Several years ago,
my daughter was asked to
write a paper on a phenomenon
referred to as “The Mozart Effect” —
the assignment was to explain what it was,
and how it supposedly worked.
She dutifully complied,
writing a glowing report on the potential benefits
to society of this newly discovered innovation.
She described how these three researchers
at University of California Irvine had
experimented playing Mozart sonatas
to a small group of college students
and observed the effects.
She explained, that in their October 1993
report published in Nature, they seemed
to be suggesting a cause and effect
relationship between the sonatas and
higher scores on participating student’s
scholastic performance tests.
The results were so exciting at the time
that Georgia Governor Zell Miller had
even started a State program to distribute
classical music CD’s to parents of newborn Georgians.
My daughter’s enthusiasm for the
‘Effect’ seems to have the won the day,
because she received an award for her paper,
as an evidence that she was not the
only amateur psychologist in the house.
When she had initially asked me about the subject,
I had expressed some hopeful interest .
You see, when both my son and my daughter were babies, we had music going in the nursery at a very low level 24 hours a day, because we felt intuitively that it would have a positive impact on their development — and I believe it certainly did —
But I was skeptical that this could be clearly shown as the result of a scientific study, and certainly could not be narrowed down so specifically to Mozart’s music.
If indeed, such a method could be proven to help people learn and do better on tests, it would be both a validation of our parenting method, and more importantly, a boon for society at large.
Mozart’s music is readily accessible everywhere in the world, on all types of media, which means that disadvantaged learners of all ages, races, and social strata could immediately benefit —
— the ‘Effect’ could indeed, bring about a whole new way of looking at human cognitive processes, learning, and development. It would be no overstatement to say that it could change the world.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long after the U.C. Irvine study was released, that sales pitches making exaggerated claims for ‘Effect’ based products appeared — all claiming “scientifically proven results”.
It all began to sound more akin to a marketing gimmick than it did to psychology or science, and so I decided to help her research her project, and perhaps learn for myself just how much of it was ‘steak’ and how much was ‘sizzle’.
The original study that got Mozart’s ball rolling wasn’t really a scientific report at all —
but a brief, three paragraph letter written by Frances Rauscher, Gordon Shaw, and Katherine Ky —
and it was published,
not as an article,
but under ‘scientific coorespondence’ in the British journal “Nature”.
In it, the authors described a very fleeting increase in IQ test scores for a test group after being exposed to the music of Mozart for ten minutes, when compared to a control group, which heard either silence or a relaxation tape.
This ‘effect’ was quite temporary, and lasted only as long as the experiment itself. The letter made no assertions about causality, nor did it imply any.
Nevertheless, the letter generated a great deal of interest among scientists, and many efforts were made to repeat the experiment on a larger scale in order to verify, clarify, or expand upon the purported results.
Frances Rauscher, one of the Psychologists who participated in the original study, had followed it up with additional studies, one showing a dramatic sixty percent improvement in IQ scores, among a group of 36 college students, after listening to Mozart’s ‘Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major’.
At the University of Illinois, researcher John Hughes used a similar set up on epileptic patients, and found that 29 out of 36 showed a significant decrease in symptomology and spiking during the time they were exposed.
Most attempts at replicating the results, however, have proven unsuccessful. A much larger and more comprehensive study, done at Appalachian State University, exposed 206 students to identical conditions of the original experiment and found that:
” … the results were consistent with prior failures in other laboratories to produce a Mozart Effect “. Kenneth Steele, one of the researchers on the ASU study summed it up this way: “The bottom line is that there is no ‘ Mozart Effect ‘.”
Another similarly unsuccessful attempt at Midwestern State University concluded:
“The findings suggest caution in measuring differences in various cognitive tasks as indicating increases in intelligence scores”.
And, the most persuasive study on the subject to date, a joint work by William Forde Thompson, E. Glenn Schellenburg, and Gabriela Husain found that when the elements of musical preference, mood, and arousal factors were held statistically constant, the effect vanished.
At this point, you may be asking, ” Then, why all the attention? Haven’t several states actually recommended Mozart music to parents as a learning aid? ”
Enter merchandising and the mass media. The press certainly primed the pump by running articles with titles like: ” Mozart’s Notes Make Good Brain Food ” and ” Classical Music Good For Babies “.
And despite the fact that the original report drew no conclusion about the ‘Effect’, (or what a psychologist might call an ‘artifact’),
— and that many further attempts at replicating it have been unsuccessful, entrepreneurs have jumped into the fray with both feet.
“Mozart Makes You Smarter” themed products suddenly appeared :
— with names like
“Get Smart With Mozart”,
“Baby Needs Mozart”,
and “Expanding Your Mind With Mozart”.
Smelling profit — the author of one such work “The Mozart Effect (TM): Tapping The Power Of Music To Heal The Body”, Don Campbell (probably TM’d as well) even trademarked the name “Mozart Effect”, and touts the medicinal musical miracle like a patent cure-all.
So, does Mozart’s music make you smarter?
The research continues,
but the short answer is no,
There is good news, however.
According to Dr. Stanley Greenspan, author of several books on brain development in children:
“The issue isn’t whether listening to Mozart is specifically helpful for spatial reasoning. That’s far too specific a question. The issue is whether music in general enhances critical development in young children, and there’s a lot of evidence that music is very helpful.”