Cognitive Daily

Reassessing the “Mozart Effect”

The “Mozart Effect” hit the mainstream media by storm in the mid 1990s, in the form of a bestselling book by the same name. A Google search for the topic still reveals a slew of products designed to exploit the effect—to increase IQ, or overall well-being, or even physical health.

The psychological basis for the effect is a 1993 study by a team led by Frances Rauscher, which found a much more limited effect: scores on a spatial IQ test were 8 to 9 points higher after listening to a Mozart sonata, compared to testing following exposure to relaxation stimuli. The result was astounding: simply listening to Mozart could actually improve test scores. Rauscher and her colleagues have been careful to point out that the effect is short-lived, is limited to specific measures of spatial IQ, and may not be of any practical use, but these caveats didn’t stop sales of Mozart CDs from skyrocketing.

Since that time, many researchers have attempted to replicate the effect, with varying degrees of success. Bruce Rideout was able to match Rauscher et al.’s results in several studies, but a team led by Kenneth Steele, using a somewhat different methodology, was not.

Searching for a more definitive answer, Pippa McKelvie and Jason Low decided to try both Rideout’s and Steele’s methodology in the same study. There were a few key differences, however. In their testing, Steele, Rideout, and Rauscher had all tested college students, but McKelvie and Low tested 11- to 13-year-olds (this makes sense, given that most “Mozart effect” merchandise is marketed to parents of young children). In experiment 1, designed to match Steele’s methods, McKelvie and Low also addressed a Rauscher criticism of Steele’s research. Steele had compared listening to Mozart to listening to a standup comic routine and found no difference in spatial abilities. Rauscher suggested that listening to a contrasting musical form might yield better results. So in their task, McKelvie and Low used repetitive dance music by the group Aqua to compare to Mozart.

Students were divided into two groups—one which listened to Aqua first, and the other which listened to Mozart first. After listening to an 8-minute musical excerpt, students were tested on spatial ability. Then they listened to the other excerpt and took a different version of the same test. The result: no significant difference for any of the music. All the test scores were statistically the same. There wasn’t even a trend for Mozart.

In experiment 2, designed to match Rideout’s methods, a more complex design was used. The major difference was that Rideout’s procedure involved a relaxation sequence instead of contrasting music. However, while Rideout’s relaxation tape involved verbal cues for relaxation, McKelvie and Low used a musical relaxation CD—selections from Debussey’s Clair de Lune. Eight different variations comparing both Mozart and Aqua to the relaxation sequence were made, and none of them resulted in significant differences.

Where does this leave us? McKelvie and Low argue that this means there really is no Mozart effect. The only major difference between their replication and Rideout’s procedure was the use of musical rather than verbal relaxation sequences. If contrasting music doesn’t result in lower IQ scores, then we’re really not talking about Mozart enhancing spatial IQ scores, we’re talking about verbal relaxation tapes inhibiting them. In any case, the Mozart effect is clearly so limited that it’s probably not worth parents’ or researchers’ time trying to coax out an effect. Surely actual studying and learning will have a greater positive impact than trying to decide on the perfect pre-test music.

McKelvie, P., and Low, J. (2002). Listening to Mozart does not improve children’s spatial ability: Final curtains for the Mozart effect. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 20, 241-258.

Comments

  1. #1 coturnix
    August 30, 2005

    Thank you for putting this all together. I was difficult to piece together all the information that is out there.

    Now, how about that increased milk-yield in cows listening to Mozart? And the elevated chicken egg-production? ;-)

  2. #2 Donna
    August 30, 2005

    Gee, if you bore people, they do worse on tests. Any student could tell you that…..

  3. #3 Dave Munger
    August 30, 2005

    “if you bore people, they do worse on tests. Any student could tell you that”

    … but only spatial IQ tests. Perhaps this is the real headline: bored students do well on nearly all tests!

    I kid, I kid…

  4. #4 Ellie
    October 17, 2005

    wonderful! my science project is on the mozart effect

    perfect, thank you…

    poor donna
    p.s. please do not e-mail me

  5. #5 Dave Munger
    October 17, 2005

    Ellie:

    Don’t worry, your e-mail address is not publicly accessible on CogDaily. I certainly won’t e-mail you unless you e-mail me first!

  6. #6 Ellie
    October 21, 2005

    new webstite.

    thank you this helped me with my research of literature a lot i give credit to you

  7. #7 Ellie
    November 1, 2005

    sorry but nvm u because i like the mozart effect and believe in it…but in my research of literature, i did quote this to argue another point of view (shame on me…)

    so thank you, still, but i don’t really know…

  8. #8 Cynthia Wunsch
    October 12, 2009

    Since 2005, the research has come a long way. I’ve started aggregating the research on my blog, and at over 120 studies I have barely scratched the surface. I think it deserves another look, now that there have been studies done with fMRI, on gene expression and suppression, and much more.

  9. #9 Dave Munger
    October 13, 2009

    Hi Cynthia,

    I took a look at your blog. Interesting stuff, but I wish you went beyond merely quoting the abstract and adding a couple sentences of commentary. From what I read, I didn’t find much to dispute our reporting of the Mozart effect here.

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