The Mozart Effect

The more hyped and less plausible passive Mozart Effect

The so-called "Mozart effect" refers to two quite different phenomena. The one that has received the most media play concerns the almost magical (and mythical) effect of Mozart's music on intelligence. It is the result of a misrepresentation of the research results. Rauscher, Shaw, and Ky's 1993 study found that 10 minutes of exposure to Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major K. 448 temporarily enhanced performance on three spatial reasoning tasks.

The source of the misunderstanding lay in the fact that spatial reasoning is a component of IQ tests, and the researchers reported an increase of some 8 or 9 points in students' IQ scores after listening to the music. The effect lasted some ten to fifteen minutes.

Even in this limited sense, the effect has not been consistently replicated - indeed, it would be fair to say it has more usually failed to be replicated. Moreover, a meta-analysis of studies that have investigated this effect has found that any cognitive improvement "is small and does not reflect any change in IQ or reasoning ability in general, but instead derives entirely from performance on one specific type of cognitive task and has a simple neuropsychological explanation"1.

There does seem to be a case that particular types of music can have an effect on brainwaves - there has been some interesting work done on its possible therapeutic role in reducing epileptic seizures - but the main effect of music seems to be through its effect on arousal.

Most of the research done into the Mozart Effect has continued the example of the original researchers by comparing the effect of listening to Mozart's music with listening to silence or to a relaxation tape. Obviously enough, these various situations would be expected to differentially affect mood and level of arousal (which are known to have a, small and unreliable, effect on cognition). There is evidence that when this effect is controlled for, the Mozart effect (which we may note is also small and unreliable) disappears.

The more plausible active Mozart effect

There is however another Mozart effect that promises to be more useful. This is the possibility that formal training in music yields nonmusical benefits. Once again, the media are keen to hypothesize that this effect is on IQ (what is the media's obsession with IQ?). There does however seem to be growing evidence that musical training benefits other faculties - specifically, verbal memory.

More articles on the Mozart Effect,12102,871350,00.html

BBC radio programme:

about the effect of music training from one of the original "Mozart effect" researchers:

  • Rauscher, F.H., Shaw, G.L, & Ky, K.N. 1993. Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365, 611.
  • Schellenberg, E.G. 2001. Music and nonmusical abilities. Ann N Y Acad Sci, 930, 355-71.

Studies that have failed to confirm this finding

  • Chabris, C.F. 1999. Prelude or requiem for the 'Mozart effect'? Nature, 400, 827.
  • McCutcheon,L.E. 2000. Another failure to generalize the Mozart effect. Psychological Reports, 87, 325-30.
  • Newman,J., Rosenbach,J.H., Burns,K.L., Latimer,B.C., Matocha,H.R. & Vogt,E.R. 1995. An experimental test of "the mozart effect": does listening to his music improve spatial ability? Perceptual & Motor Skills, 81, 1379-87.
  • Steele, K.M., Bella, S.D., Peretz, I., Dunlop, T., Dawe, L.A., Humphrey, G.K., Shannon, R.A., Kirby Jr., J.L. & Olmstead, C.G. 1999. Prelude or requiem for the 'Mozart effect'? Nature, 400, 827.
  • Steele, K.M., Brown,J.D., Stoecker,J.A. 1999. Failure to confirm the Rauscher and Shaw description of recovery of the Mozart effect. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 88, 843-8.

Failure to extend finding:

  • Bridgett,D.J. & Cuevas,J. 2000. Effects of listening to Mozart and Bach on the performance of a mathematical test. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 90, 1171-5.
  • Steele,K.M., Ball,T.N. & Runk,R. 1997. Listening to Mozart does not enhance backwards digit span performance. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 84, 1179-84.

Success in replicating effect:

  • Rideout,B.E., Dougherty,S. & Wernert,L. 1998. Effect of music on spatial performance: a test of generality. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 86, 512-4.
  • Rideout,B.E. & Taylor,J. 1997. Enhanced spatial performance following 10 minutes exposure to music: a replication. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 85, 112-4.

