The Mozart Effect:
A Closer Look

Donna Lerch
Dr. Thomas Anderson
UIUC Spring 2000


The Mozart Effect®

The Mozart Effect Studies

Scientific Explanations for the Mozart Effect






We are living in an exciting time of exploration into the most mysterious and complex object known to man: the brain. Recently created technological procedures such as positron emission tomography and magnetic resonance imaging now allow researchers to study the working brain in great detail. This research is rapidly increasing our understanding of various mental disorders and disabilities, of the neurological basis for behavior, of memory and learning -- of quite literally how we think.

As early as 1989, Congress noted the enormous rate at which scientific information on the brain was amassing. The sophistication of computer science which had become sufficient to process neuroscience data, maximizing usefulness to both researchers and clinicians, and the advances in math, physics, and brain imaging, led them to declare the last decade of the twenty-first century "The Decade of the Brain."

Changes in the attitudes of the scientific community have also added to this expanding collection of knowledge:

For nearly a century, the science of the mind (psychology) developed independently from the science of the brain (neuroscience). Psychologists were interested in our mental functions and capacities -- how we learn, remember, and think. Neuroscientists were interested in how the brain develops and functions. It was as if psychologists were interested only in our mental software and neuroscientists only in our neural hardware. Deeply held theoretical assumptions in both fields supported a view that mind and brain could, and indeed should, be studied independently. It is only in the past 15 years or so that these theoretical barriers have fallen. Now scientists called cognitive neuroscientists are beginning to study how our neural hardware might run our mental software, how brain structures support mental functions, how our neural circuits enable us to think and learn. This is an exciting and new scientific endeavor, but it is also a very young one. As a result we know relatively little about learning, thinking, and remembering at the level of brain areas, neural circuits, or synapses; we know very little about how the brain thinks, remembers, and learns.
John T. Bruer

One area that has generated much interest in the scientific and business communities, as well as the media, is the role (or roles) that music plays in the processes of thought and learning. There is an ever building volume of research suggesting that music may actually hard wire the brain, building links between the two hemispheres that can thereafter be utilized for a variety of cognitive activities. The effect of learning to play music is thought to be strongest in early childhood, but there may be a connection between merely listening to music and improved intelligence throughout maturity. I chose to research one aspect of this theory, and found an amazing abundance of both serious and pseudo/commercial scientific literature.

The Mozart Effect®

People interested in easy ways to boost the IQs of themselves and their children, along with entrepreneurs whose apparent motivation centered on easy profits, eagerly embraced a recently released pop psychology book by Don Campbell called "The Mozart Effect : Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the Mind and Unlock the Creative Spirit" .

Campbell based his book loosely on:

  • The works of Dr. Alfred Tomatis, a French Ear, Nose, and Throat Doctor that hypothesized the lack of sound stimulation, or abnormal stimulation in utero and/or early childhood can cause aberrant behaviors and delayed or disabling communication skills
  • Common music therapy experimentation
  • The title topic, which I have chosen to scrutinize: research specifically involving the works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

While the proposition that listening to Mozart's music increases I.Q. might actually have some merit, the benefits that Campbell promotes are overstated and generally unfounded. Michael Linton, professor of Music Theory and Composition at Middle Tennessee State University wryly observed, "Trademarking the name "Mozart Effect," Campbell has even gone cable with infomercials for his book and its accompanying compact discs and cassettes. In the great tradition of P. T. Barnum and the "Veg-O-Matic", Mozart has now hit the mainstream of American life."

Indeed, the book, along with subsequent speaking engagements, CDs, tapes, and a well orchestrated media blitz, has created the impression that listening to the music of Mozart will magically "increase verbal, emotional and spatial intelligence, improve concentration and memory, enhance right-brain creative processes and strengthen intuitive thinking skills", as the promotion for one of the many Mozart Effect CDs promises.

While Campbell's book and the unfortunate mass of commercially motivated hyperbole it has generated are generally aimed at an unsophisticated audience, there is serious research that suggests that music does have a impact on cognitive ability.

The Mozart Effect Studies

Early experimentation on the effect of music on the brain was conducted in 1988, when neurobiologist Gordon Shaw, along with graduate student Xiaodan Leng, first attempted to model brain activity on a computer at the University of California at Irvine . They found in simulations that the way nerve cells were connected to one another predisposed groups of cells to adopt certain specific firing patterns and rhythms. Shaw surmises that these patterns form the basic exchange of mental activity. Inquisitively, they decided to turn the output of their simulations into sounds instead of a conventional printout. To their surprise, the rhythmic patterns sounded somewhat familiar, with some of the characteristics of baroque, new age, or Eastern music.

