Composer of the Month – The Mozart Effect

What is The Mozart Effect? How did it come about? Can you really make your child cleverer just by playing them a Mozart composition or two?

The Mozart Effect refers to the theory that listening to music by Mozart can make people perform better on an IQ test, and by extension it can actually make people cleverer. So, where does this theory come from and is it true?

The image is of a set of headphones placed over 4 books, looking like the books may be listening to whatever is on the headphones.

Where does the idea behind the Mozart Effect come from?

In 1993 Psychologists Frances Rauscher, Gordon Shaw and Catherine Ky wanted to know whether listening to Classical music by Mozart improved people’s performance on an IQ test. Not the whole test, just a specific part of it relating to spatial reasoning – so tasks like, can you follow instructions for and produce origami, can you complete a maze, that sort of thing. To carry out this experiment, the researchers split participants up into 3 different groups. All of the groups had to perform a spacial reasoning test, but what each group did 10 minutes before the test was different.

  • Group 1 – listened to a piece of music by Mozart, the Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major
  • Group 2 – sat in silence
  • Group 3 – listened to a monotone voice recording

The results of this experiment were that the group who listened to the Mozart piece did better on their spatial reasoning test that the other participants, and not just a tiny bit better, they performed significantly better on this test than the other people in the experiment. They reported their findings and the press sort of ran with the idea. Headlines started appearing telling people that listening to Mozart made people perform better on IQ tests, these led to headlines saying that people were smarter after listening to Mozart. And then it started to be reported that listening to Mozart made children cleverer. So much so, that a United States Governor in Georgia decided to spend a significant part of the budget, $105,000 per year in fact, to make sure that every child in Georgia was given a tape or CD of classical music. And today there are hundreds of albums both on CD and on music streaming services, some aimed at children and babies specifically, with titles such as The Mozart Effect Volume 1: Strengthen the Mind or 3 Hours Classical Music for Brain Power.

Problems with the study

The problems that arose from this experiment weren’t problems with the experiment itself, but in the interpretation of the results as the reports on the experiment made it sound like what happened in this experiment was much more significant than it actually was. So firstly, there weren’t many people taking part in the experiment. It was just a small number of participants. And also, it was just one study. Really claims such as listening to something will make you smarter need to be tested on a number of occasions by different researchers and with a very large number of participants before you can definitely say that those results are correct.

Secondly, the results were indeed quite amazing. Listening to the Mozart piece did produce impressive results. But the participants in this study were only given 3 different experiences: Mozart, monotonous voice and silence. So was it actually Mozart that made a difference to their performance? Was it that particular piece and would it work with any Mozart? Could it have been any piece of classical music? Could it have been any piece of music for that matter? Did it have to be just music? Could the participants have, for example watched some TV, read a book, made or looked at art? What was it about the Mozart that meant the people in this study listening to the Sonata for Two Pianos performed better in their spatial reasoning tests? There were a lot of questions still to be asked before you could say something like “listening to Mozart makes you smarter”.

Thirdly, the participants were all adults. There were no children and certainly no babies involved in the study. Again, this is absolutely not a problem with the study itself, but with the leap to saying that this study showed that listening to Mozart made babies smarter.

Finally, this improvement in the participants’ spatial reasoning skills was temporary. It lasted for about 10-15 minutes. And the researchers made this clear in their reporting of the experiment. In this experiment the results actually were along the lines of:

Listening to a piece of music by Mozart improved a small number of participants’ performance on one specific part of an IQ test for up to 15 minutes after the piece ended.

And as I said, the researchers didn’t try to dress up their findings at all, but some people interpreted their results in, shall we say, a rather excitable and over-enthusiastic way.

Someone is using a pen to point to a bar chart. There are other graphs on the page below this bar chart.

What happened when other researchers tried to repeat the experiment?

A number of psychologists have tried to repeat this experiment to answer questions like the ones I asked above. The experiment was carried out with far larger groups of people, with other pieces of music and even with things like getting participants to listen to extracts from an audiobook.

Each time this experiment was performed, there was a noticeable difference in how participants performed on the spatial reasoning part of an IQ test, but each time that effect was temporary. It was not a permanent change to the brain, or a permanent improvement in mental performance.

Researchers trying to repeat this test also found that the effect wasn’t limited to Mozart. Any classical music would work. In fact any music that a participant quite liked worked. And even more than that, listening to an extract from an audio book (for the experiment using audio books, they chose part of a Stephen King novel, but I suspect that any audiobook would work in a similar way given the results with music) also worked in the same way. So, in this test the music, audio book etc, some sort of interesting audio stimulation sort of primed the brain, maybe got the brain ready to work, before participants took their spatial reasoning test.

So, I should just ignore the whole Mozart Effect idea then?

Well, not necessarily. As I said above, repeated experiments did show that listening to something interesting before carrying out a spatial reasoning task did help people to drop that task. I describe it as getting the brain ready to do an activity. It just isn’t the case that you just need to put some Mozart on for your baby to listen to and they will automatically get smarter and do better at school, and later on in life. As with pretty much everything in life, if something is sold to you as a quick fix, it probably isn’t one because everything comes to us through practice, and repetition. That is how our brains learn, and how seemingly very simple songs like the ABC song (incidentally comes from a tune written by….. yes, Mozart) help your child learn.

Does music help the brain develop?

The short answer is yes absolutely. This is an absolutely massive topic, and not one I would even hope to cover in a part of one blog post, but here, very briefly, is a couple of ways music helps with brain development:

  1. As mentioned above, repetitive songs like nursery rhymes help information stick in our brains. I bet that with me just mentioning the ABC song, the tune will have popped into your head; or when trying to remember what colours there are in a rainbow, quite a lot of you will have sung the rainbow song in your head to help you remember them.
  2. Listening to a new piece of music – i.e. a piece of music you have not heard before – can help your brain develop new neural connections. Again, this is a subject for a separate blog post really, but music like Western classical music, and Indian classical music use often quite complicated musical structures that, when you are listening to them for the first time or first few times can help people (adults and children alike) to form new neural connections.
  3. And probably the best way music can help brain development is to learn to play a musical instrument. Playing music is both mentally and physically stimulating. I have touched on this a little in another blog post, and probably will do again in the future.

Conclusion

Listening to music, or something that you find interesting, whether that be a piece of music by Mozart, any other classical music, any other type of music you like, or even listening to part of an audio book just before you try to do something involving spatial reasoning, can help you carry out that task. But you would have to do it again the next time you want to, I don’t know, complete a maze to have the same effect.

It is absolutely not true that you can make your child cleverer just by putting on some classical music. Participation in making music, and listening to music is definitely a great thing for your child, but it is not the sure fire quick fix that has been sold to many people.


If you have enjoyed reading my blog post, thank you. I am always looking for ideas for the blog, so would love to hear from you with suggestions for topics you would like me to cover in the future. Also, if you would be interested in supporting me to keep this blog running, buying the books to review here, and supplies to make the DIY instruments, for example, I would be absolutely delighted if you would consider buying me a coffee using the following link: Buy Me A Coffee Thank you!!

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