The Art & Science of Sound

What If Mozart Has Nothing To Do With the Mozart Effect?

By Jack Sharkey, May 18, 2017


We’ve all heard of the Mozart Effect – that strange and wonderful power classical music has to raise our IQs just enough to make us smarter than the average person. I’m listening to Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C Major, K.545: I:Allegro as I type this, and dude, I am sooo smart.

But, What If There Really Isn’t A Mozart Effect?
In 1993 psychologist Frances Rauscher and her team published a paper entitled “Music and Spatial Task Performance” in Nature magazine. Nature is the Big Kahuna of science magazines so any paper it publishes is going to get noticed immediately. And so, the Mozart Effect was picked up in daily newspapers and on television and spread around the world – it went viral back in the day when only the Bird Flu did such things. The Mozart Effect was going to change the level of intelligence across the board: The State of New Hampshire started giving out Mozart CDs to new mothers. The State of Florida insisted that state funded day care centers start piping in Mozart, but the State of Texas topped them all by playing symphonies for inmates in the state prison system. Expectant parents around the world put little speakers on moms'-to-be bellies and played hours of Eine Kleine Nachtmuzik. My third kid was born in 1993 and she listened to a lot of Mozart as a baby. She’s pretty smart but she’s all into Pond and Father John Misty, so I’m not sure my investment paid of all that much. But she’s also going to graduate school to get her doctorate in some thing I don’t fully understand, so once again, I have no idea.

Whatever, The Problem Of Low Intelligence Is Eradicated
Except for one thing: Rauscher never claimed that listening to Mozart increased intelligence. All her findings pointed out was that there had been three study groups who were asked to predict what pieces of paper would look like after they were cut and folded based on a simple drawing. One group listened to nothing before the test, one group listened to the instructions for the test being given in a relaxing tone, and the third group listened to ten minutes of piano music by Mozart. The results found that the group who listened to Mozart performed better on the test than the other two groups. Rauscher surmised that the improvement was equivalent to eight or 9 points on a standard IQ test for spatial relations.

But once the world media got ahold of the test, all of the nuance and subtlety of her findings were lost in a rush to buy Mozart records and get ourselves smart without having to Google a darn thing, (well it was Altavista in those days, but enough with the semantics).


A few years later a study of eight-thousand nine and 10 year-olds in the United Kingdom concluded it wasn’t just Mozart but it might actually be the pop band Blur that made people smarter. In this test, one third of the kids listened to the aforementioned Blur, while one third listened to Mozart, and one third listened to a psychologist talk about the test they were taking. The kids then performed some spatial tests and the test group who listened to the music they liked best scored better on the test, and of course, more nine and 10 year-olds like Blur than Mozart.


But Wait! There’s More
Another test of the Mozart Effect done at the University of Toronto substituted Mozart with an audio recording of a Stephen King novel. You guessed it! The students who listened to the Stephen King novel did predictably better on the spatial relations test as previous subjects had done with Mozart. So now we have the Stephen King Effect. In all of these tests, the subjects listened to the audio before doing the task, not during.

This Is Where the Arousal Theory Comes In

It’s long been known that performance results on tests such as the ones used in these experiments are higher from subjects who are in good spirits and not bored (opposite of aroused). Dopamine levels within the brain rise when you’re in a good mood and moderately stimulated, so therefore you do better at the task at hand. Conversely, how many times have you not performed to your potential when you’ve woken up late, were cut off in traffic on the way to work or were aggravated because the cat left a hairball on your trousers?

So maybe it’s not Mozart specifically, but any aural stimulation you enjoy that puts you in a good positive state of mind. Several other tests over the years have proven that a good mood helps with creativity while increased positive stimulation helps with problem solving tasks. So it stands to reason that if you combine the two at least you'll appear smarter.

So We Should Listen To Music While We Do Everything, Right?
You cannot stop processing music when you hear it because you can’t shut your ears off, so therefore there’s always a little bit of your brain’s processing power that is taken up with background music. Is the music a distraction or is it masking a distraction? Is the alternative to music a quiet room with no distractions that allows all of your focus on the task at hand, or is the music going to mask background noise and aural clutter that would otherwise distract you?

There are some other factors as well. Does the music have vocals or is it instrumental? Vocal music also requires the language processing part of your brain to kick in, taking up even more processing power in the old noggin. Also, the louder the background music the more your brain is required to process and pay attention to it, leaving less room for other things.

It’s probably safe to say that when you're trying to be smart, quiet, calm, instrumental music is preferable to Danzig at full volume, but music can be a great help before and during many thinking tasks. It’s unfortunately not as easy as finding a Mozart playlist on Spotify and expecting your brain to finally be able to do calculus.

I know, I tried.     

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