Shaw hypothesized: If brain activity can sound like music, might it be possible to begin to understand the neural activity by working in reverse and observing how the brain responds to music? Might patterns in music somehow stimulate the brain by activating similar firing patterns of nerve clusters?

He later joined two other researchers, Frances Rauscher and Katherine Ky, in creating the study that coined the term "Mozart Effect". In the October 14, 1993, issue of "Nature" they published a short summary of the findings from their experiment. They assigned thirty six Cal-Irvine students to one of three groups, and offered the same "pretest" to each of the students. One group then listened to a selection by Mozart (Sonata in D major for Two Pianos, K488). A second group listened to what was called a "relaxation tape," and the third group was subjected to ten minutes of silence. All of the students were given the same test, which was designed to measure spatial IQ. This test is described as mentally unfolding a piece of paper is that has been folded over several times and then cut. The object is to correctly select the final unfolded paper shape from five examples. The students who listened to the Mozart sonata averaged an 8&endash;9 point increase in their IQ as compared to the average of the students who had listened to the relaxation tape or who had experienced silence. The increase in IQ of the Mozart group was transitory, lasting only about the time it took to take the test-- from ten to fifteen minutes.

This test stirred enough interest in the academic community to induce several other research teams to conduct similar experiments, with disparate results.

In 1994, Stough, Kerkin, Bates, and Mangan, at the University of Aukland, failed to produce any Mozart effect. This may be due in part to the fact that the spatial IQ test used in New Zealand was from Raven's Advanced Progressive Matrices, while the Rauscher et al. study used the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale. However, Kenealy and Monseth (1994) did use the same test (Stanford-Binet) to measure the thirty subjects they used in their study; these subjects showed no mean differences in scores after listening to Mozart, disco music, and silence.

Rauscher, Shaw, and Ky reproduced and augmented their original Mozart Effect experiment in 1995, by dividing seventy-nine students into three groups. This time a work by the modern experimental composer Philip Glass was substituted for the relaxation tape. Again, the group that listened to the Mozart selection showed an increase in spatial IQ test scores. A further test showed that listening to other types of music (non-specified "dance" musis) did not have the same effect.

In 1995, researchers (Newman, Rosenbach, Burns, Latimer, Matocha, and Vogt) at State University of New York at Albany replicated the original test. They broadened the test group to 114 subjects, and the age spread from 18 to 51 years with a mean age of 27.3. Not only did they find no similar increase in spatial IQ scores after listening to Mozart, but they also polled the subjects on previous musical background, and found no correlation to higher spatial IQ scores and music lessons earlier in life, or a correlation to higher spatial IQ scores and a preference for classical music.

Similar results were found the same year in a study by two Canadian University researchers, Nantais and Schellenberg. They reproduced the fundamental Mozart Effect experiment, and extended the study to investigate the relationship between listening to other forms of music and IQ. They found that the listener's preference--to either music or the narration of a story, and not particularly listening to Mozart, made for improved test performance.

In 1996 and 1997, however, two studies at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, by Rideout and Taylor supported and added further evidence to suggest a "Mozart effect". One study replicated the Rauscher et al. study and, using two different spatial-reasoning tasks, measured higher spatial IQ scores after listening to a Mozart selection. In the other study, Rideout and Laubach required 8 college students to listen to a Mozart piano sonata in one condition and no music in another condition. They measured changes in EEG ( brain wave activity) prior to listening to the Mozart and then again after listening to the Mozart while engaged in two spatial-reasoning tasks. The EEG recordings were somewhat correlated with the students' performance, as increased brain activity was associated with an increase in spatial-reasoning performance after listening to the Mozart.

In 1998, Rideout, this time with Dougherty and Wernert, found that music with characteristics similar to the works of Mozart provided the same increase in temporary spatial IQ test scores.

