Return of the Mozart Effect

In the early 90’s, American researchers caused a stir when they reported a study where they’d showed that listening to Mozart boosts your performance in a subsequent IQ test (eg. Rauscher, Shaw & Ky 1995). The term “Mozart effect” was coined, then trademarked and rapidly monetised by a musician called Dan Campbell, and peddling “brain cd’s” for students, children and even preborn babies has been a growth industry ever since. Clearly this study ticked all the boxes: intelligence, music by a mystery genious, providing an easy fix and a shortcut for a competitive edge for your children. Too bad the study also ticked many of the boxes of inadequate experimental study, including small N, badly chosen controls and some very liberal interpretation of the results (although the authors themselves didn’t claim that Mozart increased intelligence, they only went so far as to say it improved performance in a spatio-temporal task).

Follow-up studies that were done by people with better knowledge of how music works (a number of studies by Glenn Schellenberg, for example) first of all pointed out that comparing music with silence (the control group in the original study spent an equivalent time sitting in silence, when the experimental group listened to music by Mozart) isn’t actually fair. Also, the proposed explanation of the mechanism behind this effect is somewhat dubious. Many of the replications of this study have also failed to reproduce the finding.

There is an effect, however, but it is much less mysterious. According to the explanation that makes most sense (as the mechanism is well-known, robust and well-documented) listening to music adjusts your state of arousal, and valence. In other words, music can affect your feelings and mood. The piano sonata K448 by Mozart (the one used in the original study) is a happy, uptempo piece that is likely to set you up for an IQ test better than sitting in dull silence. Later, this effect has been produced with user-selected music, and dubbed humorously as “Blur Effect”. There is a bit more to it than that, as the performance increase was specific to the spatio-temporal tasks, but given that music unfolds temporally and that melodies and rhythms are often described as having spatial characteristics (starting from “low” and “high” notes”, melodies being described as (virtual) movement, rhythmic patterns being similar than sounds of locomotion etc.) it is possible that music primes the participant (probably activating the relevant parts of brain) for those kinds of tasks. However, these effects are general for music, not something that would be specifically encoded in the music by Mozart the Mystery Man.

Now that the scientific community has dealt with this sensational study (and of course learned a lot in the process, received attention, funding and general interest that it wouldn’t have if Rauscher and others had been less eager to promote their findings), the second wave of Mozart Effect is on our doorstep. An Israeli study claims that Mozart helps babies to gain weight.

The researchers are specialists of pediatrics, but clearly not of music. They found that 30 minutes of Mozart makes the babies expend less energy afterwards and this helps them gain weight – an important thing especially for prematurely born babies. While being experts on fat content of mothers’ milk, they admit not knowing anything on music cognition, as they say that the mechanism of the music’s effect is unknown. I don’t understand why they didn’t ask someone who knows anything about how music affects the body – any music therapist or music psychologist would have been able to tell them about this. It’s not a mystery, a world beyond our reach, or a treacherous, uncharted sea where be dragons. Google Scholar search for keywords “music” and “physiology” gives 64 000 hits. Reading any of those links would have helped. Would it be possible that music calms the babies down? We all know music has this effect, this is why lullabies are used in all cultures.

The most shocking point of that press release (I’m taking this with a pinch of salt as it is a document written by a press office, not the original paper, which I haven’t found yet) is that while the study only compared Mozart with silence, the authors still speculate on why Mozart is special, and how for example Beethoven wouldn’t work. How do they know without even testing it?

They guess it is the repetitiveness, and someone has therefore ventured a guess that hip hop would work well, too. All I’m hoping is that they’d contact a music researcher (they’d find some in their own university, even someone specialised in music cognition) to give them a hand in really figuring out what this effect is about, before we find another wave of Mozart CD salesmen on our doorsteps.

(I edited this post somewhat to correct the error that Mozart Effect was trademarked by the authors of the original study – it was done by Dan Campbell who has no connection to the authors. Also, the original paper says nothing about increased intelligence, that was a shortcut taken by the press (and people like Campbell), as “improving performance in a spatio-temporal task” was too complicated a term. TH 11.1.2010)

6 thoughts on “Return of the Mozart Effect

    • Dear Rita,

      Thanks for reading and thanks for translating and re-posting the text! I agree that they should’ve tied Mozart in Chile… 😀


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