This is a subject near and dear to my heart. I first discovered music psychology research when I took an undergraduate psychology research methods course and had the opportunity to design a project for the rat research laboratory. (No rodents were harmed over the course of the experiments! I am an animal lover so I would never do anything to intentionally harm any living creature.)

My team researched the Mozart effect in Long-Evans rats and, as a result of that project, I fell in love with the entire research process and became fascinated with the whole idea of the Mozart effect. Now, you might be wondering, “What exactly is the Mozart effect?” Let me tell you…

The Baby Mozart Craze

The turn of the 21st century survived a pop cultural sensation known as the Baby Mozart craze. Parents everywhere rushed to buy the CD’s and DVD’s because they were led to believe that plopping their children down in front of a television playing Baby Mozart would turn them into Baby Einsteins.

When researchers debunked this myth that music would make infants smarter, all those cherished CD’s and DVD’s found their way into the donation pile and left parents wondering, “How did I fall for that gimmick?”

But, as is the case with every myth, this phenomenon began in truth. In the early 90’s, Frances Rauscher conducted a number of psychological studies using the music of Mozart. Psychological research reports on the effects of varying conditions on experimental variables. A few reporters got a hold of Rauscher’s experimental reports, misinterpreted the findings, and the media craze known as the Mozart effect was born.

The Mozart effect explores the intricate relationship between music and cognition, with many complex psychological studies to support both sides of the theory. However, scientific studies are often misunderstood or misrepresented by an untrained audience, such as the media. This leads to passionate debates surrounding the scientific research, and often, the truth is lost in the midst of all the media coverage.

The relationship between music and cognition is too complicated to summarize in a byline, but when the media latches onto an idea, they run wild with it and often lead the public to believe a perversion of the facts; however, once the media coverage subsides, the original Mozart Effect may be further analyzed for efficacy and truth.

Origin of the Mozart Effect

The Study That Started It All

The origin of the Mozart effect comes from a study at the University of California, Irvine conducted on college students in 1993. Rauscher, Shaw, Levine, Ky, and Wright found that musical activity shares similar neural pathways with spatial-temporal functioning. This suggests that active music listening might improve spatial task performance.

However, Rauscher and colleagues found that “a particular organization of musical elements is necessary for improvement in spatial task performance.” Specifically, music that is more complex in nature has a greater effect on spatial task performance than simplistic music or silence. For the purposes of the study, Rauscher used Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, K448 to satisfy the complex music condition. Thus, the term “Mozart effect” was coined and soon led to the Baby Mozart pop culture craze of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.

The Mozart Effect by Don Campbell

The Mozart effect did not become a mainstream media phenomenon overnight. The findings of the original study stayed within the scientific community for a number of years until Don Campbell published a book entitled The Mozart Effect in 1997, which took on a more liberal interpretation of the Mozart effect, namely that listening to music enhances intelligence; this then sparked the interest of the media.

Curious as to why this inaccurate portrayal of the Mozart effect spread through popular culture so quickly, Stanford researchers Bangerter and Heath conducted three media studies on the diffusion of the Mozart effect: The first study discovered that the Mozart effect received more media attention than typical of scientific reports, the second study explored how the recent emphasis on early childhood education may have perpetuated this trend, and the third study followed the evolution of the Mozart effect in the media.

The Mozart effect first became a mainstream trend in the general population following the publication of Campbell’s book. Popularity of this movement increased even more after music education legislation passed in both Georgia and Florida, citing the Mozart effect as the primary support for the bills.

Over the past two decades, American interest in early childhood education has increased; the Mozart effect became a popular media topic because of concerns regarding the improvement of early education in the U.S. Bangerter and Heath found that “interest in the Mozart effect is higher in states that are experiencing problems in childhood education.”

Although the original Mozart effect study indicated a temporary improvement of spatial task performance in college students, the Mozart effect as portrayed by the media eventually evolved to encompass all ages.

