Mozart effect proved untrue by Harvard--why no one should care

By Hayley Lamberson

Last week, a group of Harvard researchers discredited the widely held notion that exposing your children to classical music makes them smarter. In a paper titled "Two Randomized Trials Provide No Consistent Evidence for Nonmusical Cognitive Benefits of Brief Preschool Music Enrichment," published in the open-access journal PLos ONE, doctoral student Samuel Mehr and Dr. Elizabeth Spelke stated that previous studies claiming that music education increases a chlid's IQ did not utilize proper research methods. The researchers performed their own tests and, though they did find a temporary increase in spatial-navigation ability, the ability to conceptualize and navigate around physical objects, in those children exposed to music education, a second, randomized trial did not replicate these results.

This paper isn't the first to make the assertion that Baby Mozart and the like don't make your child smarter. In fact, it's one of many voices in the ongoing debate on the "Mozart effect," the phenomenon generally meaning that there's a strong correlation between music and intelligence. For more than 20 years, researchers have made conflicting claims regarding the Mozart effect, with no definite end in sight. It begs the question: Does it really matter if listening to classical music or learning to play an instrument makes you smarter? Is that the sole benefit to making music a part of your life?

It's a bold, but important question to ask in the face of dwindling interest in music education, both in schools and at home. It's never been more necessary to examine the true reasons why music is so important. Further research and practical considerations say that there are myriad benefits to appreciating music at any age, either through listening or instruction. So really, who cares about the Mozart effect? If Spelke and Mehr's study proves anything, it's that the answer doesn't lie in this decades-long phenomenon.

What Is the Mozart Effect?

Dr. Alfred Tomatis first introduced the Mozart effect in his 1991 book Pourquoi Mozart? (Why Mozart?). As a practitioner of alternative medicine, he asserted that listening to classical music such as Mozart "retrains" the ear and promotes brain development. Though his findings were popular in some circles, the Mozart effect didn't hit the mainstream until 1993 when researchers Frances Rauscher, Gordon Shaw, and Catherine Ky published a paper titled "Music and spatial task performance" in the esteemed science journal Nature. Interested in the veracity of the Mozart effect, their studies showed that research participants who listened to Mozart showed a temporary boost in performance on spatial reasoning tasks taken from the Stanford-Binet IQ test compared to the control group.

Their findings caused a shockwave both in the scientific community and among the masses.

A popular 1994 article in the New York Times, for example, made the broad assumption that "listening to Mozart actually makes you smarter." Scientists and pop-science authors began capitalizing on the business potential of selling "training your ear" programs to those looking to increase their intelligence. Don Campbell, a classically-trained-musician-turned-author, released The Mozart Effect: Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the Mind, and Unlock the Creative Spirit, a book that become so popular it eventually blossomed into a multimedia enterprise for Campbell.

Yet neither Tomatis' nor Rauscher, Shaw, and Ky's findings support what we think of as the Mozart effect today--the idea that learning music, not just listening to it, makes you smarter. This particular assumption came much later in the decade.

In 1997, Rauscher and Shaw published another study, titled "Music training causes long-term enhancement of preschool children's spatial-temporal reasoning," in the journal Neurological Research. In this paper, they claimed that teaching young children how to play a musical instrument permanently alters their spatial-temporal reasoning abilities. According to these findings, learning music causes a permanent increase in intelligence, as opposed to the temporary boost from just listening.

This new study created an even bigger impact. Programs like Baby Mozart became wildly popular. Campbell wrote another book, The Mozart Effect For Children. Thousands, if not millions, of concerned parents enrolled their children in music lessons. School officials pushed for music education in school. Of course, with this bold new assertion came a wave of skepticism from the neurology, psychology, and early-childhood education communities.

In 1999, Christopher Chabris of the Harvard Medical School and Kenneth Steele of Appalachian State University published the first two articles arguing against the Mozart effect. In a two-part study titled "Prelude or requiem for the 'Mozart effect'?" published in Nature, the two researchers performed a meta-analysis of Rauscher and Shaw's 1993 experiment. They found that, not only were the original findings statistically insignificant, they also couldn't be replicated. Steele went on that year to publish another paper in Psychological Science--"The Mystery of the Mozart Effect: Failure to Replicate." Steele reconducted the 1993 experiment once again, this time focusing on the exact procedures laid out by Rauscher and Shaw. Following them to a T, he achieved a negative result.

These two papers set the standard for arguments against the Mozart effect--namely, that any positive findings are fleeting at best and a matter of chance at worst. You can see a similar train of thought with Spelke and Mehr.

But this isn't the final word on the Mozart effect. Since then, there have been just as many papers supporting Rauscher and Shaw, though in less certain, more modified, terms. A 1997 paper published by Wilson Brown in the Journal of Psychology replicated the study on college-age students and found a small but significant increase in spatial-reasoning performance in those who listened to Mozart. Schellenberg and Husain's "Mood, Arousal, and The Mozart Effect," from a 2001 issue of Psychological Science, asserted that this boost in performance comes from the mood effects of bright, energetic music like a Mozart sonata. Later, Schellenberg further supported the Mozart effect with more research demonstrating that 6-year-olds who took voice or piano lessons had a greater increase in Weschler IQ scores than their peers.