Effect accounted by arousal:

  • Steele,K.M. 2000. Arousal and mood factors in the "Mozart effect". Perceptual & Motor Skills, 91, 188-90.
  • Thompson,W.F., Schellenberg,E.G. & Husain,G. 2001. Arousal, mood, and the Mozart effect. Psychological Science, 12, 248-51.

1. Chabris, C.F. 1999. Prelude or requiem for the 'Mozart effect'? Nature, 400, 827.

Music and language

Some of the attributes of music are particularly memorable, and can be used to assist learning.

Music and language are both important in helping humans form large social groups, and one can argue that they co-evolved on the back of this function*.

There is growing evidence that the same brain structures are involved in music and language processing.

A rare disorder suggests a genetic link between social skills, language skills, and musical skills.

These connections between music and language processing support recent evidence that music training can improve children's language skills.

The role of melody in helping recall

The most obvious connection between language and music is that music can be used to help us remember words. It has been convincingly shown that words are better recalled when they are learned as a song rather than speech - in particular conditions.

Melody is what is important. Rhythm is obviously part of that. We are all aware of the power of rhythm in helping make something memorable. But melody, it seems, has quite a lot of attributes, apart from rhythm, that we can use as cues to help our recall. And what seems to be crucial is the simplicity and predictability of the melody.

But the connection between language and music is much more profound than this.

The evolution of language

One of my favorite books is Robin Dunbar's Grooming, gossip and the evolution of language . In it he moves on from the fact that monkeys and apes are intensely social and that grooming each other is a major social bonding mechanism, to the theory that in humans language (particularly the sort of social language we call gossip) has taken the place of grooming. The size of human social groups, he argues cogently, was able to increase (to our species' benefit) because of the advantages language has over grooming. For example, it's hard to groom more than one at a time, but you can talk to several at once.

Language, music, and emotion

I mention this now because he also suggests that both music and language helped humans knit together in social groups, and maybe music was first. We are all familiar with the extraordinary power of music to not only evoke emotion, but also to bind us into a group. Think of your feelings at times of group singing - the singing of the national anthem, singing 'Auld Lang Syne' at New Year's Eve, singing in church, campfire singing, carol singing ... fill in your own experience.

Dunbar also observes that, while skilled oratory has its place of course, language is fairly inadequate at the emotional level - something we all have occasion to notice when we wish to offer comfort and support to those in emotional pain. At times like these, we tend to fall back on the tried and true methods of our forebears - touch.

So, while language is unrivalled in its ability to convey "the facts", there is a point at which it fails. At this point, other facilities need to step in. At an individual level, we have touch, and "body language". At the social level, we have music.

Language and music then, may well have developed together, not entirely independently.More evidence for this comes from recent neurological studies.

The neural substrates of language and music

Language is a very important and complex function in humans, and unsurprisingly it involves a number of brain regions. The most famous is Broca's area. Recent research into neurological aspects of music have held some surprises. Imaging studies have revealed that, while the same area (the planum temporale) was active in all subjects listening to music, in non-musicians it was the right planum temporale that was most active, while in musicians the left side dominated. The left planum temporale is thought to control language processing. It has been suggested that musicians process music as a language. This left-brain activity was most pronounced in people who had started musical training at an early age.

Moreover, several studies have now demonstrated that there are significant differences in the distribution of gray matter in the brain between professional musicians trained at an early age and non-musicians. In particular, musicians have an increased volume of gray matter in Broca's area. The extent of this increase appears to depend on the number of years devoted to musical training. There also appears to be a very significant increase in the amount of gray matter in the part of the auditory cortex called the Heschl's gyrus (also involved in the categorical perception of speech sounds).

An imaging study1 investigating the neural correlates of music processing found that " unexpected musical events" activated the areas of Broca and Wernicke, the superior temporal sulcus, Heschl's gyrus, both planum polare and planum temporale, as well as the anterior superior insular cortices. The important thing about this is that, while some of those regions were already known to be involved in music processing, the cortical network comprising all these structures has up to now been thought to be domain-specific for language processing.

