A Critical Thought: The Mozart Effect

Riley Sproul A Critical Thought, Ideas, Neurology Leave a Comment

The Mozart Effect. Or, the idea that listening to classical music (usually Mozart) can increase ones IQ, spatial reasoning, and/or other non music-related brain processes; both in developed brains (college students) and in developing ones (newborns, toddlers, ect.). Also described here as, “The general use of music to improve memory, awareness, and the integration of learning styles.”

In the of spirit critical thinking, I will give the best arguments (in my opinion) from either camp, then dissect them and come to a conclusion based on the facts. At times, this may lead to a kind of false dichotomy, or implied equivocation; making an argument seem as if carries a proportional counter weight to its opposite. Such has been discussed (as it pertains to global climate change) here on John Oliver’s show. However, I’ll do my best in my conclusions to give a sense of where the scientific consensus is currently at.



The first beginnings of The Mozart Effect can be found in a 1993 paper by Frances H. Rauscher, Gordon L. Shaw Catherine N. . In it, a number of college age students were given a task of folding and cutting a piece of paper according to a specific goal. This was an accepted test for spacial reasoning at the time, and as far as I can tell still is today. The students were divided into various groups; some listened to Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D, K. 448, others listened to a relaxation track, and still others waited in silence. The findings showed an 8-9 point increase on the IQ test for those who listened to Mozart. The effect was also found to be temporary, lasting roughly 10-15 minutes. As that particular IQ test given was testing spatial reasoning, it was concluded that the Mozart track temporarily improved special reasoning skills. The mechanism was speculated to have been a link between the brains’ auditory processing of the music, and it’s motor/spatial reasoning areas. However the authors also gave alternate explanations for the effect. For example, its cheery tune perhaps simply waking up the students. Or the other experiments, being of a more relaxing nature, lowered the other students scores in the test.

From here much of the media took the story and ran, making headlines something akin to “Mozart makes you smarter”. The term “Mozart Effect” was soon after coined by Alfred A. Tomatis, and before much further testing could be done on the topic, products touting the claim of “improving brain function” or “raising IQ” were being marketed to students and new parents alike, in the form of Baby Einstein products, and The Mozart Effect: For Babies. The governors of Tennessee and Georgia even put programs into motion which provide hospitals with Mozart CDs for new parents.

There are a large number of attempts to replicate the level of effect shown in the original study, most by Rauscher (the lead author of the 1993 paper), the other original authors, and/or by the The Music Intelligence Neural Development (M.I.N.D) Institute [here, here and here]. The more recent of these have been performed on mice, an accepted neurologically similar animal for human comparison.



To date, the effects seen in the original 1993 study have not been replicated to the same degree; independently or by the original authors. Attempts at such a replication have shown either no statically significant difference in what music is listened to, or a difference much smaller than the original study.

A commonly cited recent review, that at first glance may lend credence to the Mozart Effect, came out in 2010 (Music training for the development of auditory skills). However, it actually proved no such effect exists. The paper is discussed here in-depth by Dr. Stephen Novella, but essentially: Playing an instrument, or being otherwise musically trained, has shown to help the language and auditory processing of the brain. Or in other words, being ‘fluent’ in the auditory analysis of music helps in the auditory analysis of language. Which is not very surprising, as the processes are quite similar. The study did not, however, support the claim that simply listening to Mozart (or other music) has long-term effects on non-related brain processes, like spatial reasoning or over all IQ.

A recent meta-analysis, also published in 2010, showed that from the nearly 40 studies reviewed (with over 3000 subjects), all attempting to reproduce the Mozart effect, no such effect was seen to be statically significant. This is the most comprehensive and up-to-date data available on the subject.

Finally, a critical point is to review the claim vs the primary evidence. The claim that listening to Mozart (or classical music in general) can have a substantial/measurable impact on one’s brain development, or ones IQ once developed, has no grounding in the original paper (or any subsequent reproduction). And even if it that original study was perfectly reproduced again and again; a temporary (10-15 minutes) 8-9 point increase, on a specific IQ test, is not substantial evidence of a permanent effect on brain development. And certainly not “memory, awareness, and the integration of learning styles” as claimed above. An alternate explanation, which holds much more validity, is that the music ‘primed’ the students for the test. Making them more alert, aware, or even eager to engage any tasks given. There was a clear absence of a “Mozart Effect” shown even in many of Rauscher’s studies. One, however, showed a noticeable positive effect when played to those with epilepsy as seen in this study.



The fact that the original study cannot/has not been replicated to the same degree, despite numerous attempts by various labs (and even the original researchers); indicates that the first study was either uniquely qualified to measure the effect, or that what was measured was statistical background noise amplified by one or more of the following factors: Researcher bias/expectation; Methodical flaw (either mentioned or unmentioned in the paper); Random chance based on the subjects selected; A misrepresentation of the data (to varying degrees); Or a bold-faced lie.

What is typically the case, as I understand it, is a combination of the first three in that list. And given the plausible explanations discussed in the original paper’s conclusion, and the several studies published by Rauscher showing a lack of the effect, it is my opinion that there’s clearly no blatant lying going on, but rather a loose interpretation that was later generalized and over hyped by various media outlets.

The massive over hype of the original study, sometimes, seems to have effected even the researchers themselves. From their first analysis’ conclusions one can see a rather objective and open view. However, from the works immediately following it, there seems to be a heavy bias on proving the Mozart Effect to be true (see links in “For” section). Perhaps this was due to pressure from their funding provider, peer pressure to continue exploring the idea, or a genuine belief that the effect was provable.

To wrap up; if you’re about to take a spatial reasoning IQ test, it’s probably best to mentally psych yourself up a bit, rather than trying to relax. The best data we have, which is pretty well-rounded in this case, tells us the Mozart Effect is non-existent. No non-musical benefits have been conclusively, or repeatedly seen in developing brains, or in brains that are well-developed, simply from listening to the “right” kind of music. However, playing an instrument does seem to help with language and auditory processing.



I hope you enjoyed the read and learned something you didn’t know before. If you have a comment, please submit it below, at the Feedback Page, or send it directly to me at Thanks for reading!



*Written under the influence of Amadeus Mozart*




(numerous studies, linked to in-text)

Riley Sproul has a Bachelors in Biology, with a concentration in PreMed, and a Chemistry Minor, from the University of Toledo. His goal is to obtain a Ph.D. in Neurobiology with in the next 4-5 years. His interests include sci-fi, PC-gaming, playing guitar, and a variety of other hobbies.
A Critical Thought: The Mozart Effect was last modified: June 7th, 2015 by Riley Sproul