The Mozart effect debunked

For many years I have been aware of the generally held view that playing Baroque music, specifically Mozart, can have a beneficial impact on learning and retention.

Some have even suggested playing Mozart to children can improve IQ and the common reason given for this is the “Mozart Effect”.

On a quiet day in the office recently I decided to read the original research that the “Mozart Effect” is based on and was immediately intrigued.

It very quickly became apparent that there is no evidence that Mozart can affect IQ one way or the other!

And the original research had nothing to do with learning or retention.

So how has this misconception been so widely promoted and why hasn’t anyone ever queried it?

As with our recent postings about Mehrabian’s percentages for voice, vocabulary and body language in communication, busting the myth that e-learning is more effective than the classroom and the myth of Learning Styles; it seems the training community has become a little lazy in not challenging things that have always been accepted as “fact”.

Here are some of things I found just by digging around a bit. There are loads more out there, some of it intriguing, some plain rubbish, but I’ll leave it to you to continue the good work ;-)

In 1991 French researcher Dr. Alfred A. Tomatis first coined the phrase “The Mozart Effect” in his  book Pourquoi Mozart?. His contention was that listening to Mozart could help the ear, promote healing and improve brain development.

In 1993 this research was taken on a step by Rauscher, Shaw, and Ky who investigated the effect of listening to a particular piece of music by Mozart on spatial reasoning. Their research concluded that their student’s ability to perform a paper folding and cutting exercise improved if they were listening to an up-tempo Mozart piece rather than listening to silence or some relaxation music.

Their research indicated that the effect of the music is only temporary: no student had effects extending beyond the 15-minute period in which they were tested. The study made no statement of an increase in IQ in general, only in participants’ spatial intelligence scores and no reference to retention or recall.

However, the results were popularly interpreted as an increase in general IQ. This misconception, and the fact that the music used in the study was by Mozart, had an obvious appeal to those who valued this music; the Mozart effect was thus widely reported.

In 1994, New York Times music columnist, Alex Ross, wrote a light-hearted article stating “researchers [Rauscher and Shaw] have determined that listening to Mozart actually makes you smarter,” and presented this as the final piece of evidence that Mozart has dethroned Beethoven as “the world’s greatest composer.”

Since then reports of the “Mozart effect” almost always tie it to “intelligence”.

None of this was ever tested nor did any of the researchers claim that listening to Mozart increased IQ or learning or retention. They simply stated that it improved students’ ability to conduct a paper cutting and folding exercise.

Rauscher, one of the original researchers, has disclaimed the idea that playing Mozart’s music can increase IQ.

In 1999 she wrote :

Our results on the effects of listening to Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major K. 448 on spatial–temporal task performance have generated much interest but several misconceptions, many of which are reflected in attempts to replicate the research. The comments by Chabris and Steele et al. echo the most common of these: 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.

There is some research to show that playing music can enhance learning as music is processed by both sides of the brain opening many more neural pathways than are normally open.

Eric Jensen has also suggested that playing music is far more beneficial than listening to it. He suggests music is part of our survival package going back over 30,000 years ago and suggests children who play music perform better in their other academic studies.

Others have introduced the still contentious concept of mirror neurons being involved but so far most of the research into these appears to have been limited to primates.  This is new research and as yet the scientific community appears to be divided.

Intuitively many training professionals feel that music makes a difference but we must be careful about attributing general conclusions to what was highly focused and specific research.

There is some data to suggest that slow gentle music can create a sense of calm and support reflection, up-beat music generates a sense of pace and urgency.

As a state management tool it seems to be supported by research but the effects are temporary and limited.

  • There is no data to suggest Mozart will improve IQ.
  • There is no data to suggest Mozart improves learning or retention any better than any other kind of music.

In short, quoting the “Mozart Effect”  as a reason for playing music in the training room is simply wrong.

violin image by Steve Snodgrass
electric guitar with baroque musician image by Lamerie
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  1. Posted February 18, 2010 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Interesting article, and I have enjoyed the way you are challenging trainers to not accept these myths quite so easily.

    I do remember seeing a TV documentary way back about a school in Wales where they played Mozart in the background all the time (60 beats per minute where possible: supposedly the optimum speed). They came to the conclusion that this was affecting exam results (for the better).

    Anyway, as a trainer I use music for the very much more straightforward purpose of bringing peoples’ energy up or down. If it’s time for a break, whack on some Michael Buble quite loud, and if you want people to do some reflecting after an action packed afternoon, Debussy’s Claire de Lune or Canteloube’s Chants de l’Auvergne work well. And first thing in the morning Day 2 people always seeem to appreciate Pink Floyd’s Shine on you crazy Diamond whilst they’re getting settled!

    Autonumic response to music is well researched, I believe, ie we can’t stop our bodies from responding with heart and breathing rates to certain styles of music. Use this as a trainer to get the blood pressure you need in the room!

    I only just discovered this Blogsite, great stuff, I wantmine to be like yours when I grow up (only been blogging for 2 weeks!).

    • Paul
      Posted February 19, 2010 at 11:43 am | Permalink

      Hi Michael,

      Thank you for your comments. I agree with you that music is a great state management tool and I think it also has many other uses. One of the ways we use music is to create anchors for specific pieces of learning so that later, when the participants hear the song they automatically recall the learning associated with it.
      This also works for feelings too so if we want people to be able to recall what it felt like to, say, feel unstoppable, we get them into that state, anchor it to a specific track and then, whenever they want to feel unstoppable they just have to play the track.

      Carry on blogging. You grow up faster than you think ;-)


  2. Posted March 5, 2010 at 2:19 am | Permalink

    As a lover of Mozart, I’m sorry to see this myth debunked. But bringing a little intellectual rigor to conventional wisdom is the right thing to do. Good work.

    One correction, though: Mozart is a composer of the Classical, not the Baroque, era. The Baroque style (e.g. Bach, Handel, Vivaldi) was considered old-fashioned in the later 18th-century, although Mozart himself helped keep Handel’s music alive by writing new harmonies for pieces such as “Messiah.”

  3. Christoffer de Graal
    Posted October 20, 2011 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

    Hi Paul , good points.

    Do you know of, did you see a TV program years back of a study that was done ( in a sound ‘pod’ in a street ) Different kinds of music played to people. I think they played Mozart first then played music of the favourite kind of style that person liked. Music did cause a physiological response and, guess what , anchoring maybe, the endorphins and +ve physical responses flowed more from the one the person liked.

    I’m co-authoring a book on music as medicine, and would love to track down that research – know of it, or any thoughts on how to find it?

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