Media Evaluation of the Mozart Effect

Bangerter and Heath noted this evolution in their media evaluation, as illustrated by an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal from July 8, 2001: ‘There have been numerous studies on the “Mozart effect” and how it helps elementary students, high school students and even infants increase mental performance.’ These studies show how the media took the original Mozart effect and morphed it into the misused ritual employed by the many gullible parents of the late 20th into the early 21st century. Following the popularity spike in the media, opponents of the Mozart effect claimed it was a made up phenomenon. Subsequent studies on the Mozart effect attempted to replicate the conditions of the original experiment, but as Austrian scientists Pietsching, Voracek, and Formann discovered, “these findings turned out to be amazingly hard to replicate, thus leading to an abundance of conflicting results.” Critics reinforced their claims with multiple failed replications of the first Mozart effect study.

Western Conneticut State University undergraduates Harmon, Troester, Pickwick, and Pelosi conducted a faculty-advised experiment to explore the Mozart effect in college students. In a two part experiment, they hypothesized that participants “exposed to Mozart would score significantly higher on a listening comprehension test than those exposed to rock music or silence” and that “listening to rock music would result in lower reading comprehension test scores than classical music or non-music groups.” Their findings were insignificant, further supporting the assertion that the Mozart effect does not exist.

However, even though studies have shown inconclusive results, there are alternative explanations to support the theory behind the Mozart effect.

Alternative Explanations for the Mozart Effect

Expectations of Experience

The Mozart Effect may be affected by participants’ expectations of their experience in the study; this could explain why replications of the original Mozart Effect study did not reach the same conclusions as the first. In 2008, a study by Standing, Verpaelst, and Ulmer tested whether a person’s expectation of positive or negative response to music can produce a “Mozart Effect”.

Perhaps the participants in the original study expected to enjoy the Mozart Sonata, leading to increased spatial task performance. On the other hand, subsequent participants may have been disbelievers in the theory, leading to the absence of an effect on spatial task performance. Since this concept cannot be tested in past participants, Standing and colleagues concluded “the effect of possible demand characteristics [the subject’s expectations]…should be considered in this and other experimental paradigms.”

Stimulation of Similar Brainwave Frequencies

Complex music, such as Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, K448 (used in the original 1993 study), sparks similar neural pathways as memory, cognition, and problem-solving processes; this indicates that musical stimulation during higher cognition may improve function related to areas of similar EEG activity. Because of Rauscher’s discoveries in Music and Spatial Task Performance, Verrusio and colleagues from Sapienza University of Rome pursued research into the neural functions of the brain while listening to Mozart:

The EEG data of our study specifically concerned the fluctuations in frequency of the alpha rhythm as well as the slow theta and delta rhythms, because research has identified their relationship to spatial–temporal functions. The displayed EEG pattern (more alpha band) in healthy subjects who listened to Mozart’s sonata is similar to findings reported in Jausovec’s et al. study (2006) that showed a better performance of spatial–temporal tasks in individuals that listened to music by Mozart.

Furthermore, they found an increase in alpha waves related to intelligence, memory, cognition, and problem solving after listening to the Mozart sonata. The similarities in neural activity between music perception and advanced cognition are hard to refute, yet this is only one facet of the true Mozart Effect.

Musical Preferences

The Mozart Effect may be a result of participants’ enjoyment of the music they listen to; more of the participants in the original study may have had a positive reaction to the Mozart excerpt than participants in replicated studies. According to Thompson, Schellenberg, and Husain of York University and the University of Toronto, “The Mozart effect is an artifact of arousal and mood.”

Additionally, they found “a significant interaction between condition and preference [which] revealed that individuals who preferred the Mozart music had improved spatial performance following the music, whereas those who preferred the story improved after the story.” By this logic, an individual’s performance on a spatial-temporal task should improve after listening to audio stimulation that evokes positive feelings and deteriorate after listening to an audio excerpt that induces negative feelings.

Texas A & M scholars Cassity, Henley, and Markley further explored this hypothesis in their related study: “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.” Child behavior researcher Lynn Waterhouse perfectly summarizes the hypothesis that the Mozart Effect may be a result of arousal: “The evidence confirming the Mozart Effect…suggests that Mozart’s music may be a pleasant means of inducing emotional arousal and may thus provide a brief improvement in spatial-temporal skills precisely because it induces such arousal.”