Two other studies, both published in 1997, contradicted the "Mozart effect". Kenneth Steele, Ball, and Runk of Appalachian State University presented 36 college students a backwards digit span task, described as recalling 9-digit strings in reverse order, in three conditions--after listening to Mozart music, a recording of rain, or silence. The results found no difference between these three conditions. Carlson, Rama, Artchakov, and Linnankoski of the Institute of Biomedicine affiliated with University of Helsinki, Finland, chose monkeys to see if any "Mozart effect" would show up in another animal. He used a memory task to test various experimental conditions including Mozart music, simple rhythms, white noise, and silence. The results were intriguing. The monkeys actually performed highest in the white noise condition and lowest in the Mozart music condition.

Perhaps inspired by the Carlson et al. test using monkeys, Rauscher and her colleagues chose to study the "Mozart effect" on laboratory rats in 1998. These rats were exposed both in utero and for two months postpartum to Mozart's piano sonata. The other comparison groups included rats that were exposed in the same time frame to minimalist music, white noise, or silence. The rats who were exposed in the Mozart group learned to maneuver a T-maze considerably faster and with fewer errors than rats in the other three groups.

Christopher Chabris, in 1998 a graduate student at Harvard University (now a research fellow at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital), questioned the net result of studies on the Mozart effect that had been done over the previous five years. He examined sixteen of the studies and analyzed their conclusions. "The results do not show any real change in I.Q. or reasoning ability. There's a very small enhancement in learning a specific task, such as visualizing the result of folding and cutting paper, but even that is not statistically significant. The improvement is smaller than the average variation of a single person's I.Q. test performance." His conclusion was that "There's nothing wrong with having young people listen to classical music, but it's not going to make them smarter."

Other skeptics have been convinced that a Mozart effect does exist. Lois Hetland of the Harvard Graduate School of Education attempted to replicate earlier Mozart effect studies in broader depth, including a total of 1014 subjects. Her findings were that the Mozart listening group outperformed other groups by a higher margin than could be explained by chance, although factors such as the subject's gender, musical tastes and training, innate spatial ability, and cultural background made a difference in the degree to which the Mozart would increase test scores. She did not find the Mozart effect to be as strong as Rauscher et al. had found, however. Her belief, however, is that even these small effects are impressive because so many other factors could obscure them. "In the early stages of research in a field, we would expect the measured effect to be small until we learn to separate the signal from the noise in the research method." She noted that Chabris had only studied the experiments that compared listening to Mozart to silence, and which had not included listening to other compositions.

Psychologist Eric Seigel at Elmhurst College, Illinois, (who had been a self-described skeptic), set out to disprove the Mozart Effect. He chose a different spatial reasoning test, one that involves the subject's ability to discriminate between shifted positions of the letter E as various rotations are given. The brief time that it takes to judge whether the letter is the same or different effectively measures spatial reasoning. Subjects in the Mozart listening group did significantly better. "It was as though they had practiced the test...we have another way to measure the Mozart Effect" says Seigel.

Rauscher and Shaw explained the inconsistent results of the Mozart effect tests in a work published in Perception and Motor Skills (1998) , Vol. 86, p. 835-841). They stated that the reason the results do not concur is that the various studies designed to find the "Mozart effect" have utilized diverse subjects and different methodological designs, such as music compositions, listening conditions, and measures.

The most recent Mozart effect study was by Kenneth Steele of Appalachian State University, this time with Karen Bass and Melissa Crook in 1999. They chose to precisely replicate the 1995 Rauscher et al. with the rationale that "the comparison was methodologically cleaner than the 1993 study published in Nature" (Steele).

The results:

The experiment compared the performance of 44 college students who had just listened to the Mozart piano sonata against 39 students who had just listened to a performance by Phillip Glass and 42 students who had waited an equivalent time period in silence. The two musical selections used the same performances used in the 1995 study. Immediately after exposure to a listening condition, all subjects were tested on their ability to solve paper-folding and cutting items, the task used in both original experiments. A paper-folding and cutting item is a visual puzzle that represents a piece of paper undergoing a series of fold and cut transformations on the top row of a display. On the bottom row are several possible outcomes of this folding and cutting sequence. The task for the subject is to pick the outcome that would be produced by the changes in the top row. The subjects had training with this task in a prior session, consistent with the procedure used in the 1995 UCI study. On average, the students answered 10 of 16 items correctly in the training session and 12 of 16 items correctly in the experimental session, on average. This general improvement from the training session is a "practice" effect, reflecting familiarity with the task and indicating the importance of evaluating changes against comparison or "control" conditions. The average number of correct answers in the experimental session was 11.77 for the Mozart group, 11.6 for the Silence group, and 12.15 for the Glass group. These small differences were not statistically different, failing to support the original experiment. An additional statistical technique that checked for differences in individual improvement also produced non-significant results. Gary Kliewer


