September 16, 1999
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HARVARD GAZETTE ARCHIVES

Mozart Effect Hits Sour Notes

By William J. Cromie
Gazette Staff

Chris Chabris says, "There’s nothing wrong with having young people listen to classical music, but it’s not going to make them smarter." Photo by Kris Snibbe
It sounds too easy to be true. Play Mozart for your child and her or his IQ will jump 8 to 9 points, even while she or he is still in the womb.

These days parents will try anything to help Ashley or Chad get into the best schools, and politicians, teachers, and music marketers have all jumped on the bandwagon.

The state of Georgia now gives a cassette or CD of classical music to the parents of every newborn citizen, more than 100,000 babies a year. A bill recently passed in Florida mandates that all childcare and educational programs that receive state funding play 30 minutes of classical music a day for children under 5 years of age. Hudson Valley Community College in New York has a Mozart Effect Study Area in its campus library, and many music stores boast a "Mozart makes you smarter" section.

It all started in 1993, when a small research study concluded that listening to only 10 minutes of a Mozart piano sonata temporarily raised the "abstract reasoning" ability of 36 college students the equivalent of 8 to 9 points on a standard IQ scale. That provided enough "scientific evidence" for music marketers to sing about.

Other scientists did the same experiment, but most of them didn’t get the same results. Yet the idea that Mozart’s music could boost IQ continued to generate runaway popular support, and the research that produced contrary conclusions received little attention.

Last year, Christopher Chabris, then a graduate student at Harvard University, wondered about the net result of studies on the Mozart effect that had been done over the previous five years. He uncovered 16 studies and analyzed their conclusions.

"The results do not show any real change in IQ or reasoning ability," says Chabris, now a research fellow at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. "There’s a very small enhancement in learning a specific task, such as visualizing the result of folding and cutting paper, bu t even that is not statistically significant. The improvement is smaller than the average variation of a single person’s IQ test performance."

His conclusion: "There’s nothing wrong with having young people listen to classical music, but it’s not going to make them smarter."

Who Claims What

Chabris’ results appeared in the August 26 issue of Nature, the same journal that first published claims of the positive effect of listening to Mozart. Another paper published by researchers at Appalachian State University in North Carolina and at two Canadian universities echoes the Harvard conclusion.

Kenneth Steele and his collaborators repeated the original experiment and decided that, "there is little evidence for a direct effect of music on reasoning ability."

Steele’s group included the paper-folding and -cutting test in its experiments. The test requires the reader to visualize a series of folds and cuts that have been made on a sheet of paper, then to select from multiple-choice offerings an image of what the unfolded sheet looks like. The group found no effect on the performance of test-takers after listening to Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D major, the music played in the original experiment.

Steele and his collaborators compared test performances after hearing this sonata, sitting in silence, or listening to either relaxation instructions, relaxation music, or minimalist music. "The Mozart sonata produced no differential improvement in spatial reasoning in any experiment," Steele notes.

"A requiem may therefore be in order," he continues, referring to the title of the last piece that Mozart wrote.

However, the lead researcher on the original experiment is not ready for a funeral. Frances Rauscher, now at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, notes in Nature that she and her colleagues never said that listening to Mozart enhances intellige nce.

"We made no such claim," she insists. "The effect is limited to spatial-temporal tasks involving mental imagery and temporal ordering."

Chabris, however, insists that Rauscher did make such a claim. Rauscher’s original 1993 paper reports that, "We performed an experiment in which students were given three sets of standard IQ spatial reasoning tasks." These consisted of paper folding and cutting, plus two other "abstract/spatial reasoning tasks. Each task was preceded by ten minutes of [either] (1) listening to Mozart’s sonata for two pianos in D major, (2) listening to a relaxation tape, or (3) silence. . . . The IQs of subjects participating in the music condition were 8-9 points above their IQ scores in the two other conditions."

This last sentence, Chabris says, "explains why readers of the original article and secondary reports of it believe that the Mozart effect applied to a variety of tasks and reasoning abilities – in other words, to general intelligence."

In the rebuttal published along with Chabris’ and Steele’s critiques, Rauscher claims that four new studies all demonstrate a Mozart effect on not one but three different spatial tasks. The results of these studies, however, are yet to be released. She also noted that rats exposed to the Mozart sonata while in the uterus and for 60 days after birth learned to run mazes faster and with fewer errors than litter mates who had not heard the music.

Chabris calls the study with rats not relevant to the facts. "Even if one limits the Mozart effect to spatial-temporal processing, as Rauscher now insists," he says, "it is still about 75 percent smaller than originally claimed, and not statistically significant."

These disagreements aside, all those involved in the studies now agree on one major fact: listening to Mozart does not enhance general intelligence.

The state of Georgia might spend the $ 105,000 it allocated for classical music tapes and CDs on more important things, Chabris believes. "And parents can help their young children more by reading with them and playing with them than by leaving them alone with classical music CDs," he says. "You can enjoy classical music with your children without believing that it will grow brain cells or boost IQ."

As you might expect, Rauscher still maintains that children will learn spatial tasks better with than without Mozart, so the last note about the controversy has yet to be sounded.

 


Copyright 1999 President and Fellows of Harvard College