June 13, 2024

During every dinner I remember from my elementary-school years, my mom played classical music on our CD player, claiming that it can make you smarter.

This so-called Mozart Effect became a source of controversy in the scientific community after an initial study published in 1993 after researchers performed an experiment during which participants either listened to Mozart’s sonata for 10 minutes or listened to relaxation instructions or silence. The study found that, for about 10-15 minutes after the experience, those who listened to the classical music had spatial IQ scores that were, on average, 8-9 points higher.

However, Dr. Anna Grigorian-Routon, assistant professor of psychology, offered an important caveat: While the study displayed increases in spatial reasoning skills for a brief period of time, this does not equate to enhanced general intelligence.

“Usually when people think about the idea of making somebody smarter, particularly with classical music, usually they are talking about something like IQ,” Grigorian-Routon said. “The idea that, particularly Mozart, can have an impact on IQ, particularly from infancy, has been around for a while. The funny thing is that research hasn’t been able to show any consistent effect to show that this is true.”
Subsequent studies yielded mixed effects. So, does the Mozart Effect actually occur?

The answer is actually much more complex than a simple yes or no. Evidence regarding how music stimulates the brain indicates that it could have an effect on spatial processing, according to an article in the National Library of Medicine. When researchers mapped brain activity for both listening to music and mental imaging of spatial tasks, they found that music analysis and appreciation — including rhythm, meter, melody, pitch and timbre — activates multiple areas across the brain.

“The results show that the areas activated include the prefrontal, temporal and precuneus regions which overlap with those involved in music processing,” the article reads. “It is suggested, therefore, that listening to music would prime the activation of those areas of the brain which are concerned with spatial reasoning.”

Visual-spatial reasoning specifically refers to the capability to consider and manipulate objects in three dimensions.

“When people have listened to classical music and then taken a test to manipulate something in their mind, do some puzzles, things like that, they’ve shown that there has been an improvement for a short period of time, and then that effect diminishes back to baseline,” Grigorian-Routon said.

Joseph Greene, sophomore piano performance and music composition double major, said classical music differs from other forms of music mainly in terms of structure and the greater commitment to the buildup and release of tension in the music.

“In pop music, a lot of times, you get your verse, chorus, verse, chorus, maybe a bridge, then another chorus,” Greene said. “Within each sections of music, there’s usually a pretty simple repeating harmonic progression. In classical music, there is a focus on a larger sense of structure and larger arcs of tension and release, so instead of having just a simple harmonic progression, you build up to a big climax across the whole piece and release it at the end.”

However, the Mozart Effect may be more of a general ‘music effect.’ A 2006 study tested the effect of music on spatial skills, but, unlike the other study, the researchers attempted it with both classical and pop music. The children who listened to pop music actually performed better, suggesting that the first study did not identify a critical aspect of the effect: enjoyment. Therefore, appreciation of the music by the listener could serve as a factor for improvement of spatial abilities, though this is still controversial.

Even though the effect of listening to music on brain function is still uncertain, studies seem to indicate that playing an instrument in the long term does have a positive effect. A study conducted in which children received piano lessons for six months before receiving spatial reasoning tests found that the piano players did 30% better than the control group. So music does seem to have some effect on brain activity and function.

Greene has been studying the piano for about 10 years and has been composing for about seven years.

He feels that this close bond he has with classical music has improved his ability to communicate and write stories, and it has helped him draw connections as a whole.

“There is a sense in classical music of how things develop and change across time, and I think because I’m attuned to that, I sort of see those same patterns acting out in the world,” Greene said. “I can see how different things change across time and how they come together or break apart in a way I would say I wasn’t able to before I started studying classical music.”

Ultimately, listening to music rarely hurts. So, to practically apply the potential positive effect of music, Grigorian-Routon recommends listening to music directly before a task for its multifaceted benefits.

“If somebody had a visual-spatial task they needed to do, perhaps listening to classical music right beforehand or shortly before engaging in the task can be helpful,” Grigorian-Routon said. “Maybe it will boost your ability to do better, because it actually helps with concentration. Anything we do that helps with concentration can be helpful in a task that requires a lot of concentration. It helps with relaxation, so if we are more relaxed we are more likely to be able to do a better job on a task because we are not distracted by stressful thoughts.”

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