The Mozart Effect: Musical Phenomenon or Musical Preference? A More Ecologically Valid Reconsideration

Article excerpt

The "Mozart effect" is the reported phenomenon of increased spatial abilities after listening to that composer's music. However, subsequent research suggests that the Mozart effect may be an artifactual consequence of heightened arousal and mood rather than the music of Mozart per se (e.g., Thompson, Schellenberg, & Husain, 2001). The present study considers if performance improvements in a scored computer game are consistent with the mood and arousal hypothesis. Indeed, the use of a computer game as the experimental vehicle makes this work notably the most ecologically valid study of the Mozart effect to date. Specifically, in this work, ratings of musical preference as well as the game performance of individuals listening to different types of music are compared. If arousal and mood are the real "Mozart effect," we hypothesized that the performance level of participants would increase when listening to the selections they most enjoy. Results supported this hypothesis.

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The Mozart Effect (e.g., Rauscher, Shaw, & Ky, 1993) is the reported phenomenon that listening to Mozart would temporarily increase spatial reasoning ability by the equivalent of 8-9 points on the Stanford-Binet. Rauscher, Shaw, and Ky explain the Mozart Effect by suggesting that exposure to musical compositions that are structurally complex excites certain cortical firing patterns comparable to those activated when completing spatial-temporal tasks.

The Mozart Effect has also been seized upon by the media, and even distorted into the claim that simply listening to Mozart would make people smarter. Indeed, the idea that passively listening to Mozart might increase IQ scores has sparked the development of many "educational" books and music products (see McKelvie & Low, 2002). As Nantals and Schellenberg (1999) note, one Governor even budgeted for a compact disc or cassette for each infant born in his state.

Despite issues with face validity, the Mozart Effect has been seriously discussed in such prestigious publications as Science and Nature, and still frequents the pages of respected psychology journals. At times, there have been problems replicating the basic effect, but it has been suggested by Rauscher, Shaw, and Ky (1998) that inconsistent results by other researchers can be attributed to methodological differences.

However, Nantais and Schellenberg (1999) had no difficulty replicating the basic finding: That is, they found a significant increase in performance on spatial-temporal tasks for subjects that heard a musical piece; but, there was no marked difference between those that heard Mozart or those who heard Schubert. Likewise, other researchers (e.g., Ashby, Isben, & Turken, 1999; Steele, Bass, & Crook, 1999) also observed that changes in mood can have a significant effect on cognitive performance, and that the original experimental conditions (e.g., listening to Mozart, relaxation music, or silence) likely each have an affect on mood and arousal. As such, the argument emerged that observed performance differences may occur due to improvements in mood and arousal rather than from neurophysiological priming.

Consistent, Thompson, Schellenberg, and Husain (2001) reported that individuals that listened to Mozart performed better on spatial tasks, but also scored higher on positive mood and arousal ratings. Subjects that scored low on mood and arousal showed no effect of the music. By examining participant's spatial abilities after listening to a Mozart sonata (expected to produce positive mood), and an adagio by Albinoni (a sad piece), they were able to provide additional support for the arousal and mood hypothesis.

In summary, the most current explanation for the Mozart Effect would suggest that an individual's mood/preference for a particular piece of music should correlate with any cognitive gains (Steele, 2000). In fact, if arousal and mood produce the "effect," then equally pleasant stimuli other than music should have the same result. …