Our Brain on Music: We need to do more than listen

.What’s The Size Of The Mozart Effect? The Jury Is In.

In a now well-known 1993 paper in Nature called “Music and spa­tial task per­for­mance”, Frances H. Rausch­er and her col­leagues report that par­tic­i­pants who were exposed to the first move­ment “alle­gro con spir­i­to” of the Mozart Sonata KV 448 for Two Pianos in D major scored sig­nif­i­cant­ly high­er on stan­dard­ized tests of abstract/spatial rea­son­ing abil­i­ty than those who were instruct­ed to relax or those who just sat there in silence.

Even though the par­tic­i­pants in Rausch­er et al.‘s study were col­lege stu­dents, and they did­n’t admin­is­ter a full bat­tery of cog­ni­tive tests to prop­er­ly assess gen­er­al intel­li­gence, their find­ings trans­lat­ed into “play Mozart to your chil­dren and they will grow up smart.” A cot­tage indus­try was born.

Don Camp­bell cre­at­ed an online busi­ness sell­ing CDs that pur­port­ed­ly enable the buy­er to “dis­cov­er the trans­for­ma­tion­al pow­ers of music for health, edu­ca­tion, and well-being”, claim­ing that music is a “pow­er­ful cat­a­lyst for heal­ing, cre­ativ­i­ty, and devel­op­ment”. He even went fur­ther, claim­ing that “inno­v­a­tive and exper­i­men­tal uses of music and sound can improve lis­ten­ing dis­or­ders, dyslex­ia, atten­tion deficit dis­or­der, autism, and oth­er men­tal and phys­i­cal dis­or­ders and injuries”.

Oth­ers also hopped on The Mozart Effect band­wag­on, includ­ing the mak­ers of the UK best­seller “Baroque-a-bye Baby” CD, who claim that their “Slow Baroque music — 60 beats per min — same as moth­ers heart­beat, has a calm­ing effect on babies, while its math­e­mat­i­cal per­fec­tion and sym­me­try will stim­u­late your child’s brain.” Even the gov­er­nor of Geor­gia, Zell Miller, announced in 1998 that his state bud­get would include $105,000 a year to allow every new­born child in Geor­gia a chance to own and lis­ten to a record­ing of clas­si­cal music.

Make no doubt: lis­ten­ing to music, espe­cial­ly music that makes us feel good, does have salu­tary effects. Research does show that at least up to 10 min­utes after the music stops, there is improve­ment on some tests that are most rel­e­vant to music. There is even research show­ing that lis­ten­ing to music that makes us hap­py can also make every­one around us look happy.

The ques­tions though are a) whether it’s music that direct­ly makes us smarter, or the pos­i­tive mood the music puts us in and b) is there some­thing spe­cial about lis­ten­ing to clas­si­cal music over and above lis­ten­ing to Jay‑Z or Ras­cal Flats that puts us in a bet­ter state of mind for working. 

Since that orig­i­nal 1993 study, the major­i­ty of stud­ies look­ing at expo­sure to the Mozart sonata KV 448 showed rather weak enhance­ment of per­for­mance on spa­tial tasks com­pared to con­di­tions where par­tic­i­pants were exposed to non-musi­cal stim­uli or sat in silence for the same amount of time as it took to admin­is­ter the Mozart sonata (usu­al­ly 8 min­utes, 24 sec­onds). Research has also sug­gest­ed that it’s the pos­i­tive arousal that music affords rather than music in par­tic­u­lar that has tem­po­rary effects on cognition.

When enough stud­ies on a top­ic have been done, it’s impor­tant to com­bine all the stud­ies and assess the over­all effect, a tech­nique called a “meta-analy­sis”. Some of the meta-analy­ses that have been con­duct­ed present con­tra­dic­to­ry results, however.

Chabris (1999) and Het­lan (2000) both con­duct­ed a com­bined analy­sis of a num­ber of stud­ies but found dif­fer­ing results. Based on pub­lished stud­ies, Chabris found an effect size of d=0.14 (very small). They argue that the effects are very spe­cif­ic types of cog­ni­tive tasks and are explained neu­ropsy­cho­log­i­cal­ly by “enjoy­ment arousal”.

