Should you Listen to Music Before you Study? Obliterating the “Mozart Effect”

Reading @kendraoudyk‘s latest blog entry and its title (from which this title has been paraphrased) inspired me to write about something which some of you might have heard: listening to classical music can make you smarter. In this entry I intend to annihilate the unfounded believe that listening to Mozart’s music can increase our intelligence. Concretely, I am talking about the “Mozart effect” or the temporal score increase “in standardized tests assessing spatial task performance after exposure to the first movement ‘allegro con spirito’ of the Mozart sonata KV 448 for two pianos in D major” (Pietschnig, Voracek, & Formann, 2010, p. 314). My strategy will be two-fold. I will begin by describing the original study from which the media and commercial enterprises groundlessly distorted. After settling this ground, I will explain what further empirical research taught us about this “mysterious” effect. I will conclude with some remarks about the negative consequences that this myth have had in music education.

mozart effect

The origin of the confusion

In order to have the complete perceptual experience, I kindly ask you to follow along the instructions that I will present. First, get to listen approximately the first 10 minutes of the Mozart sonata KV 448 for two pianos in D major. Although in the original study they used an audio track, I think it will be more fun to watch a video performance:

Mozart sonata KV 448 for two pianos in D major

Next, please take a look at the following figure. There are two rows of images. First take a look at the upper one. Imagine that you are holding a piece of paper and you are asked to fold it in the sense of the arrows. So, first you fold the paper in half, then repeat the procedure twice in the indicated directions. Finally, you cut the tip signaled by a diagonal line. The second row of images are five possible outcomes after opening the folded and cut paper. How would the paper look like?

task

This was part of the procedure that Rauscher, Schaw and Ky designed in their famous 1993 study. Thirty-six university students completed a set of visuospatial test of the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale. But, before that, each of them went through three 10-minutes-lasting conditions: listening to the Mozart’s piece, listening to a relaxation tape or sitting down in silence. After each of them, participants reply to a different visuospatial task of the previously mentioned scale.

Mozart effect

What did they find? After listening to Mozart, participants had a significant higher score in the visuospatial tasks when compared to the relaxation or silent conditions. Although, this enhancement effect lasted between 10 to 15 minutes only.

Therefore, Rauscher et al. (1993) reported a short-time lasting effect found in university students and in a very particular psychological task which, unfortunately, was heavily distorted by the media and interested parts into the “Mozart effect” myth. What is more, through a text-book example of snowball fact distortion, the myth evolved into the belief that listening to classical music makes a person smarter (how playing an instrument affects, if it does, our intelligence will be a matter for a next post).

However, Rauscher et al. (1993) did report an increase in visuospatial performance after listening to Mozart, which was differentiable from the other two conditions. How can we explain this effect? Here, we move on to the second section of this post.

Mozart, Stephen King, chocolate and sex

In short, the reason for the short-term increase in visuospatial performance was an increase in arousal or physiological activity and mood or how emotionally well someone feels at a particular moment (Husain, Thompson & Schellenberg, 2002; Nantais & Schellenberg, 1999; Thompson, Schellenberg & Husain, 2001; Schellenberg, Nakata, Hunter & Tamoto, 2007). How did research came up to this conclusion?

schubert
Beware of the Schubert effect and its power to leave your duties unfinished!

Nantais and Schellenberg (1999) replicated Rauscher et al. (1993) study but with some variations. Participants would not only listen to Mozart’s same piece, but they would also have to listen to a Schubert piece. Once again, they included a silent condition. Participants went through all conditions once again (Mozart, Schubert or silence) and immediately after were tested on the same visuospatial task. Nantais and Schellenberg found once again a Mozart effect, but, surprisingly, also a Schubert effect. How come this could be true? Were the classical Viennese composers future-seeing geniuses who wanted to increase 200-years-in-the-future-people intelligence? Or, rather, listening to anything instead of sitting down in silence could explain the improvement in visuospatial scores?

In a second part of their study, Nantais and Schellenberg (1999) new participants listened to the same Mozart piece, to a Stephen King recording and also waited in silence. After responding to the visuospatial task, participants’ scores were calculated according to their preference for either stimuli. The authors found out that participants that preferred Stephen King had better performance than when compared to the silent condition. Likewise, participants that preferred Mozart had a better performance than when compared to the silent condition. So, it seems that improvements in the visuospatial task was a matter of preferences. What was the next step in unraveling the mystery?

Thompson, Schellenberg and Husain (2001) asked whether the preference for the stimuli was due to mood and physiological activity. To test this, they used three experimental conditions: Mozart (once again), Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor (which I advise you to listen here) and a silent control condition. Results showed that Albinoni’s Adagio actually reduced participants’ performance in the visuospatial task. Moreover, it reduced it even below the level obtained in the silent condition. What conclusion came up out of this? What determines the increase or decrease in the performance of a task is our level of physiological activation and mood state (Schellenberg, 2006).

