The Mozart Effect and Its Efficacy

By Mritika Senthil

The correlation between intelligence and exposure to classical music is not new. For decades, such repertoire has been instituted in study sessions and workplaces. Zell Miller, governor of Georgia, garnered attention in 1998 for sectioning state funds to distribute classical CDs to newborn children. The motivation for these actions is based on a desire to stimulate productivity, promote intellect, and achieve successful results. Within several years, the phrase “Mozart Effect” was coined. Referencing the prominent composer of the same name, it denotes the supposed boost in intelligence that occurs after listening to such works. However, recent studies have questioned this effect. Have societal implementations of classical music changed society’s overall effectiveness?

The controversy of the Mozart Effect is tied to its initial appearance. The origin of this is associated with a single study. Published by Nature in 1993, the research documents the work of scientists from the University of California at Irvine. In an attempt to investigate the consequences of different auditory conditions, 36 college students listened to Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D major, a relaxation tape, and silence. Afterwards, their intelligence was tested using the Stanford-Binet spatial IQ tests. Those that listened to Mozart’s piece had score increases of 8-9 points.

Analysis of this experiment shows multiple inconsistencies. It only tested a narrow sample, and some ages were underrepresented. Secondly, an aspect not commonly noted is that individuals who listened to any audio — including the relaxation tape — scored higher than those who listened to silence. This suggests a connection not between the overall stimulus and intelligence per se, but between overall stimulus and intelligence. Subsequent studies largely contradicted the original results. A notable paper from 1999 describes an experiment where participants listened to both the music of Mozart and a narrated story. Afterwards, they were told to choose their preferred recordings. Participants who listened to their favored conditions were reported to have increased intelligence quotients. It is possible that such short-term cognitive improvement was due to incentive, rather than content.

Jakob Pietschnig of the University of Vienna, who led a similar study in 2010, stated that “those who listened to music, Mozart or something else … had better results than the silent group. But we already knew that people perform better if they have a stimulus.” These results invalidate the original claims. The sample tested in the initial investigation could have had a preference for classical music. Judith Harackiewicz of the University of Wisconsin, whose research assesses the relationship between passion and productivity, concluded that “interest is a more powerful predictor of future choices than prior achievement or demographic variables.” Her words emphasize the role individual interest plays in future achievement. The influence of this interest has been described as an “approach urge,” a force that increases mental flexibility and adaptation, that pushes back against the “avoid urges,” stated by Paul Silva of the University of North Carolina.

With this information, it is possible to reconstruct the rationale behind the initial study. The participants of the research were fairly homogeneous, belonging to similar social and demographic groups. It is likely that their musical preference would also have been similar, especially considering the limited number of individuals tested. Listening to pleasurable music — in this case the works of Mozart —allowed them to obtain their own ideal mindsets when completing the IQ tests. The resultant higher scores lead to the reasoning behind the Mozart effect.

Despite the flawed studies behind the Mozart Effect, why does it continue to remain popular? In response to this question, Georgia Gwinnett College’s David Ludden describes that our attachment to these theories fulfills our “desire for understanding and certainty.” Classical music was historically associated with the intellectuals and European elites. Therefore, composers and performers were deemed as exemplifications of intellectual acuity. Many stick to the theory because playing an instrument exercises many parts of the brain. Musical decision-making influences the prefrontal cortex and music’s tactile nature influences the sensory cortex. Such information has furthered the perceived association between music and increased cognitive performance. Considering the benefits of classical music, the initial study seems justified. Despite how intuitive it seems, however, it ultimately oversimplifies the pathway to a desired attribute: intelligence.

What Did You Learn?

Q: Why did the participants of the first study have similar reactions to different listening conditions?

A: This study involved a largely homogeneous population. All participants were college students, underrepresenting other age demographics. Furthermore, they were located in the same geographic and political area. The small sample of 36 individuals allowed less room for diversity. As a result, it is likely that these similar reactions reflected similar musical preferences. Hearing favored audio prompts a more flexible and alert mindset; if they favor similar music, they would react to the stimuli similarly.

Q: Despite the Mozart Effect being proven as ineffective, why does it continue to persist?

A: Individuals have the desire for understanding and certainty, and tend to believe simplified theories over complex truths. Currently, two ideas that require explanation are the association between classical music and intelligence, and the ability to increase overall intellect. Both ideas are solved through the Mozart Effect, suggesting that individuals are psychologically inclined to support it.


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