One of my best friends in college played music incessantly—whether he was studying, writing papers, completing organic chemistry problem sets, or swilling down cheap beer, whatever he did was accompanied by a nonstop 1980s synth-pop beat. This apparently did him no harm, because after graduating at the top of his class, he went on to get a PhD and a law degree, with full scholarships paying for both.
I could never study with him because the music always broke my concentration. I preferred to study to the gentle background noise of the campus coffee shop. There was one exception to this rule: when I was writing a paper, I would always play Mozart’s Piano Concerto #23. Perhaps it was just superstition, but I really believed it helped me concentrate. Even playing a Mozart symphony did not produce the same effect for me—only the piano music worked.
A few years after I graduated from college, the research of Rauscher et al. appeared to back up my superstition—listening to Mozart’s piano music actually raised spatial IQ scores. But, as I noted a few days ago, the data collected subsequently on the “Mozart effect” has been mixed, and several prominent researchers have pronounced “final curtains” or a “requiem” for the Mozart effect.
But what of my own experiences writing papers (which I still employ sometimes when inspiration founders—though I’ve now expanded my collection to include concertos 9, 21, 22, 25, and 27)? And what of the research that did show an effect? Where is that coming from?
Some recent research has begun to find answers. I’ll discuss two such studies today, and a third next week. First, Vesna Ivanov and John Geake studied three classrooms of 5th and 6th graders. For one class, Mozart’s sonata for two pianos was played both before and during the standard paper folding and cutting task used for nearly all Mozart effect research. In this task, a piece of paper is folded several times, and then holes are punched in it. Students must imagine where the holes will be when the paper is unfolded. The second class listened to Bach’s Toccata in G major while completing the task, and the third class took the test in silence. Here are their results:
While they found no difference between Mozart and Bach, both classes that listened to music performed better on the test than the class that worked in silence. So apparently the Mozart effect isn’t limited to Mozart. Indeed, the effect has also been found with the music of Schubert, and even the new age performer Yanni (apparently no one has yet tested ’80s synth pop). Ivanov and Geake offer some interesting guesses as to why the music improves performance. They point to Rausher’s argument that cognitive processing levels remain essentially the same while listening to Mozart’s music. They also suspect that music may help to mask the otherwise distracting background noise that is present in nearly all “silent” classrooms.
Trying to sort through the varied results on the Mozart effect, Catherine Jackson and Michael Tlauka conducted a study in which they used a different task: instead of a paper folding task, participants negotiated through a virtual maze on a computer screen. They noted that other researchers had found the effect with paper-and-pencil mazes, so it seemed likely that Mozart might also improve performance on virtual mazes.
Jackson and Tlauka’s participants did the task twice: once after listening to Mozart’s piano sonata, and once while listening to Philip Glass’s Music with Changing Parts. None of the participants did the task following a period of silence. While the participants were able to learn the maze, the Mozart music did not lead to an improvement compared to the Philip Glass. Jackson and Tlauka argue that this means the Mozart effect is not generalizable—if it’s only valuable for pencil and paper tasks, then what real-world application could it possibly have.
But one interesting thing to note about these two studies is that they’re not really finding anything different. Both studies found that different music can lead to improvements in special reasoning. Since Jackson and Tlauka did not include a “silent” condition in their study, we don’t know if their results are any different from Ivanov and Geake.
What these two studies do reveal is that Mozart’s music isn’t unique—that other music can have a similar effect. But the studies can only offer guesses as to why there does seem to be some effect of listening to music on spatial reasoning. I’ll continue to explore this issue next week.
Ivanov, V.K., & Geake, J.G. (2003). The Mozart effect and primary school children. Psychology of Music, 31(4), 405-413.
Jackson, C.S., & Tlauka, M. (2004). Route-learning and the Mozart effect. Psychology of Music, 32(2), 213-220.