It’s a tantalising idea: bung on a pair of headphones and revel in the jaunty sounds of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, and – ‘hey, presto!’ – your IQ goes up a notch or two. What student faced with exams wouldn’t rush out to purchase Wolfgang’s complete works? What aspirational parent wouldn’t send their little one to sleep to the relaxing – and potentially genius-inducing – notes of Mozart’s clarinet concerto?
The popular notion that Mozart’s music can somehow impart brilliance on a casual listener has been with us since the early 90s. The original idea came from a one-page write-up in the prestigious scientific journal, Nature. Fran Rauscher, then at the University of California, Irvine, and her colleagues Gordon Shaw and Katherine Ky reported that after listening to 10 minutes of Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, a bunch of college students performed better on a subset of questions from an IQ test than after listening to a relaxation tape or nothing at all.
The ‘Mozart effect,’ as it became known, captured the public’s and marketers’ attention. If 10 minutes of Mozart could improve the mental performance of college kids, then exposing the malleable mind of a developing child to Amadeus’s works would surely create a wunderkind. The US state of Georgia went so far as to begin distributing CDs of Mozart’s music to all parents on the birth of their child.
But like any get-rich-quick scheme or fad diet, Mozart’s music is far from a get-smart-fast guarantee.
For a start, the effect reported in the original study was only brief – lasting just 10-15 minutes. Hardly a mental makeover. The boost to IQ was also limited. It only applied to spatial reasoning, which is the kind of skill that allows you to mentally rotate 2D and 3D objects. If, for example, you are shown a sheet of paper that is folded, folded again, and again, and then has a corner cut off, good spatial reasoning ability would enable you to anticipate what that sheet would look like when unfolded.
Even given its limited scope, the Mozart effect was bound to create a stir. This was the first time that listening to music was shown to have a measurable influence on a non-musical ability. But not everyone was convinced. The enthusiasm of the general public was matched in equal measure by scepticism within the scientific community.
Some researchers who put the Mozart effect through its paces were Glenn Schellenberg and colleague Kristen Nantais. They first set out to see if the Mozart effect could be repeated in a fresh study. And sure enough, students in this new study performed better at a paper folding exercise after listening to Mozart than after sitting in silence. Good news for proponents of the Mozart effect. But there was a catch. They also found a ‘Schubert effect’ that was equally as strong. And when he tested a bunch of British 10-year-olds, he found a ‘Blur effect’.
Could it be that Wolfgang’s compositions aren’t so special – that perhaps any music will do? Turns out that even that isn’t the case. In another experiment, Nantais and Schellenberg pitted Mozart’s music against a ten-minute recorded story – ‘The Last Rung on the Ladder’ by Stephen King. Overall, Mozart’s music was no better than the story. What did matter was participants’ preferences. Those who preferred Mozart to the story performed better on the paper-folding test after listening to the music. For those who preferred the story, performance was enhanced after hearing the story; they had discovered a ‘Stephen King effect’.
The idea that Mozart’s music contains some mystical quality that sharpens our mind was essentially put to rest. But the question remained: what was giving the study participants the mental edge?
Further work by Schellenberg and colleagues indicates that the Mozart effect – and the Shubert effect and the Stephen King effect – can be explained by mood and arousal (of the mental variety). Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major is a lively piece, written in a major key, which to Western ears makes it happy-sounding. Ten minutes of lively, happy music peps people up, and the result is that for 10-15 minutes, they are more mentally alert and perform better at the cognitive tasks given to them. The original Mozart effect study tested spatial reasoning, but other studies have found that processing speed and creativity can also be enhanced with a dose of Mozart jollity.
The effect doesn’t extend to all music, though. Sad-sounding music, such as that written in a minor key, has the opposite effect – mental alertness is dampened, mood is darkened, and performance on cognitive tests takes a hit. Mozart’s Requiem is probably a poor choice of music if you’re about to play a game of Tetris.
For those of us who crave the intellectual edge without the hard work, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is unfortunately not the answer – not for a lasting effect, anyway. But the great news for anyone who isn’t that fond of the maestro’s work, a shot of the Twerps, or Regina Spektor, or Iron Maiden, or anything else that gets your happy on, is likely to work just as well.
This article originally appeared in The Trip, Triple R‘s fantastic subscriber mag. I’m currently on a break from Einstein-A-Go-Go, a radio show devoted to science on Sunday mornings at 11. To subscribe to RRR, head over here.