The Mozart Effect – Hype and Reality

The idea that music can make you smarter became very popular in the mid-nineties under the name “Mozart effect” and has remained popular ever since. The hype began with the publication of Rauscher et al. (1993) in the journal Nature. The researchers discovered that participants who were exposed to the aforementioned Mozart sonata performed better on the Stanford-Binet IQ test than those who listened to verbal relaxation instructions or sat in silence.

This revelation caused armies of mothers and fathers to storm the CD stores and bombard their children with Mozart music. One US governor ordered the distribution of Mozart CD’s by hospitals to all mothers following the birth of a child. Not surprisingly, marketers eagerly joined the fun (with increasingly ridiculous claims about the effect of music on intelligence) to profit from the newly-found “get-smart-quick” scheme. What got lost in the hype however was the fact that Rauscher et al. never found or claimed that exposure to Mozart would increase your IQ in general. Neither did they claim that the performance on an IQ test is a reliable indicator of how smart a person is. All they demonstrated was that exposure to an enjoyable musical piece led to a temporary (< 15 minutes) increase in spatial reasoning ability, not more, not less. Despite that, the study suffered the fate all studies are bound to suffer when they fall into the hands of the tabloid media, politicians and marketers: the results get distorted and blown out of proportion.

By the way: I wonder if mothers and fathers would have been just as eager to expose their children to Mozart had they known about some of the less flattering pieces written by the brilliant composer, among them the canon in B-flat major titled “Leck mich im Arsch” (which translates to “Kiss my Ass”) and the scatological canon “Bona Nox!” which includes the rather unsophisticated line “shit in your bed and make it burst”. These are just two examples of the many obscene and sometimes even pornographic pieces the party animal Mozart wrote for boozy nights with his friends. One can picture the young composer and his companions sitting in a flat in Vienna singing obscene songs after downing a few bottles of wine while concerned mothers cover their children’s ears, cursing the young generation and their vile music. That’s the side of Mozart you won’t get to hear in orchestral concerts.

But back to the topic. So whatever happened to the Mozart effect? Hype aside, is there anything to it? The thorough 1999 meta-analysis of Mozart effect studies by Chabris came to the conclusion that the popularized version of the effect is most certainly incorrect. Listening to Mozart, while no doubt a very enjoyable and stimulating experience, does not permanently raise your IQ or make you more intelligent. However, said meta analysis, as well as the 2002 Husain et al. study described above, did find a small cognitive enhancement resulting from exposure to Mozart’s sonata. The explanation of the enhancement turned out to be somewhat sobering though.

In the original study, Rauscher et al. proposed that Mozart’s music is able to prime spatial abilities in a direct manner because of similarities in neural activation. Further discussion and experiments showed that such a direct link is rather unlikely though, especially in light of the results of Nantais and Schellenberg (1999). In this study participants performed a spatial reasoning task after either listening to Mozart’s sonata or hearing a narrated story. When the reasoning task was completed, the participants were asked which of the two, Mozart’s piece or the story, they preferred. The result: participants who preferred the sonata performed better on the spatial reasoning task after listening to the piece and participants who preferred the story performed better on the test after hearing the story. However, participants who listened to Mozart’s music and stated that they would have preferred the story instead did not show the cognitive improvement. Overall the researchers found no benefit in the Mozart condition. All of the above implies that the enhancement in performance is a result of exposure to a preferred stimulus rather than a direct link between Mozart and cognition. It seems that the Mozart effect is just a small part of a broader psychological phenomenon that goes a little something like this: experiencing a preferred stimulus, be it a musical piece, a narrated story or a funny comic book, has a positive effect on arousal and mood and this in turn enhances cognitive abilities.

This was an extract from my Kindle e-book Curiosities of the Mind. Check it out if you interested in learning more about the psychological effects of music as well as other common psychological effects such as the false consensus bias, the placebo effect, the chameleon effect, …

Top Relaxing Classical Music Pieces

Here’s a collection of my favorite relaxing classical music pieces. Enjoy!

1. Piano Concerto in C minor, Adagio – Sergei Rachmaninov (Russian, b1873)

2. The Lark Ascending – Ralph Vaughan Williams (English, b1872)

3. Clarinet Concerto in A Major, Adagio – Wolgang Amadeus Mozart (Austrian, b1756)

4. Symphony No.2 in E Minor, Adagio – Sergei Rachmaninov (Russian, b1873)

5. Symphony No. 9, Adagio – Ludwig van Beethoven (German, b1770)

6. String Quartett in C (Kaiserquartett), Adagio – Joseph Haydn (German, b1732)

7. Nimrod – Edward Elgar (English, b1857)

8. The Planets, Venus – Gustav Holst (English, b1874)

9. Romance for Violin and Orchestra No. 2 in F Major – Ludwig van Beethoven (German, b1770)