A lim­i­ta­tion of the Chabris study how­ev­er is that they includ­ed in their meta-analy­sis stud­ies that admin­is­tered abstract rea­son­ing tests as depen­dent mea­sure in addi­tion to spa­tial abil­i­ty tests. Also, their effect size is based on only 15 study effects, not a par­tic­u­lar­ly large num­ber for a meta-analysis.

Based on unpub­lished stud­ies (36 study effects), Het­lan (2000) found an effect size of d=0.46 (medi­um). They only includ­ed mea­sures of spa­tial abil­i­ty, how­ev­er. For their effect size esti­ma­tion, they also includ­ed stud­ies in which the musi­cal stim­uli that was admin­is­tered in the treat­ment con­di­tions were not con­fined to the Mozart sonata, but instead con­sist­ed of any kind of (sup­pos­ed­ly enhanc­ing) musi­cal stimulus.

In fact, nei­ther of these meta-analy­ses includ­ed stud­ies that admin­is­tered the same Mozart sonata as Rausch­er et al. did, and more impor­tant­ly, nei­ther study assessed the poten­tial­ly con­found­ing influ­ence of pub­li­ca­tion bias. This is real­ly impor­tant since stud­ies that find an effect are more like­ly to get pub­lished where­as those that do not find an effect find tend to end up in the dust­bin much faster. This can give a skewed impres­sion of the true effect size.

Enter Jakob Piet­shnig and his col­leagues. In a recent­ly in press arti­cle in the jour­nal Intel­li­gence, Piet­shnig et al. present the results of what they claim is the biggest meta-analy­sis (near­ly 40 stud­ies, 104 inde­pen­dent sam­ples, and over 3000 par­tic­i­pants) ever con­duct­ed on the ques­tion of whether or not a Mozart effect exists. They hypoth­e­sized that there would be a sig­nif­i­cant influ­ence of pub­li­ca­tion bias on the over­all effect. What did they find?

1. Sam­ples exposed to the Mozart sonata KV 448 scored sig­nif­i­cant­ly high­er on spa­tial tasks than sam­ples exposed to non-musi­cal stim­uli or no stim­u­lus at all (d= 0.37, p < .011).

2. Sam­ples exposed to the Mozart sonata KV 448 scored sig­nif­i­cant­ly high­er on spa­tial tasks than sam­ples exposed to any oth­er kind of music (d=0.15, p = .02).

As for this small effect size, the researchers note that

this find­ing can be explained by poten­tial­ly dif­fer­ent­ly acti­vat­ing music. Since gen­er­al arousal affects cor­ti­cal acti­va­tion and thus per­for­mance on spa­tial tasks, sub­jects exposed to more arous­ing music are more like­ly to score high­er on spa­tial tasks (Thomp­son, Schel­len­berg, & Hus­sain, 2001). As musi­cal stim­uli oth­er than the Mozart sonata cov­ered a wide vari­ety of styles of music from pop­u­lar music to min­i­mal­is­tic music pieces, less arous­ing musi­cal stim­uli may have played a mod­er­at­ing role in task per­for­mance, thus result­ing in low­er scores in sam­ples exposed to oth­er musi­cal stim­uli than in sam­ples exposed to the Mozart sonata.”

3. Sam­ples exposed to any oth­er kind of music scored sig­nif­i­cant­ly high­er on spa­tial tasks than sam­ples exposed to non-musi­cal stim­uli or not stim­u­lus at all (d=0.38).

4. There was strong evi­dence of pub­li­ca­tion bias for stud­ies that com­pared the Mozart sonata con­di­tion to a non-musi­cal or silence con­di­tion. In these par­tic­u­lar stud­ies, effect sizes for pub­lished stud­ies were high­er than for unpub­lished stud­ies “empha­siz­ing that stud­ies show­ing strong effects in expect­ed direc­tions tend to be pub­lished more often, quick­er, and more prominently…”

5. Effect sizes of stud­ies that com­pared expo­sure to the Mozart sonata to no stim­u­lus at all were three times high­er among researchers affil­i­at­ed with the labs of Rausch­er or Ride­out than for pub­lished stud­ies per­formed by oth­er labs. The researchers do note that minor pro­ce­dur­al dif­fer­ences in stud­ies per­formed by dif­fer­ent labs could be the source of the dif­fer­ences. They point out Rausch­er and Shaw (1998), who empha­sized the neces­si­ty of exact repli­ca­tion of their orig­i­nal study design to observe the Mozart effect. Also, to be fair to Rausch­er, she is on record say­ing that the results of her orig­i­nal study have been “gross­ly mis­ap­plied and over-exag­ger­at­ed.” Nonethe­less, the find­ings of this large meta-analy­sis are inter­est­ing since they found this dif­fer­ence in effect among labs even after look­ing at oth­er pos­si­ble mod­er­at­ing vari­ables relat­ing to task procedure.

