The Mozart Effect: Fact or Fiction?
I'm listening to Mozart right now - not only because I love his music, but because I'm hoping it might improve my spatial skills such as navigating my way around town or deciding which container to use for the amorphous amount of leftover stew.
Improve my spatial skills for the next 12 minutes, that is. You see, the "Mozart effect," which took the health and parenting community by storm in the 1990s, is not as earth shattering as some proclaim. Sure, several studies showed that listening to Mozart was associated with some modest improvements on different kinds of tests, but the idea that listening to Mozart could make you smarter or develop child prodigies was, I'm afraid, a big dollop of wishful thinking.
Here's the lowdown on Mozart research and what it really means:
- In 1993, Rauscher found that after participants listened to Mozart's sonata for two pianos (K448) for approximately 10 minutes, they showed substantially better spatial skills compared to participants who listened to relaxation instructions or simply to silence. However, this intriguing effect didn't last beyond 10 to 15 minutes.
- Positron emission tomography (PET) scans of the brain have shown that the parts of the brain involved in processing music overlap with areas of the brain responsible for spatial reasoning (understanding where things are in relation to each other, how big or small things are relative to each other, etc.).
- In 1997, Rauscher and her colleagues expanded the Mozart research by looking at the effects on children of longer exposure to Mozart. They found that preschool kids who received keyboard lessons for six months were not only able to play Mozart - they also showed improved spatial reasoning skills that persisted after 24 hours. Unfortunately, the children were not tested again after that time, so we don't know how long the effects lasted.
- Later, research on the Mozart effect in individuals with epilepsy found that participants who listened to the same sonata used in the original research (K448) experienced a noticeable decrease in epileptic activity as shown on an electroencephalogram (EEG).
Why was Mozart's sonata for two pianos (K448) chosen in the first place? It turns out that Albert Einstein, a bona fide authority on Mozart, considered it one of the most sophisticated, profound compositions among all of Mozart's works. Some scientists tested whether other types of music yielded similar results, but they largely came up empty. Neither old-time pop music nor compositions by Philip Glass resulted in improved spatial skills. However, one song by Yanni was somewhat successful. Interestingly, the song was similar to Mozart's sonata in tempo, melody, harmony, and structure.
What do we make of all this? It certainly doesn't hurt to listen to Mozart, and it may even be beneficial for those with epilepsy. But if you're looking for an easy way to increase your IQ or to become the next Yo-Yo Ma, I wouldn't count on Mozart to get you there. But hey, why not just listen to him for the pleasure of it? I'm still listening to him now, and it's made writing this blog post all the sweeter.
Jenkins, J. S. (2001). The Mozart effect. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 94(4), 170-172.