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BranchOut! Human Minds- The Mozart Effect: Should we start listening to classical music?

You probably have heard or read it somewhere, maybe from your parents, or maybe you are a parent and you’ve told your child: “listening to classical music makes you smarter”.

In 1991, Dr. Alfred A. Tomatis was the first to talk about the Mozart Effect. In his book Pourquoi Mozart?, he believed listening to Mozart would help the ear and brain develop, which would then prevent or cure disorders like ADD, autism, and dyslexia. This belief didn’t go far, but in 1993, Frances Rauscher, Gordon Shaw, and Catherine Ky tested the effects of listening to Mozart on spatial task performance. In this test, students would spend 10 minutes in each of these conditions: sitting in silence, listening to “verbal relaxation instructions”, and listening to Mozart’s “Sonata for Two Pianos in D”. After one of the conditions, they were then tasked with a spatial reasoning IQ test.

The results showed that students scored a higher IQ after listening to Mozart over the other two conditions. These effects were temporary and didn’t last longer than 15 minutes. However, these results were spread throughout the media, often with important details being left out. In 1994, Alex Ross, a New York Times music columnist, stated: “researchers...have determined that listening to Mozart actually makes you smarter.”, which caused misconceptions of the study. Author Don Campell published two books: The Mozart Effect: Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the Mind, and Unlock the Creative Spirit and The Mozart Effect For Children. Both of them talk about listening to music (namely Mozart) increases intelligence, creativity, and other beneficial mental effects. These books, along with many published articles, help spread the “fact” that listening to Mozart’s music directly increases intelligence.

Many researchers performed more tests and meta-analyses. Now, scientists conclude that listening to Mozart could improve one’s mood, and thus allowing one to study or work better. Rauscher, one of the scientists from the first test, responded to the connection of listening to Mozart and an increase in intelligence: “Our results...have generated much interest but several misconceptions... listening to Mozart enhances intelligence. We made no such claim.”

Although music has no direct influence on intelligence, listening to music, including Mozart, could help you study. When you read a book, your brain uses subvocalization to help you comprehend words. Subvocalization is the voice in your mind you make while reading. The brain uses the same parts to subvocalize and also comprehend spoken words. This is why you might find it hard to read and listen to someone talk, and also why libraries are quiet. Your brain gets overloaded when processing words and conversations. But if your subvocalization is “louder”, then it can focus on just that. This is also why coffee shops are a common place to study and work. There are so many noises in the background, your brain can’t choose one to focus on, allowing your subvocalization to be louder.

Listening to music while studying has the same effect. It provides a background that allows your subvocalization to stand out. The exception to this is lyrical songs. Since those contain words, the part of your brain that performs subvocalization gets overcrowded. Since Mozart’s sonatas, movie soundtracks, or instrumentals all lack lyrics, they would be better than the latest pop songs for studying.

I love music as I find it calming to play and listen to. During quarantine, my brother and I entertained ourselves and family by performing pieces together. Here is a song we played, “Tambourin” by Gossec, (I’m playing the saxophone and he’s playing the piano). Not sure if it will make you smarter, but I hope it will at least brighten your day!

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