At the University of California-Irvine in 1993, Gordon Shaw and Frances Rauscher studied the effects of listening to a Mozart piano sonata on about 35 college students. They found that participants experienced a temporary enhancement in spatial-temporal reasoning abilities.
Subsequent attempts to replicate this finding failed more often than not. But even if the results were genuine, the study’s authors were making only a limited claim. Nevertheless, through a mix of misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and fraud, this possible temporary enhancement of spatial-temporal reasoning in young adults morphed into a conclusive permanent increase in intelligence for infants and toddlers. Proponents gleefully dubbed it the Mozart Effect.
What had been an eight percent increase in the ability to fold and cut paper was paraded as an improvement of 51 on the SAT. With reputable outlets like ABC News and the Boston Globe hawking the idea, buying Mozart CDs became a de rigueur part of the expecting process, along with hosting showers and designing nurseries. Don Giovanni was played at daycare centers and The Magic Flute was handed out in OB-GYN wings.
Georgia Governor Zell Miller proposed using state funds to provide every newborns’ mother with classical music. During the announcement, Ode to Joy played and the governor asked, “Don’t you feel smarter already?” Thing is, you can feel smarter without being so.
Perhaps the boldest claims were made by Don Campbell, who started a commercial website dedicated to the idea. He also wrote a book called the Mozart Effect, subtitled Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the Mind, and Unlock the Creative Spirit. Campbell attributed these traits to listening to Mozart: Deep sleep, rejuvenation, intelligence, learning, creativity, and imagination, as well as the mitigation of anxiety, depression, dyslexia, autism, and 20 other diseases and disorders. Listening to Mozart can cure every malady except the one that killed him at 35.
Following the initial burst of enthusiasm, more serious and in-depth studies were conducted, with sobering results. Researchers at the University of Washington reported a decrease in standard language-development among infants after hearing the music.
Psychologists Kenneth Steele and philosopher John Bruer followed the protocols set forth by UC Irvine study and found no impact in a study of 125 students. Furthermore, Nature reported that studies with positive results tended to be associated with any energetic music, not just classical. Similarly, psychologists Christopher Charbris and Daniel Simons found that even the minor, temporary, limited-use, effect touted in the original study only works if you like the music.
In short, meta-analysis found no improvement for IQ tasks and a statistically insignificant improvement of spatial abilities. This finding is hardly surprising, since the authors of the original study had never made the boasts associated with it. The duo put out a statement reading, “It has been widely reported that our study showed that listening to Mozart enhances intelligence. We made no such claim. The effect is limited to spatial–temporal tasks involving mental imagery and temporal ordering.”
Coming from the study’s authors, that should put to rest any debate about a supposed link between the music and increased intelligence. But as a final nail in the coffin: I listen to Mozart every week.