but it is based on a cognitive truism. The truth is, music does affect the brain, and it can support healthy mood and brain function.
So pick out a playlist that pumps your mood before you hit the books (or the website). Mozart is a good place to start, but there's a whole world and centuries of music to explore. The most important thing is to find what feels good.
- Szeles S. "7 Theories On Why We Evolved to Love Music." NOVA. 20 May 2014.
- Rauscher FH, Shaw GL, Ky CN. Music and spatial task performance. Nature. Volume 365, page 611. 14 Oct 1993. Doi:10.1038/365611a0
- Reuell P. Muting the Mozart Effect. The Harvard Gazette. 11 Dec 2013.
- Hoecker JL. Can Baby Einstein videos and similar programming promote a child's development? Mayo Clinic: Infant and Toddler Health. Accessed 13 May 2018.
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- Wilson TL. Brown TL. Reexamination of the Effect of Mozart's Music on Spatial Task Performance. The Journal of Psychology; Jul 1997; 131, 4; Psychology Module pg. 365.
- Steele KM, Brown JD, Stoecker JA. Failure to confirm the Rauscher and Shaw description of recovery of the Mozart effect. Percept Mot Skills. 1999 Jun;88(3 Pt 1):843-8. Doi: 10.2466/pms.1922.214.171.1243
- McKelvie P, Low P. Listening to Mozart does not improve children's spatial ability: Final curtains for the Mozart effect. British Journal of Developmental Psychology. 23 Dec 2010. Doi.org/10.1348/026151002166433
- Thompson WF, Schellenberg EG, Husain G. Arousal, Mood And The Mozart Effect. Psychological Science. Vol. 12. No. 3. May 2001.
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- Sacks O. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Revised and Expanded Edition. Vintage Books, Random House, Inc. New York. xi. 2007.
- Leng X, Shaw GL, Wright EL. Coding of musical structure and the trion model of cortex. Music Perception. 1990. 8(1), 49-62. Doi: 10.2307/40285485.
- Steakley L. How music therapy may benefit surgery patients. Scope. 21 Nov 2012.
- Gonzalez M, Jr. The “Arousal Effect”: An Alternative Interpretation of the Mozart Effect. AMERICAN JOURNAL OF UNDERGRADUATE RESEARCH. VOL. 2 NO. 2.2003.
- Gaynor M. Sounds of Healing. New York: Broadway Books. 1999. Print.
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