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Mozart effect

"We have this common internal neural language that we're born with and so if you can exploit that with the right stimuli then you're going to help the brain develop to do the things like reason." -- Dr. Gordon Shaw

"We exposed these animals [rats] in utero and then sixty days after birth to different types of auditory stimulation and then we ran them in a spatial maze. And sure enough, the animals that were exposed to the Mozart completed the maze faster and with fewer errors. And now what we're doing is we're removing their brains so we can slice them and see neuro-anatomically precisely what has changed as a function of this exposure. So it may be that this intense exposure to the music is a type of enrichment that has similar effects on the spatial areas of the hippocampus of the brain." --Dr. Frances Rauscher

"Stories stressing that children's experiences during their early years of life will ultimately determine their scholastic ability, their future career paths, and their ability to form loving relationships have little basis in neuroscience." --John Bruer

The Mozart effect is a term coined by Alfred A. Tomatis for the alleged increase in brain development that occurs in children under age 3 when they listen to the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The idea for the Mozart effect originated in 1993 at the University of California, Irvine, with physicist Gordon Shaw and Frances Rauscher, a former concert cellist and an expert on cognitive development. They studied the effects on a few dozen college students of listening to the first 10 minutes of the Mozart Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major (K.448). They found a temporary enhancement of spatial-temporal reasoning, as measured by the Stanford-Binet IQ test. There were many attempts to replicate their results but most were unsuccessful (Willingham 2006). One researcher commented that the "very best thing that could be said of their [Shaw's and Rauscher's] experiment—were it completely uncontested—would be that listening to bad Mozart enhances short–term IQ" (Linton). Rauscher has moved on to study the effects of Mozart on rats. Both Shaw and Rauscher have speculated that exposure to Mozart enhances spatial-reasoning and memory in humans.

In 1997, Rauscher and Shaw announced that they had scientific proof that piano and singing instruction are superior to computer instruction in enhancing children's abstract reasoning skills.

The experiment included three groups of preschoolers: one group received private piano/keyboard lessons and singing lessons; a second group received private computer lessons; and a third group received no training. Those children who received piano/keyboard training performed 34% higher on tests measuring spatial- temporal ability than the others. These findings indicate that music uniquely enhances higher brain functions required for mathematics, chess, science and engineering (Neurological Research, February 1997).

Shaw and Rauscher have stimulated an industry. They have also created their own institute: The Music Intelligence Neural Development Institute (M.I.N.D.). There is so much research going on to prove the wondrous effects of music that a website has been created just to keep track of all the new developments: MUSICA, which has a section just on the Mozart effect.

Shaw and Rauscher claim that their work has been misrepresented. What they have shown is "that there are patterns of neurons that fire in sequences, and that there appear to be pre-existing sites in the brain that respond to specific frequencies."* This is not quite the same as showing that listening to Mozart increases intelligence in children. Nevertheless, Shaw is not going to wait for the hard evidence to pour in before he cashes in on the desire of parents to enhance their children's intelligence. He has a book and a CD out called Keeping Mozart in Mind. He and his colleagues are convinced that since spatio-temporal reasoning is essential for many higher order cognitive tasks, stimulating the area of the brain associated with spatio-temporal reasoning and doing spatio-temporal exercises will increase a person's intelligence for math, engineering, chess, and science. They even have a software program for sale, which uses no language and aims at exercising spatio-temporal skills with the help of an animated penguin.

Shaw and Rauscher may have spawned an industry, but the mass media and others have created a kind of alternative science that supports the industry. Exaggerated and false claims about music have become so commonplace that it is probably a waste of time to try to correct them. For example, Jamal Munshi, an associate professor of Business Administration at Sonoma State University, collects tidbits of misinformation and gullibility. He used to post them on the Internet as "Weird but True," including the claim that Shaw and Rauscher showed that listening to Mozart's sonata for two pianos in D major "increased SAT scores of students by 51 points." Actually, Shaw and Rauscher gave 36 UC Irvine students a paper folding and cutting test and found the Mozart group showed a temporary 8-9 point increase over their scores when they took the test after either a period of silence or listening to a relaxation tape. (Munshi also claims that science cannot explain how a fly flies. Scientists have been working hard on this crucial problem, so we should give them their due. Some even claim to know how insects fly.)

Don Campbell, however, has become the Carlos Castaneda and P.T. Barnum of the Mozart effect, exaggerating and distorting the work of Shaw, Rauscher, and others for his own benefit. He has trademarked the expression "The Mozart Effect" and peddles himself and his products at www.mozarteffect.com. Campbell claims that he made a blood clot in his brain disappear by humming, praying, and envisioning a vibrating hand on the right side of his skull. Uncritical supporters of alternative medicine don't question this claim, though it is one of those safe claims that can't be proved or disproved. He might as well claim that angels took the clot away. (One wonders why, if music is so good for you, he got a blood clot in the first place. Accidentally listening to rap music?)

