The effect of the Mozart Effect

In 1993, an article in the prestigious academic journal Nature created massive public interest in the power of music on the brain. The study reported that college students who listened to a Mozart piano concerto before taking a test that measured visual-spatial abilities did better than those who received relaxation instructions or silence. Authors Frances H. Rauscher, a psychologist and cellist, and Gordon L. Shaw, a physicist, never claimed that “music makes you smarter.” In fact, they noted that music’s cognitive benefit to subjects dissipated after 10 minutes.


No matter. The “Mozart Effect” got widespread popular media coverage and parents thought they had found a way to enhance their children’s IQ by passive listening to music. In the late 1990’s, every child born in Georgia under the governorship of Zell Miller received a cassette tape or compact disc of classical music. There was tremendous enthusiasm for the possibility that music could make you smarter. In 1999, the effect was given a requiem, also in Nature: The study could not be replicated. Nonetheless, the commercialization of Mozart’s music for children continued to spread like wildfire. Many erroneous claims about improved IQs were made in books and recordings. 


I watched with fascination as this unfolded. Without a doubt, there were some wonderfully positive effects from this. Subscription rates for symphony orchestras increased. More families were listening to classical music both live and in the home. But there were negative effects, too. Music educators began to advocate curricula with the “music makes you smarter” slogan. Worse yet, some educators wanted to use music education to improve test scores in grades K through 12 – as if studying music for the sake of its art was not enough. Why, I thought, should we ask music teachers, “What did you do to improve students’ history scores?” I couldn’t imagine history teachers facing a similar expectation to improve students’ understanding of music.


Another negative effect was the elevation of Mozart above other composers. If Mozart’s music could have had a priming effect on cognition, perhaps it was due to the style of composition common at that time in history. His music features melodies that are played and then slightly varied with each repetition, in “assumable patterns.” This writing style enhances familiarity, even during a first listening. The pieces progress in a steady fashion. There are no changes in loudness (dynamics), and no quickening or slowing of the beat (tempo). The brain likes repetition and identifiable patterns, but also some variation to avoid boredom. Those elements combine to create music that could perhaps prime cognition. Mozart was not the only composer who wrote in this style. The music of Haydn and Bach,and some of Mendelssohn’s are similar. 


So, there continue to be lingering effects of the Mozart non-Effect. If we were to focus on musical elements that might have nonmusical effects – even the effect of improving cognition – we perhaps would be heading down a better path of discovery. 

-- Kathleen M. Howland


Kathleen M. Howland, Ph.D.,  is a certified music therapist (MT-BC, NMT/F) and speech therapist (CCC-SLP). She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses at Berklee College of Music and the Boston Conservatory of Music.