People are sensitive to acoustic cues used to distinguish both different musicians and different speakers

Another study2 has found that people remember music in the same way that they remember speech. Both musicians and non-musicians were found to be equally accurate in distinguishing changes in musical sequences, when those changes were in the length and loudness of certain tones. This discrimination appeared to also be within the capabilities of ten-month-old babies, arguing that the facility is built into us, and does not require training.

These acoustic characteristics are what make two musicians sound different when they are playing the same music, and make two speakers sound different when they are saying the same sentence.

So, if this facility is innate, what do our genes tell us?

Williams syndrome

Williams syndrome is a rare genetic disorder. Those with this syndrome have characteristic facial and physical features, certain cardiovascular problems and mild to moderate mental retardation.

They are also markedly social, and have greater language capabilities than you would expect from their general cognitive ability. They score significantly higher on tests measuring behavior in social situations, including their ability to remember names and faces, eagerness to please others, empathy with others' emotions and tendency to approach strangers.

This connection, between sociability, language skills, and memory for names and faces, is what makes Williams syndrome interesting in this context. And of course, the final characteristic: an extraordinary connection with music
(see )

Mozart effect

A Canadian study is now underway to look at whether musical training gives children an edge over non-musical counterparts in verbal and writing skills (as well as perhaps giving the elderly an edge in preserving cognitive function for as long as possible). In view of the factors discussed here, the idea that music training benefits verbal skills is certainly plausible. I discuss this in more detail in my discussion of the much-hyped Mozart effect.


* I'm sorry, I know this is expressed somewhat clumsily. More colloquially, many people would say they co-evolved for this purpose. But functions don't evolve purposively - the eye didn't evolve because one day an organism thought it would be a really good idea to be able to see. We know this, but it is ... oh so much easier ... to talk about evolution as if it was purposeful. Unfortunately, what starts simply because as a sloppy shorthand way of saying something, becomes how people think of it. I don't want to perpetuate this myself, so, I'm sorry, we have to go with the clumsy.

  1. Dunbar, R. 1996. Grooming, gossip, and the evolution of language. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  2. Wallace, W.T. 1994. Memory for music: effect of melody on recall of text. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory & Cognition, 20, 1471-85.
  3. 1. Koelsch, S., Gunter, T.C., von Cramon, D.Y., Zysset, S., Lohmann, G. & Friederici, A.D. 2002. Bach Speaks: A Cortical "Language-Network" Serves the Processing of Music, NeuroImage, 17(2), 956-966.
  4. 2. Palmer, C.,Jungers, M.K. & Jusczyk, P.W. 2001. Episodic Memory for Musical Prosody. Journal of Memory and Language, 45, 526-545.

Sense of rhythm linked to language skills

A study involving 124 teenagers has found that those who were most accurate at tapping along with a metronome also showed the most consistent brain responses to a synthesized speech sound "da". The finding is consistent with previous research showing links between reading ability and beat-keeping ability, and between reading ability and the consistency of the brain's response to sound. The finding also provides more support for the benefits of music training for both language skills and auditory processing.

Does music training make you smarter?

Children Playing Violin Suzuki Institute 2011

Have to say I was a bit disappointed by this, seeing as how I'm a big fan of childhood instruction in music. But it must be remembered that even if some of the benefits have been a bit overblown, there are other long-term benefits of music training. I see this more as a reminder that the picture is a complicated one - regarding both music, and video games.

Ingrid Wickelgren at Scientific American:

Childhood music training has enduring benefits for hearing

More evidence that learning a musical instrument in childhood, even for a few years, has long-lasting benefits for auditory processing.

Adding to the growing evidence for the long-term cognitive benefits of childhood music training, a new study has found that even a few years of music training in childhood has long-lasting benefits for auditory discrimination.