The claims that Campbell makes for music are of an almost rococo flamboyance. And like the rococo, just about as substantive. [Cambell claims music can cure just about anything that ails you.] His evidence is usually anecdotal, and even this he misinterprets. Some things he gets completely wrong.

And the whole structure of his argument collapses under simple common sense. If Mozart’s music were able to improve health, why was Mozart himself so frequently sick? If listening to Mozart’s music increases intelligence and encourages spirituality, why aren’t the world’s smartest and most spiritual people Mozart specialists? (Linton)*

The lack of evidence for the Mozart effect has not deterred Cambell from becoming a favorite on the lecture circuit with the naive and uncritical.

When McCall's wants advice on how to lose the blues with music, when PBS wants to interview an expert on how the voice can energize you, when IBM wants a consultant to use music to increase efficiency and harmony in the workplace, when the National Association of Cancer Survivors wants a speaker on the healing powers of music, they turn to Campbell (Campbell's website,  www.mozarteffect.com).

The governors of Tennessee and Georgia started programs that give a Mozart CD to every newborn. Florida's legislature passed a law requiring that classical music be played daily in state-funded childcare and educational programs. Hundreds of hospitals were given free CDs of classical music in May of 1999 by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Foundation. These are well-intentioned gestures, but are they based on solid research that classical music increases a child's intelligence or an adult's healing process? And isn't it likely that the money could be better spent?

Yes, according to Kenneth Steele, a psychology professor at Appalachian State University, and John  Bruer, head of the James S. McDonnell Foundation in St. Louis. Contrary to all the hype, they claim that there is no real intelligence enhancing or health benefit to listening to Mozart. Steele and his colleagues Karen Bass and Melissa Crook claim that they followed the protocols set forth by Shaw and Rauscher but could not "find any kind of effect at all," even though their study tested 125 students. They concluded that "there is little evidence to support intervention programs based on the existence of the Mozart effect." Their research appears in the July 1999 issue of Psychological Science. Two years later, several researchers reported in the same journal that when an effect is observed after intervention with music it is due to "a boost in mood and arousal" (Willingham 2006).

In his book The Myth of the First Three Years, Bruer attacks not only the Mozart effect but several other related myths based on the misinterpretation of recent brain research.

The Mozart effect is an example of how science and the media mix in our world. A suggestion in a few paragraphs in a scientific journal becomes a universal truth in a matter of months, eventually believed even by the scientists who initially recognized how their work had been distorted and exaggerated by the media. Others, smelling the money, jump on the bandwagon and play to the crowd, adding their own myths, questionable claims, and distortions to the mix. In this case, many uncritical supporters line up to defend the faith because at stake here is the future of our children. We then have books, tapes, CDs, institutes, government programs, etc. Soon the myth is believed by millions as a scientific fact. In this case, the process met with little critical resistance because we already know that music can affect feelings and moods, so why shouldn't it affect intelligence and health, even if only slightly and temporarily? It's just commonsense, right? Yes, and all the more reason to be skeptical.

further reading

books and articles

Bruer, John T. The Myth of the First Three Years (Free Press, 1999).

Chabris, C.F. 1999. Prelude or requiem for the 'Mozart effect'? Nature, 400, 826-827.

Chabris, Christopher and Daniel Simons. 2010. The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us. Crown.

Kandel, Eric R. & James H. Schwartz, eds. Principles of Neural Science 4th ed. (McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing, 2000).

Thompson, W.F., Schellenberg, E.G., & Husain, G. 2001. Arousal, mood, and the Mozart Effect. Psychological Science, 12(3), 248-251.

Willingham, Daniel T. 2006.  "Brain-Based" Learning: More Fiction than Fact. American Educator. Fall.


“The Mozart Effect”: A Small Part of the Big Picture by Norman M. Weinberger (2000)

The Mozart Effect by Michael Linton,  head of the Division of Music Theory and Composition at Middle Tennessee State University

"The Mystery of the Mozart Effect - Failure to Replicate" by Kenneth M. Steele, Karen E. Bass, and Melissa D. Crook in Psychological Science Vol. 10 No. 4 July 1999. Available in PDF format (requires Adobe Reader)

In Search of . . .Brain-Based Education by John T. Bruer

The Musical Brain by Eric Chudler

Mozart's nice but doesn't increase IQs

The Steve Halpern Effect

The Mozart Effect by Gary Kliewer (New Scientist) [Mozart plays to mixed reviews]

The Mozart Project

The Don Campbell Effect

Suzuki Music Academy


Music and Brain Plasticity by Steven Novella

A review of the literature on music and brain plasticity was published recently in Nature Neuroscience Reviews...the review does not present any evidence to suggest that music training has neurological benefits that extend beyond the brain processing involved in music (which overlaps with language). The “Mozart effect” remains dead.

Last updated 21-Oct-2015

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