The Jury Is In

The researchers conclude:

This study clear­ly demon­strates that there is only lit­tle sup­port for a spe­cif­ic Mozart effect in pub­lished as well as in unpub­lished work. Although results indi­cate a pos­i­tive, sig­nif­i­cant effect of expo­sure to the Mozart sonata (KV 448) com­pared to no stim­u­lus at all on spa­tial task per­for­mance, observed effects were only small in size. More­over, expo­sure to oth­er musi­cal stim­uli com­pared to expo­sure to no stim­u­lus at all yield­ed a sig­nificant over­all effect of about the same size…On the whole, there is lit­tle left that would sup­port the notion of a spe­cif­ic enhance­ment of spa­tial task per­for­mance through expo­sure to the Mozart sonata KV 448.”

I think the jury is in on this one: The Mozart effect is weak, at best. Maybe the ques­tion can final­ly be put to rest.

Does this mean that music is not impor­tant? Not at all. Peo­ple derive great plea­sure from lis­ten­ing to music, and the ben­e­fits of being in a good mood for per­for­mance on any task can be quite ben­e­fi­cial, at least temporarily.

For more long-last­ing effects, how­ev­er, research shows that learn­ing how to make music is more impor­tant for pos­i­tive long-term changes than just lis­ten­ing to music. Music instruc­tion lit­er­al­ly changes the brain, pos­si­bly increas­ing the cor­pus cal­lo­sum (the bit of the brain that enables cross-talk between the two hemi­spheres of the brain). Music instruc­tion may increase work­ing mem­o­ry, and boost spe­cif­ic skills that are direct­ly relat­ed to music such as fine motor skill.

Lau­rel Train­or, a psy­chol­o­gist at McMas­ter Uni­ver­si­ty and her team of researchers have an ongo­ing active area of research where they have demon­strat­ed among a num­ber of stud­ies the far-reach­ing impact of music instruc­tion on the brain and cog­ni­tion. In a recent study, Lappe, Her­holz, Train­or, and Pan­tev (2008) musi­cal­ly trained two groups of non­mu­si­cians  over the course of 2 weeks. Peo­ple in the sen­so­ri­mo­tor-audi­to­ry con­di­tion learned to play a musi­cal sequence on the piano, where­as the peo­ple in the audi­to­ry group lis­tened to and made judge­ments about the music that had been played by par­tic­i­pants in the oth­er group. Both groups sig­nif­i­cant­ly dif­fered in their cor­ti­cal respons­es after train­ing. The sen­so­ri­mo­tor-audi­to­ry group, how­ev­er, showed a greater enlarge­ment of the audi­to­ry cor­tex after train­ing com­pared with the audi­to­ry group, indi­cat­ing that there was greater enhance­ment of musi­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tions in the audi­to­ry cor­tex when there is sen­so­ri­mo­tor-audi­to­ry train­ing com­pared to mere audi­to­ry train­ing. Their results sug­gest not only that sen­so­ri­mo­tor and audi­to­ry sys­tems are con­nect­ed, but also that sen­so­ri­mo­tor-audi­to­ry train­ing can cause plas­tic re-orga­ni­za­tion­al changes in the audi­to­ry cor­tex over and above the changes that occur with just audi­to­ry train­ing alone.