A Decrease in the Stress Response

Music listening may even decrease negative arousal, such as stress, which in turn improves task performance. This indicates “the ‘Mozart effect’ might be caused by overcoming cognitive dissonance,” as discovered by Perlovsky, Cabanac, Bonniot-Cabanac, and Cabanac in a 2013 study. More precisely, music reverses stress caused by test-taking, thus leading to improved testing scores following music listening.

A collaborative research team led by Harvard scientist Perlovksy found that during a test, students experience contradictory cognitions that cause cognitive dissonances. If some music helps to tolerate cognitive dissonances, then first, this music should increase the duration during which participants can tolerate stressful conditions while evaluating test choices.

Second, this should result in improved performance. These hypotheses are tentatively confirmed in the reported experiments as the agreeable music was correlated with longer duration of tests under stressful conditions and better performance above that under indifferent or unpleasant music.

This reinforces the concept that positive arousal leads to improved test scores and negative arousal leads to decreased test scores.

Active vs. Passive Listening

As presented by Dr. Tomatis’ research into the neurophysiological connection between music and cognition, passive music-“hearing” does nothing to improve cognitive ability; one must actively listen in order to gain any benefit from the act.

As determined by Lynn Waterhouse, “the evidence to date does not justify advocating music as a means to improve spatial skills ‘for free’.” Researchers cannot control for the listening style of participants in studies exploring the Mozart Effect; studies with findings that support the Mozart Effect may have a higher percentage of participants with more advanced active listening skills than studies with inconclusive or contrary results.

However, the Mozart Effect may go beyond just the effort of active listening. Waterhouse further concludes, “there is no evidence, other than evidence for the Mozart Effect to suggest that significant cognitive skill improvement can take place without one of the first two memory enhancement processes: repetition of that skill or excitement associated with the skill activity.” This indicates that the Mozart Effect may actually be a combination of positive arousal and active music listening, which triggers the same neural pathways found in spatial-temporal task performance.

Final Thoughts

The complex relationship between music and cognition originally lead to a misrepresentation of the Mozart Effect in popular culture. Initial research indicated there may be a relationship between music perception and spatial-temporal reasoning, but the media took those findings to mean that simply listening to music would enhance intelligence, especially in infants and developing children.

Despite the mass media craze and opposing claims in the scientific community, research has revealed that music can influence cognitive function in extraordinary ways.

References

Bangerter, Adrian, and Chip Heath. “The Mozart Effect: Tracking the Evolution of a Scientific Legend.” British Journal of Social Psychology 43, no. 4 (2004): 605–23.

Cassity, Hope Daniels, Tracy B.Henley, and Robert P. Markley. “The Mozart Effect: Musical Phenomenon or Musical Preference? A More Ecologically Valid Reconsideration.” Journal of Instructional Psychology 34, no. 1 (2007): 13–17.

Harmon, Laurel A., Kristen Troester, Taryn Pickwick and G. Pelosi. “The Effects of Different Types of Music on Cognitive Abilities.” Journal of Undergraduate Psychological Research 3 (2008): 41–44.

Perlovsky, Leonid, Arnaud Cabanac, Marie-Claude Bonniot-Cabanac, and Michel Cabanac. “Mozart Effect, Cognitive Dissonance, and the Pleasure of Music.” Behavioural Brain Research 244 (2013): 9–14.

Pietschnig, Jakob, Martin Voracek, and Anton K. Formann. “Mozart Effect-Shmozart Effect: A Meta-Analysis.” Intelligence 38, no. 3 (2010): 314–23.

Rauscher, Frances, Gordon L. Shaw, and Katherine N. Ky. Music and spatial task performance: A causal relationship. Paper presented at the 102nd Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association (August 1994) Los Angeles, CA.

Standing, Lionel, C. C. Verpaelst, and B. K. Ulmer. “A demonstration of nonlinear demand characteristics in the ‘Mozart Effect’ experimental paradigm.” North American Journal of Psychology 10, no 3 (Dec 2008): 553–566.

Waterhouse, Lynn. (2006). “Multiple Intelligences, the Mozart Effect, and Emotional Intelligence: A Critical Review.” Educational Psychologist 41, no. 4 (2006): 207–25.