Steele seems to have taken offense at Rauscher's defensive stance of her research, saying, "There has been considerable concern about the existence of the Mozart Effect among researchers, despite its popular acceptance by politicians and educators. Several immediate attempts in other laboratories in England, New Zealand, and the United States to produce the effect were fruitless...Replication is one of the most important items in the scientist's toolbox. This experiment took investigators back to a common starting place, the UCI experiments, and the results showed that the effect was not present. This experiment, in combination with several others, suggests strongly that the original positive reports were in error."

What sense can be made of all this conflicting information?

One ought not to be concerned about the current lack of consensus, because this is a normal part of the scientific enterprise. Rather, we should be delighted that the subject has become important, because it has been largely ignored in the past. We can look forward to exciting developments in the search to fully understand the roles of music in cognitive processes and behavior.
N. M. Weinberger


Scientific Explanations for the Mozart Effect

While no definitive results have yet been attained, scientists who are gaining knowledge of the neurological wirings and workings of the brain, as well as those trained in the science of the mind and behavior, are slowly beginning to develop theories as to why music might have an effect on intelligence.

Neurological Basis

Rauscher et al. hypothesized that the effect of music on intelligence may be explained by the initial research by Shaw and Leng that proposed hearing complex music actually excites the cortical firing patterns that are analogous to those used in spatial reasoning.

"The researchers were testing the suspicion that there might be a kind of "music box" analogous to Chomsky's famous yet-undiscovered "language box." Might the symmetries and patterns characteristic of music be fundamentally connected to the symmetries and patterns researchers were tracking in brain waves? If so, might not music really be tapping into a structure inherent in the brain itself? And if this were true, ultimately might music be a kind of fundamental, or pre-linguistic--or even supra-linguistic--speech?"
Michael Linton

Musical perception is processed in the right hemisphere of the brain--the same hemisphere that performs spatial cogitation and long-term sequencing operations. "Musical perception does involve the analysis of spatial excitation patterns along the auditory receptor organ.." (Roederer)

Other researchers agree that there are neurological foundations for music's effects on cognitive ability. John Hughes, a neurologist at the University of Illinois Medical Center in Chicago, examined hundreds of compositions and concludes that music sequences that regularly repeat every 20 - 30 seconds, just as Mozart's compositions do prevalently, "may trigger the strongest response in the brain, because many functions of the central nervous system such as the onset of sleep and brain wave patterns also occur in 30-second cycles." He notes that Minimalist music by the composer Philip Glass and popular tunes score among the lowest on this measure, while music of Mozart scores two to three times higher.

Hughes used Mozart's music on a group of patients described as severely epileptic, constantly seizing to the point of being comatose. Twenty-nine out of the 36 subjects showed significant improvement by suffering fewer and less severe seizures when listening to Mozart. The same test group showed no improvement while they listened to a Glass composition, popular melodies from the 1930's, or silence. "Skeptics could criticize the IQ studies," Hughes says, "but this is on paper: you can count discharges and watch them decrease during the Mozart music."

Julene Johnson of the Institute of Brain Aging and Dementia at the University of California at Irvine found that people that suffer from Alzheimer's disease show improvement on the paper folding portion (measuring spatial IQ) of the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale after 10-minute portions of Mozart, but not after silence or popular music from the 1930s. Patient's scores generally improved by a margin of 3 to 4 correct answers out of 8 test items.

Neurobiologist Gordon Shaw, co-researcher of the original Mozart effect joined fellow neurobiologist Mark Bodner of the University of California at Los Angeles in a study using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to chart the regions of subjects' brains to determine the specific area that responds while listening to various types of music. They used the Mozart Sonata in D major for Two Pianos K488, some '30s pop music, and Beethoven's Für Elise. Shaw and Bodner found that all the styles of music activated the auditory cortex (where the brain processes sound) and periodically triggered the parts of the brain that are associated with emotion. Only the Mozart, though, also activated areas of the brain known to process fine motor coordination, vision, and other higher thought processes, all of which could explain improved spatial reasoning.

Christopher Chabris, the skeptic who steadfastly maintains that a Mozart effect does not exist observes, "this effect, if indeed there is one, is much more readily explained by established principles of neuropsychology--in this case, an effect on mood or arousal--than by some new model about columnar organization of neurons and neuron firing patterns".