The study involved 45 adults (aged 18-31), of whom 15 had no music training, 15 had one to five years of training, and 15 had six to eleven years. Participants were presented with different complex sounds ranging in pitch while brainstem activity was monitored.

Brainstem response to the sounds was significantly stronger in those with any sort of music training, compared to those who had never had any music training. This was a categorical difference — years of training didn’t make a difference (although some minimal length may be required — only one person had only one year of training). However, recency of training did make a difference to brainstem response, and it does seem that some fading might occur over long periods of time.

This difference in brainstem response means that those with music training are better at recognizing the fundamental frequency (lowest frequency sound). This explains why music training may help protect older adults from hearing difficulties — the ability to discriminate fundamental frequencies is crucial for understanding speech, and for processing sound in noisy environments.


[3074] Skoe, E., & Kraus N. (2012).  A Little Goes a Long Way: How the Adult Brain Is Shaped by Musical Training in Childhood. The Journal of Neuroscience. 32(34), 11507 - 11510.

Attributes of effective practice

A large survey of a broad range of music students demonstrates which attributes of practice are associated with growing expertise.

Generalizing these to practice/study in general suggests that:

  • Amount and frequency of practice required depends on the individual.
  • The most important thing you can do is work out which strategies aren’t working for you, and stop using them.
  • While some organizational structure to your study sessions is usually helpful, the nature and extent of it will depend on the individual.
  • It’s important to identify difficult aspects/sections of your material, and work on these separately until you have mastered them sufficiently to incorporate them into the rest of your material.
  • It’s important to get some understanding of what you are about to learn/study before you begin.
  • Where possible (and especially when the material is more difficult), you should try and find expert models/examples to guide your learning.

One of my perennial themes is the importance of practice, and in the context of developing expertise, I have talked of ‘deliberate practice’ (a concept articulated by the well-known expertise researcher K. Anders Ericsson). A new paper in the journal Psychology of Music reports on an interesting study that shows how the attributes of music practice change as music students develop in expertise. Music is probably the most studied domain in expertise research, but I think we can gain some general insight from this analysis. Here’s a summary of the findings.

Even babies benefit from music lessons

A six-month study comparing the effects of two types of infant music class shows that babies can be taught to become sensitive to musical pitch, and that musical activity can improve social and cognitive skills.

I’ve talked before about the benefits of music lessons for children — most recently, for example, how music-based training 'cartoons' improved preschoolers’ verbal IQ. Now a new study extends the findings to infants.

In the study, 6-month-old babies were randomly assigned to six months of one of two types of weekly music class. The classes lasted an hour and involved either an active or passive approach.

In the active classes, parents and infants worked together to learn to play percussion instruments and sing lullabies and action songs. The classes emphasized musical expression, listening in order to play or sing at the right time, repetition, and developing parents’ awareness of their babies’ responses. There was also a CD that they were encouraged to play at home.

In the passive classes, parents and infants listened to CDs from the Baby Einstein series while playing and interacting at art, book, ball, block, and stacking cup play stations. Parents were encouraged to take home different CDs from the collection each week.

At the end of the program, those babies attending the active classes showed an earlier sensitive to pitch. Unlike infants from the passive classes, they preferred to listen to a piano piece played in key rather than one that included notes played out of key (you can hear the two versions at Their brains also showed larger and/or earlier responses to musical tones.

On the cognitive side, babies from the active classes also showed better early communication skills, like pointing at objects that are out of reach, or waving goodbye. Socially, these babies also smiled more, were easier to soothe, and showed less distress when things were unfamiliar or didn't go their way. It is presumed that these social skills are due to the development of better social interaction between parent and child.

The classes were run at two centers — one in a lower socioeconomic area, and one in a middle-class area. The teachers of the classes were unaware of the nature of the experiment. Before the classes began, all the babies had shown similar communication and social development and none had previously participated in other baby music classes. There was no interaction between socioeconomic status and intervention, and the results from both were then analyzed together. There were 38 families (out of an initial 49 at the beginning) who were still attending regularly at the end of the program, and 34 of these (of whom 16 were from the lower SES centre) completed the testing.

