Listening to Mozart won’t make us smarter

mozart aperturaI hear it whenever a pregnant woman’s around: listen to Mozart and the child will grow up smarter. The refrain has been around for at least twenty years, ever since Alfred Tomatis published his book Pourquoi Mozart? in 1991. On the basis of a long experience with disableds, the French researcher stated that listening to the music of the Austrian composer increases cognitive, communicative and performative skills. In 1993, the psychologist of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine Frances H. Rauscher dealt with the subject in the Nature article “Music and spatial task performance” co-authored by Gordon L. Shaw N. and Katherine Ky. Rauscher described the results of a research on thirty-six college students: listening to ten minutes of the Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major KV 488 had improved cognitive abilities compared to both silence condition and relaxation condition, i.e. listening a series of relaxation instructions designed to lower blood pressure. It was a short-term effect (10 to 15 minutes) estimated around 8-10 IQ scores. In other words, while listening to Mozart students were better at making some exercises. The New York Times and the Boston Globe reported about the research, making it very popular. In 1997, Rauscher wrote another article on Neurological Research and Don Campbell entitle his book The Mozart Effect.

mozart incintaThe snowball thrown by Rauscher was turning into an avalanche about to crush common sense. In the media buzz, the effect was no longer attributed to college students, but to infants or unborn children. Campbell wrote a sequel to The Mozart Effect called The Mozart Effect for Children. In 1998, Georgia Governor Zell Miller proposed to give a cd of the Austrian composer to every mother of a newborn. In 1999, Florida’s government stated that State-funded day care centers would air an hour of classical music a day. Several other researchers replicated the experiment of Rauscher without getting the same results. It didn’t matter. The story circulated with more and more insistence losing any scientific accuracy and becoming a catchphrase: listening to Mozart makes you smarter, period. The Swiss psychologist Adrian Bangerter and Stanford professor Chip Heath did note that, in the U.S., the Mozart effect was particularly popular in the States with an underdeveloped educational system. Was the Mozart effect a superstitious reaction to the anxiety about children’s education?

mozart effect libroThose thirty-six students have unwittingly started a business. Type “Mozart effect” on Amazon.com and you’ll get nearly 2,000 results, in part books and compact discs whose authors promise positive effects on your mind and your body. Classical music is believed to produce beneficial effects on criminal behavior too, so much that the police of European and American cities airs it through the speakers of the subway stations with the highest rates of crime. In 2010, psychologists at the University of Vienna Pietschnig Jakob, Martin Voracek and Anton K. Formann tried to have the final say on the matter. They reviewed all the forty published studies on the Mozart effect and some more still unpublished and concluded that listening to the composer’s music does not improve cognitive abilities. Yet the idea that Mozart makes us smarter is still popular. Ask a pregnant friend.

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