If you’re a parent, or soon to be one, you’ll know that the imminent arrival of a newborn generates above all else a mile-long shopping list. Up there with the organic cotton onesies, on many parents’ list is a CD entitled The Mozart Effect. The possibility that Mozart’s music could make our kids smarter is deliciously and yet simplistically tantalising, and a wealth of books, CDs, and resources are available for purchase promising just that. But what is the science – or lack thereof – behind it? Here is a five-step guide to the misconceptions, theories, and opportunistic marketing techniques that have made The Mozart Effect a phenomenon that continues to this day.
(1) The term ‘Mozart Effect’ was first coined in 1991 by the French researcher Dr Alfred Tomatis, in his book, Pourquoi Mozart? Dr Tomatis – who was anecdotally banned for life from the French Medical Council in 1977 – used Mozart’s music as a potential cure for a variety of disorders, and as a means to retrain the ear. But while Dr Tomatis may have first employed the term, his method, which used Mozart’s music along with Gregorian chant and recordings of the voices of his patients’ mothers, should not be confused with what we now know of as the Mozart Effect. Aptly named the ‘Tomatis Method,’ his alternative medicine theories of hearing and listening make no reference at all to music as a means of increasing general intelligence.
(2) It was a 1993 paper by Rauscher and colleagues that initially gave the effect its claim to fame. After listening to 10 minutes of a Mozart sonata, the adult participants in the study exhibited enhanced mean spatial IQ scores. But their better spatial-temporal performances did not extend beyond 15 minutes after the completion of the experiment. Surprisingly, not only did the study not involve children, but the article that started it all never claimed that listening to Mozart could improve general intelligence.
(3) A follow-up experiment in 1998 was actually undertaken on rats. During this experiment different groups of rats were exposed in utero and after birth to various sound sources, including, of course, Mozart. The speed with which the rats successfully navigated mazes was then recorded. After three days of avid maze running, team Mozart was declared the winner. Inspired by these findings, the governor of the state of Georgia in the United States gave a free Mozart CD to all parents of newborn children.
(4) Questions began to arise as to why Mozart’s music in particular seemed to be getting all the attention. Was it in any way special? This was answered in a 2010 meta-analysis of studies undertaken on this question, and while short-lived positive results were found, it was also demonstrated that other types of music, and indeed other activities, could also generate the same effects. The ‘Mozart Effect’ was subsequently criticised for having little to do with the fact that it was Mozart’s music that had been used in the original experiment, or even that it was classical music at all. Indeed, any positive findings were put down to being caused by what was termed “enjoyment arousal,” where the important factor was not so much the temporal quality of the music, but the level of appreciation, engagement, and enjoyment of the task being undertaken.
(5) The big winner from a marketing perspective is without doubt Don Campbell, who trademarked a set of commercial recordings and related material he billed as not only increasing intelligence and mental development, but also enhancing “deep rest and rejuvenation” and “creativity and imagination.” His products and the method he promulgates are claimed to enable everything from a reduction in stress, anxiety, and depression, to an alleviation of the symptoms of dyslexia and autism. Campbell’s trademarked products may be contentious to say the least, but have sold well over two million copies, and continue to be snapped up by well-meaning and unsuspecting consumers worldwide. While there is no conclusive evidence that The Mozart Effect® can increase intelligence or mental development, it is clear that it has had a considerable effect on the size of certain wallets.
So what should new parents do? It’s undeniable that there is no need to go out and buy every child-friendly Mozart CD on the market. But there is also no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. While it may not make them smarter or more able to navigate the mazes of life any faster, exposing young children to music they enjoy will hopefully foster in them a life-long relationship with music.
Featured image: dora dora 2. Photo by Philippe Put. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.