How do we reconcile the variety of results that have been found with respect to the Mozart effect—the idea that the music of Mozart can lead to improved performance on spatial ability tests? With some researchers appearing to have found no effect at all, and others claiming dramatic effects, who are we to believe? In just the research we’ve reviewed here at Cognitive Daily, we’ve got Ivanov and Geake reporting a pronounced effect for both Mozart and Bach, Jackson and Tlauka arguing that there’s no Mozart effect for route learning, and McKelvie and Low declaring “final curtains for the Mozart effect.”
These studies all make different claims, but now some researchers believe they have found a common thread. The music causing the effect isn’t limited to Mozart: Bach and Schubert effects have been documented. In both the Jackson and Tlauka study and the McKelvie and Low research, the experimenters compared different types of music (Philip Glass and Aqua) to Mozart, but didn’t include a non-musical control, so it’s possible that all these types of music produce the effect. So what kind of music doesn’t lead to the effect?
A team of researchers led by Gabriela Husain may have found the answer. They note that previous research has established that people score better on cognitive measures when they are in a good mood and/or are in an aroused state. Perhaps all these different types of music either arouse people or put them in a positive mood. Several studies have established that a fast tempo leads to arousal, and that works played in a minor key can induce a negative mood.
Building on this research, Husain and her colleagues decided to systematically alter the Mozart Sonata for Two Pianos and test people’s spatial ability, mood, and arousal levels after listening to the different versions. They had a skilled pianist play the sonata into a MIDI sequencer, allowing them to easily manipulate tempo. They created a fast version (165 beats per minute [bpm], or about 35 percent faster than the score) and a slow version (60 bpm, half as fast as the score). Next, they took each version and transposed it to a minor key (from D major to D minor), taking care to fix several odd-sounding notes resulting from the process. Volunteers were divided into four groups, each of which listened to a different version of the sonata before taking the paper folding and cutting test that purports to measure spatial ability. Here are the results:
There was a significant difference between scores of participants who listened to the fast versions compared to the slow versions. The highest scores were achieved by the fast/major group, and by far the lowest scores came from the slow/minor group. But how did these results compare to the arousal and mood scores? The groups listening to the fast versions were more aroused, and groups listening to major versions were in more positive moods than those listening to minor key versions. In fact, 58 percent of the variation in the results on the spatial reasoning test were attributable to mood, arousal, or enjoyment of the music. Differences in musical structure, by comparison, accounted to just 12 percent of the variation.
Husain et al. argue that it’s the changes in mood and arousal which account for the improvement in spatial abilities—and music is not the only way to affect mood and arousal. Just giving someone a candy bar, for example, will reliably improve their mood, but we don’t talk about a “candy bar effect.” It’s certainly possibly that the 12 percent variation in the data attributable to musical structure may be the result of some small “Mozart effect,” but Husain and her colleagues believe it’s more likely that this result is simply an artifact of imperfect measurement of mood, arousal, and spatial ability.
So what’s the bottom line? Should parents invest hundreds of dollars exposing their kids to classical music, in order to make them “smarter”? It probably won’t hurt, but the data suggest that what’s more important is to make sure your kids approach tests with a positive attitude. Of course, as the parent of a 13-year-old whose mood typically ranges from glum to glummer, I know that’s often easier said than done.
Husain, G., Thompson, W. F., & Schellenberg, E. G. (2002). Effects of musical tempo and mode on arousal, mood and spatial abilities. Music Perception, 20(2), 151-171.