It is likely safe to assume that at one point or another, you have heard someone say something along the lines of “having your child listen to classical music will make them smarter.” Dubbed the “Mozart Effect,” the theory goes that children who are exposed to classical music at an early age will perform better than their peers on tests of cognition and intelligence. So prevalent is popular culture’s belief in this phenomenon that several states, including Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee set aside funding to ensure that all newborns and families with young children have access to classical music. Entire product lines toting CD’s and books that expose young children to the music of Mozart and other popular classical musicians have even been created and successfully sold across the country, and although the myth has now been debunked, article after article has been written praising the supposed cognitive benefits for children and many still accept the claims as absolute truth.
While the idea that listening to classical music increases intelligence may seem believable at first glance, there is no scientific evidence to support it. The acceptance of the myth in popular culture can be traced back to a study conducted at the University of California in 1993 that concluded students who were exposed to ten minutes of classical music prior to completing a spatial task performed better than students who listened to nothing before completing the same task. One look at the original article makes it obvious that the reported findings do not in any way support the claims that millions have made regarding this phenomenon and is an interesting example of how scientific findings are often misrepresented in media in order to make for a more interesting article.
To start, the original study recruited 36 college aged participants, not young children, to participate in their study. The students were asked to complete mental tasks on three separate occasions. Each time, they were either primed with ten minutes of silence, ten minutes of a relaxation tape, or ten minutes of Mozart. Of the tasks completed, those students who were primed with Mozart performed better overall on a task of spatial manipulation. The effect, however, was only found to last about 15 minutes. The paper did not once reference the term “The Mozart Effect” nor did it claim that classical music increased overall intelligence. Follow up research done exclusively on children also failed to yield any results that would suggest a lasting and significant impact of classical music on intelligence.
I found this topic really interesting primarily because such a widespread and popular belief was spread on such a shaky foundation. Anyone who bothered to look at the original research could have seen that the claims were unfounded, yet people chose to report the version of the findings they felt were most interesting and profitable. It’s obvious that a large group of people went on, and likely still are, to make enormous profits selling the public on an unsupported “quick fix” to making their children smarter, in turn perpetuating and spreading unsubstantiated myths regarding the nature of cognition and intelligence.