What is “the Mozart effect”?
In the popular culture, “the Mozart effect” refers to the claim that listening to Mozart’s music can increase your general intelligence, or IQ. In the scientific community, the term refers to something more specific: the contention that people enjoy brief (10-15 minute) improvements in visual-spatial reasoning after listening to short excerpts of Mozart’s music. The term has also been used to describe the apparent health benefits of listening to music — including benefits for people suffering from anxiety, hypertension, and epilepsy.
Fact-checking the Mozart effect
Claims about Mozart’s music have fueled a mini-industry of “smart baby” products and developmental toys. Back in 1998, Georgia governor Zell MIller was so enthusiastic, he launched a program to distribute classical music CDs to every newborn in his state (Holden 1998). But what does the evidence tell us? Does listening to Mozart’s compositions make you smarter?
With regard to the popular meaning of the “Mozart effect,” the answer is no. No research has ever demonstrated that merely listening to Mozart’s music can have a lasting impact on general intelligence or IQ. On the contrary, when peer-reviewed studies have reported an effect, it has been confined to the domain of spatial reasoning skills, and the cognitive enhancement was very short-lived.
That was the case for the very first experiment conducted by psychologist Frances Rauscher (1993), and it has been the trend ever since. Typically, study volunteers are asked to listen to music for about 10 minutes, and then, immediately afterwards, they experience improvements in visual-spatial reasoning for approximately 10 to 15 minutes (Rauscher et al 1993; Hetland 2000; Pietsching et al 2010).
Does this mean there is evidence supporting the existence of a more limited Mozart effect — one associated with a temporary boost in visual-spatial reasoning?
Yes and no.
On the “yes” side of things, most studies point in the direction of some kind of effect. Not every lab has been able to reproduce it. And the strength of the effect — if it exists — is probably quite small. But it does look as if something is there (Pietsching et al 2010).
On the “no” side of things, this isn’t truly a Mozart effect, because other types of music– including rock music — may produce similar results.
In fact, it’s possible that the effect isn’t even directly related to music. Instead, the phenomenon may be caused by our emotions — the improvements in mood and attention levels that music can provoke. Certain pieces of music can make us feel more happier and more energized, and that may give us a temporary boost in our ability to concentrate. We become more alert and engaged, so we perform better on visual-spatial tasks.
Support for this interpretation comes from a study of more than 8,000 school children living in the United Kingdom (Schellenberg and Hallam 2005). It was 1996, when the rock band, Blur, was very popular among British youth. So researchers randomly assigned some of the kids to listen to Mozart, and others to listen to Blur. After 10 minute listening sessions, the students took a short test of visual-spatial ability, and their performance depended on group assignment: Kids who’d just listened to Blur performed better than kids who’d just listened to Mozart.
So the effect seemed to depend on the kind of music kids liked, not on listening to Mozart’s music in particular.
We could therefore argue that the Mozart effect is not supported by the evidence. Or, at the very least, that it’s badly named. It might better be termed the “pleasant and energizing music effect.” But what if you don’t even need music to induce these short-term enhancements in visual-spatial ability? Consider an experiment that pitted the music of Mozart against the prose of best-selling author.
In a study of 28 college students, researchers tested two conditions:
- listening to Mozart, and
- listening to a short story by Stephen King.
The experiment used a within-subject design, meaning that each participant underwent both conditions (on different days). And what the researchers found was that individuals performed better after whichever experience they preferred — listening the Mozart, or listening to the short story (Nantais and Schellenberg 1999).
It was a small study, and one that needs to be replicated. But assuming that some people really do get a boost from Stephen King (and not from Mozart), we need to rename our effect yet again. Instead of “the Mozart effect,” or “the pleasant and energizing music effect,” a more accurate label might be “the pleasant and energizing experience effect.”
What about infants? Does the Mozart effect work on babies?
It’s funny that people often associate the Mozart effect with babies, because (as far as I can tell) nobody has ever offered persuasive evidence that Mozart’s music delivers cognitive benefits to human infants. The closest thing I’ve found are experimental studies of rodents that report cognitive improvements in individuals who were played Mozart’s Sonata K.448 during infancy. Compared to control groups who listened to alternative music (e.g., pieces by Philip Glass or Beethoven), rodents exposed to Mozart showed superior skills in navigating a maze (Rauscher et al 1998; Aoun et al 2005).
But if the evidence for a Mozart effect among babies is lacking, there are intriguing hints about a related phenonomen: It’s possible that our infants reap cognitive benefits from musical training. In particular, babies who engage in playful, rhythmic, music activities may end up with better language skills. To learn more about it, read my article, “Can musical training help babies learn language?”
And medical applications? Is there a Mozart effect on health?
Some studies have reported that patients enjoy improved outcomes after listening to the music of Mozart. But would people experience similar outcomes if they listened to other music? Or engaged in some other, pleasurable, non-musical activity? That isn’t entirely clear.