Psychological Basis

Nantais and Schellenberg also have a alternate theory, based from a psychologist's perspective:

On the surface, the Mozart effect is similar to robust psychological phenomena such as transfer or priming. For example, the effect could be considered an instance of positive, nonspecific transfer across domains and modalities (i.e., music listening and visual-spatial performance) that do not have a well-documented association. Transfer is said to occur when knowledge or skill acquired in one situation influences performance in another (Postman, 1971). In the case of the Mozart effect, however, passive listening to music-rather than overt learning--influences spatial-temporal performance.
Kristin M. Nantais and E. Glenn Schellenberg


Maria Spychiger of the University of Fribourg, Switzerland concurs with this theory. She asked an incisive question. "…why does no one even ask … whether maths can improve the mind? Or whether language could? Probably, these questions are too silly or strange; everyone knows the answer is 'yes'."

Spychiger conducted a study which showed that children given a curriculum which increased music education and decreased language and mathematics improved at language and reading, and did no worse at math than students who had increased time on these "academic" subjects without the additional music instruction. Spychiger theorized that the transfer effects between music and other subjects was probably specific and based on the similarities between the two activities, just as are many other known transfer effects.

Thus, instead of speaking about "music's" effects, one needs to determine which aspects of music account for which transfer effects. This position heralds the theme that the effects of music cannot be understood unless one specifies which components of the musical experience may be relevant to specific aspects of other tasks or areas. An example is music's facilitation of learning to read. This is believed to result from learning to listen for changes in pitch in music, which is thought to promote the ability to sound out new words.
Norman M. Weinberger


Sensory Stimulation

Another explanation for increased test scores after listening to music would be the established theory of sensory stimulation. Stimulation excites the brain. It propagates more synapses between brain cells, ultimately creating more and more efficient conduits of brain function. Research indicates that there are "windows" of prime times for this activity. Most of the studies conducted so far demonstrate that much of this hard wiring occurs prenatally and in early childhood. However, new studies are ever increasingly discovering that the brain can create new neural pathways long after childhood.

When the brain is deprived of proper stimulation, it is believed that the neural pathways atrophy and ultimately are lost. Robert Dolman. M.D., founder of the National Academy for Child Development, stated,"Sensory deprivation studies show us that sudden and nearly complete deprivation of stimulation through the five senses can lead to dramatic changes in the brain's efficiency with a partial loss of memory, a lowering of the I.Q., and personality changes..." G. F. Reed, after analyzing studies of the cognitive effects of sensory deprivation, adds documentation. He found that subjects tested lower on most parts of tests of complex intellectual processes after periods of sensory deprivation, noting that "..logical, analytical thought, based on verbal symbols, deteriorates at the same time that there is more involuntary imagery in various sensory modalities, particularly the visual....stimulus deprivation appears to increase the kind of information processing (such as) intuitive, configurational procedures at the expense of analysis, language, and logic."

Music is aural stimulation. The "successful" Mozart effect studies at best indicated that one area of cognitive processing increased only for a very short time, after listening to music for a short period of time. However, this does lead to speculation that listening to certain types of music will facilitate and improve mental function. Many people express an increased ability to concentrate when certain background music is played. Karen Allen, associate director, and Jim Blascovich, associate professor of psychology research associate with the University of Buffalo, NY Center for the Study of Biobehavioral and Social Aspects of Health found that surgeons performed a basic surgeon-related task better and more efficiently while listening to music.


The music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is both physically and aesthetically accessible to the general public. A number of studies have indicated that listening to Mozart's work may temporarily increase cognitive skills. Other studies have found no statistically significant "Mozart effect". It is unfortunate that the media and commercial ventures have taken the initial modest, unverified study and conjured up a pseudo-science which gave rise to, and which continues to promote, a full-blown industry.

Exaggerated and even false claims that listening to Mozart's music will augment intelligence have become so prevalent that the truth of the matter has become hopelessly obscured. This has been a disservice to legitimate scientists, music therapists, and the public.

Music educators should be aware of the controversy, and neither center music curricula around certain types of music for maximum intelligence building, nor exclude the possibility that there may be a link between listening to music and intelligence. There needs to be further serious research into this intriguing area of science, and far less unsubstantiated, profit motivated action.



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