But that’s just one exam­ple of the ben­e­fits of musi­cal train­ing. In gen­er­al, music instruc­tion, as com­pared to just lis­ten­ing to music may have long last­ing effects because the skills that are learned when tak­ing music lessons have real world trans­fer. Accord­ing to Train­or, the very nature of learn­ing to play an instru­ment poten­tial­ly has many gen­er­al benefits:

The child has to hold an instru­ment, posi­tion his hands, lis­ten to the sound the teacher’s mak­ing, repro­duce that sound, hold in mind the sound and com­pare it, assess pitch and sound qual­i­ty, and change that if nec­es­sary. All that takes a tremen­dous amount of atten­tion. It trains kids how to accom­plish things, and it trains mem­o­ry as well. All that is going to make you bet­ter at learning.” 

The point is this: there is no fast track to smarts. Long-term ben­e­fits require long-term train­ing. Lis­ten­ing to music can be ben­e­fi­cial tem­porar­i­ly while you’re work­ing, espe­cial­ly if it makes you feel good and inspires and moti­vates you to work hard­er, but be very skep­ti­cal of any­one who claims that 8 min­utes of any­thing will have long-last­ing effects on intelligence.

I’ll leave the last word to The Jour­nal Times Online:

“If you want music to sharp­en your sens­es, boost your abil­i­ty to focus and per­haps even improve your mem­o­ry, the lat­est word from sci­ence is you’ll need more than hype and a loaded iPOD.”


  • Chabris, C. F. (1999). Pre­lude or requiem for the ‘Mozart effect’? Nature, 400, 826- 827.
  • Het­land, L. (2000). Lis­ten­ing to music enhances spa­tial-tem­po­ral rea­son­ing: Evi­dence for the Mozart effect. Jour­nal of Aes­thet­ic Edu­ca­tion, 34,105–148.
  • Lappe, C., Her­holz, S.C., Train­or, L.J., & Pan­tev, C. (2008). Cor­ti­cal plas­tic­i­ty induced by short-term uni­modal and mul­ti­modal musi­cal train­ing. The Jour­nal of Neu­ro­science, 28, 9632–9639.
  • Pietschnig, J., Voracek, M., & For­mann, A.K. (2010). Mozart effect-Schmozart: A meta-analy­sis. Intel­li­gence, doi:10.1016/j.intell.2010.03.001.
  • Rausch­er, F. H., Shaw, G. L., & Ky, K. N. (1993). Music and spa­tial task per­for­mance. Nature, 365, 611.
  • Rausch­er, F. H., & Shaw, G. L. (1998). Key com­po­nents of the Mozart effect. Per­cep­tu­al and Motor Skills, 86, 835?841.
  • Thomp­son, W. F., Schel­len­berg, E. G., & Husain, G. (2001). Arousal, mood, and the Mozart effect. Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, 12, 248–251.

—-  Scott Bar­ry Kauf­man, Ph.D. is a cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gist and writer based in New York City. His lat­est Sharp­Brains arti­cles are:

Take that Nap! It May Boost Your Learn­ing Capac­i­ty Among Oth­er Good Things.


  1. Oscar on November 8, 2010 at 7:01

    Thank­ful­ly some­one has put some thought into the Mozart effect. I always doubt­ed that mear­ly lis­ten­ing to a cer­tain genre of music mag­i­cal­ly made you more intelligent.

  2. Stephen Hager on November 11, 2010 at 4:04

    I have been work­ing in the field of prac­ti­cal neu­rosience for near­ly 20 years. I have per­son­al­ly expe­ri­enced and observed the effect of clas­si­cal music to enter a “brain state” where you focus, con­cen­trate and have clear think­ing with a min­i­mum of emo­tions. The effect does not last long after the music is dis­con­tin­ued. Some peo­ple lis­ten to clas­si­cal music before hav­ing to learn and/perform; the effect is short lived but nev­er­the­less expe­ri­enced. I pre­fer to use head­phones when cre­at­ing, writ­ing, study­ing and mem­o­riz­ing. It real­ly helps. I think it is won­der­ful and some­what mirac­u­lous that the “Mozart Effect” works at all. I agree that the claims of long term intel­li­gence boost is not sup­port­ed and it’s a dis­er­vice to mis­lead peo­ple and cast a shad­ow of doubt on the pow­er of music. I would like to see more peo­ple exper­i­ment with music and decide for them­selves what works, for how long and the out­comes. I think peo­ple will be pleas­ant­ly surprised.It’s safe, it’s fun and it’s quite an adventure. 

    Stephen Hager

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