A few studies have taken the step of testing different kinds of music. For example, in experiments, people who listened to Mozart’s music experienced greater drops in blood pressure than did people listening to the music of Johann Strauss, ABBA, or the Beatles (Trapp and Voit 2016; Gruhlke et al 2015).
But other studies have suggested that personal preferences are important. For instance, research on anxiety suggests that patients enjoy the greatest anti-anxiety effects when they get to choose the music they listen to (Bradt et al 2013).
And when researchers have reviewed the field as a whole, they tend to agree: There simply haven’t been enough studies — randomized, controlled studies — to make strong inferences (Dastgheib et al 2014; Pauwels et al 2014; Kühlmann et al 2016). Yes, music listening probably has beneficial health effects, if for no other reason that it can help us cope with stress (Pauwels et al 2014; Kühlmann et al 2016). There are also some intriguing clinical studies suggesting that a daily dose of Mozart — specifically Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major (K448) — can reduce the frequency of seizures in people with epilepsy (Dastgheib et al 2014; Brackney and Brooks 2018; Quon et al 2021). But future studies may support different conclusions. We must wait and see.
So has the Mozart effect been debunked?
One could reasonably argue that the Mozart effect has been debunked — if we’re talking about the notion that Mozart’s music has special or unique effects on visual-spatial performance. For health outcomes? It’s too early to say.
That doesn’t mean that listening to music can’t stimulate us to pay more attention, or enhance our moods. If you are feeling bored or sluggish, a few minutes of pleasant, rousing music might make you feel more alert and engaged. It’s not the only way to get there, but it can be a very enjoyable way.
Moreover, it’s possible that a related, but distinct, phenomenon — participating in musical training — might have a positive impact on the development of language skills.
Thus, there is reason for teachers to use music in the classroom. And of course listening to music is a profound and important part of the human experience. It’s something we should share with our children regardless of any practical uses it might have. But we shouldn’t expect that merely listening to music will make us smarter.
Interested in the cognitive effects of musical training? It’s not only babies who benefit. Learning to play a musical instrument trains the ear and develops hand-eye coordination. It changes the way the brain processes sound, including speech sounds (e.g., Chobert et al 2014; Carpentier et al 2016). And some experiments support the idea that music training can lead to small improvements in cognitive function.
For more information, see my article, “Music and intelligence: Do music lessons improve cognitive skills?”
And for additional ways to foster cognitive development, check out these Parenting Science articles:
Finally, if you’re wondering how early in life children start responding to music, you might enjoy my article, “How do babies respond to music in the womb?”
References: The Mozart Effect
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Brackney DE and Brooks JL. 2018. Complementary and Alternative Medicine: The Mozart Effect on Childhood Epilepsy-A Systematic Review. J Sch Nurs. 34(1):28-37.
Bradt J, Dileo C, Magill L, Teague A. 2016. Music interventions for improving psychological and physical outcomes in cancer patients. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016 Aug 15;(8):CD006911.
Dastgheib SS, Layegh P, Sadeghi R, Foroughipur M, Shoeibi A, Gorji A. 2014. The effects of Mozart’s music on interictal activity in epileptic patients: systematic review and meta-analysis of the literature. Curr Neurol Neurosci Rep. 14(1):420.
Gruhlke LC, Patrício MC, Moreira DM. 2015. Mozart, but not the Beatles, reduces systolic blood pressure in patients with myocardial infarction. Acta Cardiol. 70(6):703-6
He WJ, Wong WC, Hui AN. 2017. Emotional Reactions Mediate the Effect of Music Listening on Creative Thinking: Perspective of the Arousal-and-Mood Hypothesis. Front Psychol. 8:1680.
Hetland L. 2000. Listening to music enhances spatial-temporal reasoning: Evidence for the “Mozart effect.” The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 34(3/4), 105–148.
Holden C. 1998. Mozart for Georgia newborns. Science 279 (5352): 663.
Kühlmann AYR, Etnel JRG, Roos-Hesselink JW, Johannes Jeekel, Bogers AJJC, Takkenberg JJM. 2016. Systematic review and meta-analysis of music interventions in hypertension treatment: a quest for answers. BMC Cardiovasc Disord. 16: 69.
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Quon RJ, Casey MA, Camp EJ, Meisenhelter S, Steimel SA, Song Y, Testorf ME, Leslie GA, Bujarski KA, Ettinger AB, Jobst BC. 2021. Musical components important for the Mozart K448 effect in epilepsy. Sci Rep. 11(1):16490.
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Schellenberg EG. 2004. Music lessons enhance IQ. Psychological Science 15(8) 511-514.
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Schellenberg EG, Nakata T, Hunter PG, and Tamota S. 2007. Exposure to music and cognitive performance: tests of children and adults. Psychology of music 35(1): 5-19.
Trappe HJ and Voit G. 2016. The Cardiovascular Effect of Musical Genres: A Randomized Controlled Study on the Effect of Compositions by W. A. Mozart, J. Strauss, and ABBA. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 113(20): 347–352.
image of girl listening with earphones by istock / globalmoments
Written content last modified 7/22
text includes portions from earlier version of this article written by the same author