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It has been said that listening to Mozart’s music can make babies smarter. Erik Meijs looks into whether there is any scientific truth to this.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, by Barbara Krafft (public domain)
Even if you are not (yet) a parent, you have probably heard of the Mozart effect. This is the idea that the intelligence of children – including babies – can be boosted by having them listen to music composed by Mozart. This idea may sound plausible, Mozart undeniably was a genius himself. So perhaps by listening to his music some of his intelligence might rub off on us. This is probably why classical music albums that promise to help boost how well children learn are so widely available. Nevertheless, is there any scientific evidence for the effects of Mozart’s music on intelligence?
Let’s start by having a look at the initial study that sparked global media interest for the Mozart effect. In 1993, a study1 found that participants who listened to a Mozart composition (sonata for two Pianos in D major) performed better on a spatial task than other participants who listened to relaxing music or to silence.
Does this prove that the Mozart effect exists? Probably not. There are several aspects of the study that do not support this claim. First, the experiment was done with college students, not babies. Second, the experimenters measured only one specific spatial task. There is no evidence that there are any effects on intelligence in general. Third and most importantly, the effects generally last only for about as long as the experiment (max. 15 minutes), which contradicts claims that babies’ intelligence can be enhanced on a longer timescale.
Furthermore, follow-up studies have indicated that any existing effect may not even be specific to Mozart’s music or music at all. Similar effects on spatial task performance have been found after listening to classical music composed by Schubert, certain pop songs or even after listening to a story. They key may not be the complexity of Mozart’s musical composition, but simply listening to something that arouses both excitement and interest2.
Thus, while some types of music may influence your performance on specific tasks, it’s unlikely that passively listening to music will boost your overall intelligence on any relevant timescale. The Mozart effect is, regrettably, a neuro-myth.
This blog was written by Erik Meijs. Edited by Jeroen.
Do you want to learn more about neuro-myths? Come to Erik’s neuro-myths lecture at the Donders Institute Open Day! For more information, see http://www.ru.nl/donders/agenda-news/donders-open-day-2016/.