The Myth of the Mozart Effect

By Dowd, Will | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Winter 2008 | Go to article overview
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The Myth of the Mozart Effect


Dowd, Will, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


WHENEVER STALLED ON AN INTRACTABLE problem, Einstein reportedly reached for his violin. He played to disentangle his brain and clarify the question at hand. Mozart especially did the trick. Einstein loved Mozart's highly organized, intensely patterned sonatas. He felt, as many before him, that music and the reasoning intellect were linked. Music and his scientific work, he said, were "born of the same source."

It was with this same belief that Dr. Gordon Shaw, a University of California (Irvine) psychologist, corralled 36 undergraduates for a research experiment in February 1993. The students were given three spatial-reasoning tasks from the Stanford-Binet intelligence tests. Before each task, they listened to ten minutes of either silence, a relaxation tape, or Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major. According to a paper published later that year in Nature, listening to Mozart boosted the students' IQ by an average of eight to nine points. The improvement, researchers said, lasted between ten and fifteen minutes. The results were widely reported as evidence of what the press dubbed "the Mozart Effect." The International Herald Tribune, for example, proclaimed "Mozart's Notes Make Good Brain Food."

Don Campbell, a classical musician and former music critic, was the lust to recognize the research's commercial potential. Campbell expanded the definition of the Mozart Effect to include all music's influence on intelligence, health, emotions, and creativity. In 1996, he trademarked it. Today, the Mozart Effect[TM] boasts the lateral spread typical of any successful brand. Campbell has authored 18 books, a series of spoken tapes, and 16 albums incorporating Mozart's music. The small commercial empire includes the recently published Mozart Effect for Children, which explains, in a chapter entitled "Twinkle Twinkle, Little Neuron," that Mozart's music enhances the network of connections forming in the infant brain. His recordings, one of which features Don Giovanni for the developing fetus, have sold over two million copies.

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Since the U.C. Irvine study, the Mozart Effect has become fixed in the public consciousness. Zell Miller, while governor of Georgia, earmarked $105,000 of the state's annual budget to supply every newborn with a cassette or CD of classical music. "No one doubts that listening to music, especially at a very early age, affects the spatial-temporal reasoning that underlies math, engineering and chess," he explained to the Georgia legislature. In Florida, a bill was passed requiring all state-funded education and child-care programs to give a daily dose of classical music to children under five years old. Recently, the coach of the New York Jets, Eric Mangini, began playing classical music to help his football players concentrate at training camp study sessions. It remains to be seen whether Mozart's melodies will affect this season's record.

What the Science Really Says

While the Mozart Effect flourishes commercially, the U.C. Irvine study that launched the phenomenon has been widely criticized. The startling results announced by the initial paper were misleading. First, the researchers claimed that the undergraduates improved on all three spatial-reasoning tests. But, as Shaw later clarified, the only enhancement came from one task--paper folding and cutting. Further, the researchers presented the data in the form of Stanford-Binet IQ scores; yet the study only measured spatial-reasoning, one-third of a complete IQ test. To arrive at the full scores, the students' partial results were inflated by a factor of three.

The methodology of the study has also come under fire. According to some critics, the test group of 36 psychology undergraduates may not have been large or varied enough to produce credible results. Even Don Campbell has criticized the experiment's lack of controls. In the endnotes to his 1997 bestseller, The Mozart Effect, Campbell observes that the U.

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