September 25, 2020

Does listening to classical music really make you smarter?


There is a belief that exposing children to classical music during their development stage benefits intelligence development. This also extends to pregnant women who, during the process, choose to listen to this type of music because they believe it benefits the baby. Thanks to these beliefs, a very large number of classical music records have been sold since the beginning of the 90s, especially focused on this audience and that exploit this supposed benefit as a marketing element. This phenomenon is known as the “Mozart Effect”.

Listening to music: what benefits it has for health

Listening to music: what benefits it has for health

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The “Mozart Effect” arises in the early 90’s, first due to the publication of the book Pourquoi Mozart by the otolaryngologist and researcher Alfred A. Tomatis. In it he affirmed that the composer’s music helped in the therapies he followed with his patients and that it could even cure depression. But the real boom occurs with the publication in 1993 in the journal Nature of the article Music and spatial task performance by physicist Gordon Shaw, psychologist Frances Rauscher and Catherine Ky of the University of California Irvine. The article released data from a study in which 36 students were exposed to listening to the Sonata for two pianos in D major, K. 448 for 10 minutes. Students who had listened to Mozart scored higher than those who had not on a posttest of spatio-temporal reasoning. The tests consisted of a reasoning test according to Stanford-Binet and others in folding and cutting paper.

This study published in 1993 in Nature is done with college students, not with children or babies. And what is more important, the study does not speak at any time of IQ, it is not affirmed that this type of music increases intelligence, since it only shows an improvement in spatio-temporal reasoning abilities. In addition to all this, the experiment also claims that the effects or benefits only last about 15 minutes.

It is all these variables that distance the study and its results from what was finally published in the press about it, stating that a study published in Nature stated that listening to Mozart makes us smarter. The prestigious The New York Times published an article signed by the renowned musicologist Alex Ross in which it was stated that “scientists have determined that listening to Mozart makes you smarter.” Something totally false, no scientist had said such a thing and that statement cannot be extracted from the 1993 study. But that it was not true did not matter too much, since it was used as a marketing strategy and in the following decade around two million were sold of Mozart Music Albums for Children.

In 1997, musician Don Campbell published a book that he titled The Mozart Effect: playing the power of music to heal the body, strengthen the mind and unlock the creative spirit. In it, in addition to other statements that have nothing to do with science, he relied on the aforementioned study to draw his own conclusions such as that listening to the Austrian musician’s piano concertos temporarily increases the intellectual quotient and produces many other benefits in the mental health of individuals.

Although the 1993 study had nothing to do with what was later published in the media, it is true that it yielded data about a very specific and time-limited benefit of listening to Mozart music. Therefore, research was continued on this topic and others were carried out on the benefits of classical music. Studies that are still being carried out to this day.

Rauscher himself continued this path and in 1998, together with other scientists, published another study, this time with data obtained from experimenting with rats. The rats were subjected to the study while they were still in the uterus for up to 60 days after delivery. They were exposed to Mozart music, which the researchers called complex, minimalist music (Philip Glass), white noise, or silence. They then did maze tests for 5 days. Starting on day 3, rats that had been exposed to Mozart moved through the maze faster and with fewer errors than the others. This difference was becoming more noticeable until day 5. Therefore, the results of the study were in line with the previous research, suggesting that repeated exposure to “complex music” favors a development of the space-time capacity of rats, similar to what happened with humans.

Other scientists have taken up the study of this topic to try to find out what the Mozart Effect can and cannot be. In 2001, another group of scientists, this time from the Department of Psychology at York University in Toronto, published a study they titled Arousal, mood and the Mozart effect (Arousal, mood and the Mozart effect). They started from the premise that most of Mozart’s music is written in a major key and therefore has a positivist component, conveys joy, brilliance and a positive mood. The researchers called the Mozart pieces “euphoric pieces.” In front of them they put one in minor mode, the Adage of Albinioni, sad and slow. They measured the participants’ arousal, enjoyment, and mood. The results in the space-time exercises were better for those who listened to music than for those who were silent, but only for those who listened to Mozart. Similarly, the two music selections induced two highly different responses on measures of enjoyment, arousal, and mood. When these differences were held statistically constant, the Mozart effect disappeared. The conclusion that scientists drew from the findings of this study is that there is evidence that the so-called Mozart effect is nothing more than an artifact of the subjects’ arousal and mood.

The German government decided to systematically review the relationship between listening to music and intelligence. For this, they brought together a team of nine specialists made up of neuroscientists, psychologists, educators and philosophers, all of them experts in music. They published the conclusions in a report in 2007, in which they considered that none of the studies published so far had a strong relationship between passive listening to music and increased intelligence. They argued that none of the studies was able to corroborate an effect that lasted longer than 20 minutes. They even say that the effect does not occur only with listening to Mozart, but with any type of music or even reading. They give different treatment to the active practice of music, which they do believe has something to do with the brain development of children, although the studies on this are very limited. They argue that “even if the positive effects of musical practice are more clearly demonstrated in future studies, it is quite likely that this will not make your child a genius.” In any case, they point out that all the studies that have been done are in the short term and that, to have really reliable results, long-term investigations would be necessary.

Already in 2010 the theme was insisted on from the cradle of classical music. A team of psychologists from the University of Vienna published an article in Intelligence magazine. They reviewed nearly 40 independent studies involving about 3,000 people. The conclusion was the same as that of the German Government, none of them proved the existence of a Mozart effect. The person in charge of directing the study, Jakob Pietschnig, did agree that there is a relationship between stimulus and results. That is, a person performs more if they have a stimulus, but this does not mean that listening to Mozart makes you smarter, nor does listening to blues or rap.

One of the latest studies published on the matter is from 2013 and was published by the biologist Nicholas Spitzer of the University of California. The conclusions were similar to those cited above, not showing any increase in brain capacity from listening to the Austrian composer’s music.

Therefore, despite what is believed, no study offers evidence that listening to Mozart or classical music in general at any stage of life makes a subject more intelligent. This means that no, your baby will not be smarter because you listen to Mozart during pregnancy or play his music during his childhood. Anyway, listening to the music of Mozart is a wonderful experience that, although it may not make you smarter, it will not do you any harm either..

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