The exciting question is of course what long-term effects this ‘head-start’ will have on cognitive and social development. I hope the researchers will follow this up.


Music and sports training help spatial skills differently for men and women

While sports training benefits the spatial skills of both men and women, music training closes the gender gap by only helping women.

I talked recently about how the well-established difference in spatial ability between men and women apparently has a lot to do with confidence. I also mentioned in passing that previous research has shown that training can close the gender gap. A recent study suggests that this training may not have to be specific to spatial skills.

In the German study, 120 students were given a processing speed test and a standard mental rotation test. The students were evenly divided into three groups: musicians, athletes, and education students who didn’t participate in either sports or music.

While the expected gender gap was found among the education students, the gap was smaller among the sports students, and non-existent in the music students.

Among the education students, men got twice as many rotation problems correct as women. Among the sports students, both men and women did better than their peers in education, but since they were both about equally advantaged, a gender gap was still maintained. However, among the musicians, it was only women who benefited, bringing them up to the level of the men.

Thus, for males, athletes did best on mental rotation; for females, musicians did best.

Although it may be that those who went into music or sports had relevant “natural abilities”, the amount of training in sports/music did have a significant effect. Indeed, analysis found that the advantage of sports and music students disappeared when hours of practice and years of practicing were included.

Interestingly, too, there was an effect of processing speed. Although overall the three groups didn’t differ in processing speed, male musicians had a lower processing speed than female musicians, or male athletes (neither of which groups were significantly different from each other).

It is intriguing that music training should only benefit females’ spatial abilities. However, I’m reminded that in research showing how a few hours of video game training can help females close the gender gap, females benefited from the training far more than men. The obvious conclusion is that the males already had sufficient experience, and a few more hours were neither here nor there. Perhaps the question should rather be: why does sports practice benefit males’ spatial skills? A question that seems to point to the benefits for processing speed, but then we have to ask why sports didn’t have the same effect on women. One possible answer here is that the women had engaged in sports for a significantly shorter time (an average of 10.6 years vs 17.55), meaning that the males tended to begin their sports training at a much younger age. There was no such difference among the musicians.

(For more on spatial memory, see the aggregated news reports)


Pietsch, S., & Jansen, P. (2012). Different mental rotation performance in students of music, sport and education. Learning and Individual Differences, 22(1), 159-163. Elsevier Inc. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2011.11.012

Music training protects against aging-related hearing loss

More evidence that music training protects older adults from age-related impairment in understanding speech, adding to the potential benefits of music training in preventing dementia.

I’ve spoken before about the association between hearing loss in old age and dementia risk. Although we don’t currently understand that association, it may be that preventing hearing loss also helps prevent cognitive decline and dementia. I have previously reported on how music training in childhood can help older adults’ ability to hear speech in a noisy environment. A new study adds to this evidence.

The study looked at a specific aspect of understanding speech: auditory brainstem timing. Aging disrupts this timing, degrading the ability to precisely encode sound.

In this study, automatic brain responses to speech sounds were measured in 87 younger and older normal-hearing adults as they watched a captioned video. It was found that older adults who had begun musical training before age 9 and engaged consistently in musical activities through their lives (“musicians”) not only significantly outperformed older adults who had no more than three years of musical training (“non-musicians”), but encoded the sounds as quickly and accurately as the younger non-musicians.

The researchers qualify this finding by saying that it shows only that musical experience selectively affects the timing of sound elements that are important in distinguishing one consonant from another, not necessarily all sound elements. However, it seems probable that it extends more widely, and in any case the ability to understand speech is crucial to social interaction, which may well underlie at least part of the association between hearing loss and dementia.

The burning question for many will be whether the benefits of music training can be accrued later in life. We will have to wait for more research to answer that, but, as music training and enjoyment fit the definition of ‘mentally stimulating activities’, this certainly adds another reason to pursue such a course.

