In recent years the so-called “Mozart effect” has become very popular. According to those who defend the existence of this phenomenon, listening to the music of the Austrian composer, or classical music in general, increases intelligence and other cognitive abilities, especially during early development.

Despite the fact that scientific research suggests that there is a real part in this type of statement, the truth is that the review of the existing literature shows that the potential benefits of listening to music have been overestimated, at least in the field of intelligence. Nevertheless, music can be very positive for people for other reasons.

What is the Mozart effect?

We know as “Mozart effect” the hypothesis that proposes that listening to Mozart’s music increases intelligence and has cognitive benefits in babies and young children , although there are also those who say that these effects also occur in adults.

Most studies that have investigated the existence of this phenomenon have focused on Mozart’s Sonata K448 for two pianos . Similar properties are attributed to other piano compositions by the same author and to many similar works in terms of structure, melody, harmony and tempo.

More broadly, this concept can be used to refer to the idea that music, especially classical music, is therapeutic for people and/or enhances their intellectual capabilities.

The benefits of music

The clearest beneficial effects of music are related to emotional health. Since ancient times, humans have used this art as a method to reduce stress and improve mood , both consciously and unconsciously.

In this sense, we currently talk about music therapy to refer to interventions that use music as a tool to reduce psychological discomfort, improve cognitive functions, develop motor skills or facilitate the acquisition of social skills, among other objectives.

Recent scientific research has confirmed much of what was believed: music therapy is effective in reducing the symptoms of mental disorders such as depression, dementia or schizophrenia , and also in reducing the risk of cardiovascular accidents.

History and popularization

The Mozart effect started to become popular in the 1990s with the appearance of the book “Pourquoi Mozart?” (“Why Mozart?”), by French ENT specialist Alfred Tomatis, who coined the term. This researcher claimed that listening to Mozart’s music could have therapeutic effects on the brain and promote its development.

However, it was Don Campbell who popularized the concept of Tomatis through his book “The Mozart Effect”. Campbell attributed to the music of Mozart beneficial properties “to heal the body, strengthen the mind and free the creative spirit”, as the extended title of the book states.

Campbell’s work was based on a study by researchers Frances Rauscher, Gordon Shaw and Catherine Ky published a few years earlier in the journal Nature. However, this study showed only a slight improvement in spatial reasoning up to a maximum of 15 minutes after listening to the sonata K448.

Articles in the New York Times or Boston Globe also contributed to the current fame of the Mozart effect. After the publication of all this literature, a business began to form around musical compilations with supposed intellectual benefits, especially for children , since Campbell also wrote the book “The Mozart Effect for Children”.

Research on the Mozart effect

The claims made by Campbell and by the articles mentioned clearly exaggerated the conclusions of the study by Rauscher et al., which found only mild evidence of a possible short-term improvement in spatial reasoning. In no way can it be concluded from the existing research that music increases IQ, at least in a direct way.

In general, experts say that the Mozart effect is an experimental device that would be explained by the euphoric effects of some musical works and by the increase in brain activation they cause. Both factors have been related to the improvement of cognitive functions in the short term.

Therefore, the benefits of the Mozart effect, which is real in a way, are not specific to this author’s work or to classical music, but are shared by many other compositions and even by very different activities, such as reading or sport.

On the other hand, and although it has not been demonstrated that listening to classical music during early development is necessarily beneficial, the practice of a musical instrument can favour the emotional well-being and cognitive development of children if it motivates and stimulates them intellectually. Something similar happens with other forms of art and creativity.

Bibliographic references:

  • Campbell, D. (1997). The Mozart Effect: Tapping the power of music to heal the body, strengthen the mind, and unlock the creative spirit (1st Ed.). New York: Avon Books.
  • Campbell, D. (2000). The Mozart Effect for children: Awakening your child’s mind, health, and creativity with music. New York: HarperCollins.
  • Jenkins, J. S. (2001). The Mozart effect. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 94(4): 170-172.
  • Rauscher, F. H., Shaw, G. L. & Ky, C. N. (1993). Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365(6447): 611.
  • Tomatis, A. (1991). Pourquoi Mozart? Paris: Hachette.