The Mozart Effect (Explaining a Musical Theory)

Will Listening to Mozart Really Make You Smarter? Stay Tuned.

Each year, thousands of products are sold in the name of bettering your child. Whether it be educational videotapes, books, or toys-- they all claim to enhance youth intelligence. Have you ever thought that playing a classical song might produce the same results?

The Mozart Effect refers to a popular scientific theory that listening to Mozart’s compositions (and other classical music) will increase spatial intelligence. Most studies focus on children and their reactions when listening.

In this post, we will discuss:

  • What is the Mozart Effect?
  • What is the science behind the Mozart Effect?
  • Is this fact or fiction?

What is the Mozart Effect?

In 1993, psychologist Francis Rauscher created an experiment to test the relevance of listening to music and test-taking. He sat 36 college students in a room and played them 10 minutes of a Mozart Piano Sonata. After doing so, they were told to take a test of spatial reasoning (mentally manipulating objects and imagining them in different locations and positions).

Rauscher then took a group of students and played 10 minutes of silence and 10 minutes of a monotone voice. A spatial reasoning test was given after both recordings to each of the groups.

The results showed that the students scored significantly higher on the tests after listening to Mozart’s Sonata -- opening the floor to hundreds of new experiments.

A portrait of Mozart in front of green sheet music.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed more than 600 musical works. Image courtesy of Mental Floss.

After the news got out about Rauscher’s experiment, the theory was quickly distorted by the media.

"Generalizing these results to children is one of the first things that went wrong. Somehow or another the myth started exploding that children that listen to classical music from a young age will do better on the SAT, they'll score better on intelligence tests in general, and so forth.” -- Francis Rauscher

A common misconception is that the original experiment proves the effect of classical music on general intelligence, but Rauscher only tested for spatial.

Although Rauscher did not intend her results to apply to early childhood development theories, that did not stop other researches from connecting the dots.

Mozart Effect and Children

According to the New York Times, playing Mozart does not result in a big gap between children’s spatial testing, but music involvement does.

Dr. Hetland, a cognitive psychologist, conducted 15 studies with 700 preschool and elementary age children that showed this to be true. The children received 15 minute periods of active musical instruction weekly. The control group of children either received arithmetic instruction or no instruction.

The analysis showed a large gap in spatial reasoning scores between the control group and those who had musical instruction, larger than that of the Mozart Effect’s results.

A young boy in a plaid shirt holds a stereo with red music notes above his head.
Involvement in music is very beneficial in early childhood development Image courtesy of KD Novelties.

Trade-in those CDs for a piano lesson, and your child will be sure to better their spatial intelligence.

Mozart Effect and Pregnancy

This theory is almost always referred to in pregnancy. While Mozart may not be the exact cause of your baby’s intelligence, music does make their brains more active.

In 2013, research emerged showing that exposing unborn babies to music had a long-term effect on their brain. These newborn babies could actually remember versions of songs that were played to them in the womb!

The Science Behind the Mozart Effect

While discussing the Mozart Effect, we have also been discussing its effects on spatial reasoning. Spatial reasoning is important because it is responsible for how we problem-solve and think abstractly or “outside of the box” -- which is highly valued in the workplace.

Scientists think that listening to music and spatial reasoning are related because they are processed similarly in the brain. Music activates a variety of areas in our brains but focuses primarily on the temporal, prefrontal cortex, and parietal.

Brain areas concerned with spatial reasoning include the prefrontal and temporal regions that overlap with music processing. Therefore, listening to music causes direct activation of the same areas concerned with problem-solving.

A spacial reasoning test featuring an orange figure.
A spatial reasoning test usually looks something like this. Image courtesy of Practice Aptitude Tests.

In the original Mozart experiments, tests concluded that the effect on spatial reasoning was short term. However, when we apply these experiments to children and pair them with interactive musical training, the effects are long-term. The longer they experience musical training, the longer they have superior spatial reasoning.

Involvement in music has also been found to be related to higher scores in mathematics.

Fact or Fiction?

Many researchers have brought to light certain advantages of listening to Mozart but is the evidence enough?

Theory Drawbacks

Despite what certain scientists seem to find in their Mozart experiments, a lot of evidence supports that Mozart has nothing to do with the effects and it’s all just a coincidence.

The increase in spatial intelligence (Mozart Effect)  may be caused solely by how we feel about a song. If a certain type of music makes us feel happier, then we are going to see improvements in mood, and the opposite for pieces that make us sad or lonely.

When we are happy, we are energized and ultimately, more engaged, leading to a better performance on spatial testing.

A study of more than 8,000 school-age children in the United Kingdom supports such claims. They played Mozart against the popular rock band (for 1996) Blur. The children listening to Blur performed better than those who listened to Mozart because they enjoyed it more.

Several other studies with pop music have been conducted and found similar results.

Theory Support

Despite possible debunkings, there is still plenty of support for the Mozart Effect.

In epilepsy patients, Mozart’s music has been proven to reduce the severity of seizures.

Listening to Mozart has also consistently raised the spatial IQ of Alzheimer patients, and profoundly affects intelligence in lab rats. All of these findings were unable to be reproduced using any other composer or artist.

So, what can we take away from this? Listening to any type of music is good for our brains, and being involved in music is even better! Although Mozart may not be the reason why your child seems to solve puzzles better than their friends, it certainly doesn’t hurt to put the theory into practice. Whether it's a 90’s rock band or a classical sonata, music has a way of bringing out the best in us.

Edited by Cara Jernigan on January 17, 2021

Jessica Fortunato
Jessica Fortunato is a writer who also enjoys photography, music, and hiking.
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