Music For Your Day

Does classical music really make You smarter?

What's the history of the "Mozart Effect"? And what evidence is there for classical music boosting brain power? Paul Kilbey separates the musical reality from marketing myth.

How do you make sure your child is born clever? It's a question that many expecting parents would love to know the answer to. The actor Helena Bonham Carter believes she has the perfect method.

Bonham Carter told Classic FM in 2015 that both her children "came out alert, unbelievably clever, and very relaxed". What was the trick? She had spent her pregnancies listening to a great deal of music by Mozart – the violin concertos most of all.

This is how the Tomatis Method, designed by the controversial French doctor Alfred Tomatis (1920–2001), works. Though his treatments are still considered alternative rather than mainstream, they have proved popular, and his work remains influential in its emphasis on the importance of the ear in early development. Tomatis treatments use recordings of music and other sound sources, such as the voice of the patient's mother, often filtered to emphasize higher frequencies. There is one composer who reigns supreme in his courses. "The powers of Mozart, especially the violin concertos," he wrote, "create the greatest healing effect on the human body."

An anonymous painting of the six-year-old Mozart. But can the composer's music bring you any closer to being a genius?

Tomatis, in fact, was the person who coined the phrase "the Mozart Effect", in his 1991 book Pourquoi Mozart? But it was a study of two years later that brought the idea from the far fringes of science into popular culture. In the journal Nature, a trio of scientists from the University of California, Irvine – Frances H. Rauscher, Gordon L. Shaw and Katherine N. Ky – published the results of an experiment they had conducted on 36 students. The students took three IQ tests focused on spatial reasoning, with each test prefaced by a different activity: they would either sit in silence, listen to a spoken relaxation tape, or listen to Mozart's Sonata for 2 Pianos in D major KV 448. They performed notably better in the test after listening to the music, although the effects wore off after 10 to 15 minutes. Despite the small scale and limited applicability of these findings, the experiment struck a particularly resonant chord with the public. "Mozart Makes the Brain Hum, a Study Finds" was the New York Times headline that followed. "Can it be that the music of Mozart is not only exalting but can also improve intelligence?"

One person who seemed to think so was Don Campbell, a musician and teacher from Texas who had studied composition with the famed teacher Nadia Boulanger. Since the 1980s, Campbell had been fascinated by the effects that music could have on the body. Only slightly varying the theme of the 1993 experiment, Campbell registered "The Mozart Effect" as a trademark and came up with a whole suite of resources, including many CDs, that capitalized on the idea of music – especially Mozart – having various beneficial properties. As his 1997 book The Mozart Effect makes clear, it was not only that one scientific study that inspired all this: Campbell was also a devotee of Tomatis.

Listening to classical music has been shown to provide temporary boosts in IQ, but can it offer lasting benefits?

Like Tomatis, Campbell was not primarily aiming to prove a strong link between listening to Mozart and raising your IQ. The "Mozart Effect" was meant to represent something both bigger than that, and vaguer: Campbell's claim was that music is a "magical medium that moves, enchants, energizes, and heals us". Campbell referred dismissively to "the naïve assumption that music – any music – somehow makes us smarter" in the preface to a 2001 reprint of his book, and instead trumpeted "music's powerful effect on multiple levels of neurological and physical responses". Yet that "naïve assumption" had already caught on with the public.

Perhaps it is a good thing that Campbell's broader claims didn't make more headway. The book, which begins with an account of how Campbell cured himself of a cranial blood clot through humming, is filled with anecdotal evidence and stories about music and its unexpected powers. In Campbell’s hands, the "Mozart Effect" travels away from science, beyond even the alternative methods of Tomatis, and into some thoroughly murky, unverifiable territory: a lengthy closing section in the book indexes how (he claims) music can help with everything from AIDS and cancer to the menopause. Campbell doesn't say that music can medically cure everything he lists, but he strays uncomfortably close to offering false hope.

The unsuspecting Wolfgang Amadeus has found himself in all manner of bizarre contexts since then. The idea that his music might make us smarter is far more plausible than some of the other ideas that have emerged. Under the banner of the "Mozart Effect", Mozart's music has been piped in everywhere from dogs' homes to vineyards, and even into a German sewer. Little evidence has ever been found to support the idea that Mozart's music – as opposed to, say, Haydn's – is particularly effective in calming dogs, or breaking down human waste. Mozart's ubiquity in this area may simply be a byproduct of his popular image: a pure, almost saintly figure, gifted from early childhood and childlike throughout his life, he wrote music with seemingly supernatural ease. It's easy to imagine that this music, more than that of others, has powers beyond our ken. But that assumption isn't rooted in fact.

The lead researcher on that infamous 1993 project, Dr Frances Rauscher, has long been attempting to quieten the clamour of simplistic interpretations of her work. A 2006 article by Rauscher (now based at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh) and Sean C. Hinton spells out the limitations of both the initial experiment and the curious ways in which it has been interpreted. Entitled "The Mozart Effect: Music Listening is Not Music Instruction", the article calls it a "misconception that Mozart's music can enhance general intelligence". Some sort of "Mozart Effect" that helps with IQ tests and the like may exist, but the effect is "exceedingly brief", they write: any increase in IQ will quickly fade away.

In their paper, Rauscher and Hinton instead take up a different theme: actually learning an instrument. Though they again caution against leaping to conclusions, they point out numerous benefits that may result from instrumental tuition, including "reflective and analytical skills", "spatial-temporal cognition" and "visuospatial skills": that is, there may be lasting benefits in the technical skills and routine that you develop when you learn how to play music for yourself. Research in this area is a lot more convincing than it ever was for the Mozart Effect.

Another point Rauscher and Hinton make is also worth remembering. Several studies, they write, suggest "that the Mozart effect is largely due to arousal or mood rather than to Mozart or the specific composition" – it's not to do with the music as such, but how the music makes us feel. That takes the debate far away from the idea that the spirit of Mozart is hovering over us all, showering us benevolently with IQ points. Instead, it suggests something that seems altogether more plausible: if music makes us happier, it does us good.

Does listening to classical music really make you smarter, then? As far as science is confirmed, the answer is an emphatic "not really". But that may not be the most important point. Is science really the best way to describe something as mysterious – even "magical" – as our relationship with music? Here's one idea, albeit an unscientific one, that we can perhaps all get behind: listening to music is good for the soul. Which, in turn, will make everything you do – from raising a hyperintelligent child to sitting an IQ test – seem just that little bit easier.

Paul Kilbey · Published
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