Music training and language skills

A month-long music-based program produced dramatic improvement in preschoolers’ language skills. Another study helps explain why music training helps language skills.

Music-based training 'cartoons' improved preschoolers’ verbal IQ

A study in which 48 preschoolers (aged 4-6) participated in computer-based, cognitive training programs that were projected on a classroom wall and featured colorful, animated cartoon characters delivering the lessons, has found that 90% of those who received music-based training significantly improved their scores on a test of verbal intelligence, while those who received visual art-based training did not.

The music-based training involved a combination of motor, perceptual and cognitive tasks, and included training on rhythm, pitch, melody, voice and basic musical concepts. Visual art training emphasized the development of visuo-spatial skills relating to concepts such as shape, color, line, dimension and perspective. Each group received two one-hour training sessions each day in classroom, over four weeks.

Children’s abilities and brain function were tested before the training and five to 20 days after the end of the programs. While there were no significant changes, in the brain or in performance, in the children who participated in the visual art training, nearly all of those who took the music-based training showed large improvements on a measure of vocabulary knowledge, as well as increased accuracy and reaction time. These correlated with changes in brain function.

The findings add to the growing evidence for the benefits of music training for intellectual development, especially in language.

Musical aptitude relates to reading ability through sensitivity to sound patterns

Another new study points to one reason for the correlation between music training and language acquisition. In the study, 42 children (aged 8-13) were tested on their ability to read and recognize words, as well as their auditory working memory (remembering a sequence of numbers and then being able to quote them in reverse), and musical aptitude (both melody and rhythm). Brain activity was also measured.

It turned out that both music aptitude and literacy were related to the brain’s response to acoustic regularities in speech, as well as auditory working memory and attention. Compared to good readers, poor readers had reduced activity in the auditory brainstem to rhythmic rather than random sounds. Responsiveness to acoustic regularities correlated with both reading ability and musical aptitude. Musical ability (largely driven by performance in rhythm) was also related to reading ability, and auditory working memory to both of these.

It was calculated that music skill, through the functions it shares with reading (brainstem responsiveness to auditory regularities and auditory working memory) accounts for 38% of the difference in reading ability between children.

These findings are consistent with previous findings that auditory working memory is an important component of child literacy, and that positive correlations exist between auditory working memory and musical skill.

Basically what this is saying, is that the auditory brainstem (a subcortical region — that is, below the cerebral cortex, where our ‘higher-order’ functions are carried out) is boosting the experience of predictable speech in better readers. This fine-tuning may reflect stronger top-down control in those with better musical ability and reading skills. While there may be some genetic contribution, previous research makes it clear that musicians’ increased sensitivity to sound patterns is at least partly due to training.

In other words, giving young children music training is a good first step to literacy.

The children were rated as good readers if they scored 110 or above on the Test of Word Reading Efficiency, and poor readers if they scored 90 or below. There were 8 good readers and 21 poor readers. Those 13 who scored in the middle were excluded from group analyses. Good and poor readers didn’t differ in age, gender, maternal education, years of musical training, extent of extracurricular activity, or nonverbal IQ. Only 6 of the 42 children had had at least a year of musical training (of which one was a poor reader, three were average, and two were good).

Auditory brainstem responses were gathered to the speech sound /da/, which was either presented with 100% probability, or randomly interspersed with seven other speech sounds. The children heard these sounds through an earpiece in the right ear, while they listened to the soundtrack of a chosen video with the other ear.


[2603] Moreno, S., Bialystok E., Barac R., Schellenberg E. Glenn, Cepeda N. J., & Chau T. (2011).  Short-Term Music Training Enhances Verbal Intelligence and Executive Function. Psychological Science. 22(11), 1425 - 1433.

Strait, Dana L, Jane Hornickel, and Nina Kraus. “Subcortical processing of speech regularities underlies reading and music aptitude in children.” Behavioral and brain functions : BBF 7, no. 1 (October 17, 2011): 44.

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