Samantha Goldstein: The Mozart Myth

Have you heard of the Mozart Effect? In popular culture it is the notion that listening to the music of Mozart can enhance an individuals level of intelligence. The effect has been particularly geared towards children and babies who are believed by many to benefit from listening to the composers work. As a musician I am often asked about the cognitive effects of classical music on children. I am approached by excited parents who just purchased one of the many "Mozart for babies" CD's available off Amazon Prime, claiming that by listening to this CD their child will develop faster than other children of that same age. However, research regarding the Mozart Effect has yielded less than clear answers. In this article I will attempt to separate fact from fiction and shed light on some of the misconceptions surrounding the Mozart Effect.

The Mozart Effect gained popularity in 1993 after a study entitled Music and Spatial Task Performance was published in the highly respected journal Nature. The study, which was performed at The University of California, Irvine, involved exposing college students to one of three possible listening conditions; a Mozart piano sonata, a relaxation tape, or silence. Upon completion of the listening condition the student was then asked to perform a of spatial reasoning. Findings from this study showed a statistically significant rise in the test scores of students asked to perform a test of spatial reasoning in favor of those students who listened to ten minutes of Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major (K. 448), over those who heard the relaxation tape or silence options. Is it possible that listening to Mozart's music with all its complexities can improve your intelligence?

Georgia Governor Zell Miller certainly thought so. In 1998 Governor Miller called for the state budge to allocate $105,000 to provide every new mother with a CD of classical music. Now it is important to note that the initial 1993 study yielded results from college aged students only. Researchers at that time had only speculated as to how the results of the initial study could have implications on assisting infants and children with the development of cognitive abilities. The possibilities of this so called Mozart Effect struck a chord with many Americans who believed that listening to Mozart could increase your intelligence.

Unfortunately, widespread misinterpretation of the initial study contributed to a general confusion that exists to this day in regards to what “the Mozart Effect” is. One source may tell you that the Mozart Effect is the effect of music lessons on a child throughout a lifetime of enrichment in the arts. Another may claim that listening to classical music from a time after conception will enhance a child's IQ. The initial findings from the UC Irvine study showed a temporary increase in spatiotemporal performance of college students for a length of about ten minutes after listening to the Mozart Sonata. In a nutshell what this means is that in the minutes following the Mozart listening condition,students performed better on puzzle and paper folding tasks. However, claims made about the possible effect of Mozart's music as it applies to children were at that time pure speculation.

In fact, it wasn't until 2006 that a study was conducted attempting to replicate the findings from the initial study using children.


Over the years two theories have come to dominate scholarly discussion of the Mozart Effect. The first theory is the Trion model and the second is the Arousal and Mood hypothesis. The Trion model postulates that exposure to Mozart's music primes the brain for spatiotemporal tasks by activating those same firing patterns in the brain that would be used while solving a puzzle. The Arousal and Mood hypothesis claims that the Mozart Effect is actually a function of the subjects enjoyment of the stimulus, which is associated with an increase in arousal and a positive mood that effects cognition.

The first study to access the possibility of a “Mozart Effect” in children was conducted in 2006 in Britain and involved re-analyzing data from eight-thousand children collected in a previous study. In the initial study children were split into three groups and asked to complete two spatiotemporal tasks after listening to one of three listening conditions. The first listening condition involved three popular songs at the time of the original experiment, including: Blur - Country House, Mark Morrison-Return of the Mack, and PJ and Duncan-Stepping Stone. The second group heard the last ten minutes of Mozart's string Quintet in D Major (K.593), and the third and final group listened to the second author discussing the experiment with a journalist.

The initial study concluded that the data provided no support for the Mozart Effect via the Trio model. However, the re-analysis performed in 2006 showed significant data in favor of the arousal and mood hypothesis showing that those children who listened to the popular music performed better on paper folding tasks than did their counterparts who listened to either the Mozart or discussion of the experiment. At the crux of the issue is then a question of how musical preference would appear to effect cognition.

Music can affect your mood and arousal and mood can in turn positively or negatively influence cognition. It would seem that if you wanted to get a jump on your origami skills or finish the puzzle that is taking up valuable space on your kitchen table, all that would be necessary to enhance your spatiotemporal performance for a short time would be to put on music you enjoy. To this degree there is not only a Mozart effect but also a Schubert effect, a Taylor Swift effect, or even a Wu-Tang Clan effect. It would appear that temporary enhancement of spatiotemporal reasoning is the result of a positive mood more so than a specific response to Mozart's music. Suffice it to say that listening to Mozart certainly will not do your child any harm. Exposing your children to classical music may instill in them a life long love of the arts. However, Mozart can not be said to be solely responsible for a temporary increase in spatiotemporal performance.

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