There's even evidence backing up Tomatis' initial definition of the Mozart effect, that listening to music enhances brain performance. Earlier this year, Amee Baird and Séverine Samson from the University of Newcastle in Australia found that patients with acquired brain injuries, such as Alzheimer's disease, who listened to Top 100 pop songs recalled a high number of music-based memories. The music acted as a trigger for their brain, activating previously dormant memories. Also this year, Canadian researchers published a study in The Journal of Neuroscience claiming that children who began music lessons early in their childhood, when their brain was more pliable, had greater connections between the motor and sensory parts of their brain--a permanent boost to their brain power.

These are just a few of the numerous papers that have come out discussing the Mozart effect in its myriad forms. Spelke and Mehr's is simply the newest addition to a collection that is sure to keep on growing. As you can see, the evidence out there is staggering, yet doesn't point in a clear direction.

Changing the Conversation

For anyone who isn't a highly trained scientist, wading through the evidence can be confusing and unproductive. Is the Mozart effect real or not? No one knows. No one can even agree on what it means exactly. Yet parents, school administrators, and others vital to continuing music education cling to the theory. In fact, in 1998, piggybacking off the Mozart effect phenomenon, the governor of Georgia vowed to set aside state funds so that children could receive a tape or CD of classical music--a program that no longer exists.

If this mountain of studies and papers and articles proves anything, though, it's time for a change in the conversation. Instead of asking whether the Mozart effect is real and thus music an integral part of success, we should ask, what are the other benefits to studying and appreciating music?

Many people have asked these questions before and have written thousands of words on the subject. In the past 40 years, academic research has claimed that listening to music can enhance your concentration and productivity, and that learning music can make you more creative, more confident, and can lead to greater academic success.

One of the earliest papers linking music to success is Donald Michel and Dorothea Martin Farrell's "Music and Self-Esteem: Disadvantaged Problem Boys in an All-Black Elementary School," published in the Journal of Research in Music Education in 1973. They claimed that so-called "problem" students in fourth through sixth grade showed a marked improvement in assessments of self-worth when given simple music lessons. Nearly 30 years later, Eugenia Costa-Giomi at UT Austin took 117 fourth-grade children and gave 63 of them personal piano lessons for three years. At the end of the study, tests showed that the children who received music lessons demonstrated a greater increase in self-esteem and school grades than the control group--though there was no correlation between standardized testing performance and music lessons.

In 2003, Mark Kiehn of Midwestern State University found some evidence that elementary-aged children who learned musical improvisation tested higher for figural creativity--a form of abstract thinking useful in subjects like math and English.

A 2012 New York Times article reported that a group of researchers were studying the effect of music on workplace productivity. The conclusion was that listening to a favorite piece of music (preferably wordless) for a few minutes drastically increased creativity and productivity--likely due to the increase in mood.

Of course, all of these studies are just as volatile as the Mozart effect. It's difficult for the average person to determine whether they are accurate and meaningful, and a wave of further research disproving them could come at any time. However, one fact does emerge from this mass of information "proving" the usefulness of music and music education: People enjoy listening and playing music. Though the particularities of this statement may be debated, most academics agree that music makes you a better person, whether that means a better worker, a better student, or a better citizen.

Use Your Common Sense

So instead of using studies and statistics to back up the importance of music, we should look to our own lives and real-world experience. Instead of asking, "Is the Mozart effect real?" or "What's the correlation between IQ and music?" we should ask, "How has music helped me personally?" In these terms, it's clear that music education deserves a place in schools and throughout life.

When you learn music, you are, at the very least, learning a new skill. Our skill set is a vital part of who we are and what we take pride in. If you don't have any demonstrable skills, it can be difficult to have feelings of self-worth or pride. Maybe music itself isn't immediately useful to most paths to success, but knowing even a little bit about music theory or playing an instrument can make you feel worthwhile--the most important key to success.

Besides, the skills you learn in music lessons are skills that transfer to other parts of life. Learning to read music is an exercise in abstract thinking, useful in more advanced academic work and many high-paying jobs. Playing an instrument involves multitasking, an invaluable asset in our fast-paced world. Improvisation and musicality, two things that come from higher-level musical training, teach you creativity and adaptability, also useful in English class, math class, and beyond. And because learning an instrument takes practice, much of which is outside of the classroom, it necessarily teaches you discipline--perhaps one of the most important guarantors of success.

And we shouldn't ignore the simple fact that music is just plain fun. Unfortunately, this isn't at the top of most educators' and parents' requirements anymore. Yet common sense dictates that giving children an outlet for personal expression, creativity, and excess energy makes them more focused when it comes to other schoolwork. And everyone knows it's easier to excel at something you enjoy.

For those who need cold, hard facts, an article from a 2001 issue of the Journal of Research in Music Education discusses children and their satisfaction with music education. 558 children who took private lessons were asked to evaluate why they enjoyed their hobby, controlled for age, sex, and type of instrument. Practice time, a greater sense of satisfaction and pride, and feelings of responsibility were the primary reasons why children enjoyed taking their lessons. Enjoyment goes hand-in-hand with learning life skills.

It's clear that music education is a holistic experience. Learning music doesn't just make you better at music; it makes you better at a lot of things, things that may not show up on the SAT but are still useful. Yet in an age of fast results and standardized testing, anything holistic doesn't stand a chance when it comes to budget cuts.

And that's unfortunate. Because it couldn't be more obvious that music education and music appreciation enrich our lives and make us better people. If you need the hard data, it's there. But, as the Mozart effect demonstrates, when you rely on studies you don't really understand to back up your claims, you can sometimes find yourself in the wrong. But when you look at the problem from all angles, you see music's true worth. Will there ever be a definite answer to the question of the Mozart effect? Maybe, maybe not. Does it have any place in the battle for keeping music education alive? Absolutely not.