To the best of my knowledge, Pietschnig et al. (2010) gave the best coup de grace to the Mozart effect by publishing a meta-analysis (roughly speaking, a massive study which summarizes all available results from a research area) on this topic: The Mozart effect was explained by an increase in mood state and physiological activity; there was not enough evidence to affirm the existence of the Mozart effect (many replication studies failed to find this effect); and the same enhancement effects can be obtained through other musical genres or activities.

This is where chocolate and sex figuratively (or not?) comes in. To put these findings in simple terms, our performance in an X task will increase temporally if prior to it we engage in an activity which can make us feel better and activate our physiological response. Listening to Mozart, having a chat with friends, any of the former activities named in this paragraph or something else could, in principle, produce a temporary enhancement in our performance. In other words, Mozart is not (in this particular context) as special as some people would like him to be.

Dark homemade chocolate bars and cocoa pod on wooden
The best way of getting smarter

Schools in steroids

How is the Mozart effect related to music education? It relates in two ways. The first one is that it is seen as an “easy solution” for increasing students’ intelligence. At this point it should be clear that claiming an increase in intelligence, as a global concept, is already imprecise. I purposely kept using the term “visuospatial scores” to make clear that the different authors never intended to point at a general increase in intelligence; rather, it was found only in a very specific sub measurement of this construct.

Schools pressure teachers for obtaining better academic results. If a 10 minute solution alternative is presented as a fast solution to address this pressure, then more than one deceived educator could take the bite.

The second link between the Mozart effect and music education is the constant danger that music education faces in schools (Schellenberg, 2006). Music education is not a standard priority in schools and usually governmental budget cuts affect first art education in general (Chang, 2015; Schellenberg, 2006). Against this real threat for music teachers, a “solution” presented as “scientific” and “effective” can be easily incorporated, alas, it jeopardizes music education’s value (Rauscher, 2009) and transforms it into a tool for improving non-musical skills.

To conclude

  • Yes, you could listen to music before you study, as long as you enjoy it.
  • Just if you wondered, the answer for the paper folding and cutting task is “B”.
  • Do not trust anyone who claims that listening Mozart or classical music will make you smarter. Either they do not know they are wrong or they want your money.
  • If you want to have a temporal enhanced performance in an X task, then do something which can increase your mood and physiological activity.
  • Music education is not meant to improve people’s scores in mathematics, literature, chemistry, etc.

References

Chang, A. M. (August, 2015). Transformando la educación musical en una asignatura “real”. Paper presented at the X Latino-American regional conference and III Panamerican regional conference of music education, ISME, Lima, Peru. Retrieved from http://congreso.pucp.edu.pe/isme/wp-content/uploads/sites/8/2013/07/Actas- ISME-Per%C3%BA-2015.pdf

Lilienfeld, S. O., Lynn, S. J., Ruscio, J., & Beyerstein, B. L. (2012). 50 grandes mitos de la psicología popular. México D.F.: Océano.

Husain, G., Thompson, W. F., & Schellenberg, E. G. (2002). Effects of musical tempo and mode on arousal, mood, and spatial abilities. Music Perception, 20(2), 151-171.

Nantais, K. M., & Schellenberg, E. G. (1999). The Mozart effect: An artifact or preference. Psychological Science, 10, 370-373.

Pietschnig, J., Voracek, M., & Formann, A. K. (2010). Mozart effect-Shmozart effect: A meta-analysis.Intelligence, 38, 314-323. doi: 10.1016/j.intell.2010.03.001

Rauscher, F. H. (2009). The impact of music instruction on other skills. In S. Hallam, I. Cross & M. Thaut (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of music psychology (pp. 244-252). UK: Oxford University Press.

Rauscher, F. H., Shaw, G. L., & Ky, K. N. (1993). Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365, 611.

Schellenberg, E. G. (2006a). Exposure to music: the truth about the consequences. In G. E. McPherson (Ed.), The child as musician: A handbook of musical development (pp. 111-134). UK: Oxford University Press.

Schellenberg, E. G., Nakata, T., Hunter, P. G., & Tamoto, S. (2007). Exposure to music and cognitive performance: Tests of children and adults. Psychology of music, 35(5), 5-19. doi: 10.1177/0305735607068885

Thompson, W. F., Schellenberg E. G., & Husain, G. (2001). Arousal, mood and the Mozart effect. Psychological Science, 12(3), 248-251. Retrieved from http://pss.sagepub.com/content/12/3/248

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Very nice, Alvaro! I liked how you talked about the research chronologically, like a story (though you waited an annoyingly long time to tell us the answer to the paper-folding task… but I suppose it was a good way to keep us reading). It is quite the story of how media can distort research findings, and you summarized well the literature that clarified the situation.

    The application to music education is also very interesting. It does feel wrong when music is valued for its potential benefit to other cognitive skills. But on the other hand, even in music psychology people often think of extra-musical reasons for music’s value, particularly when talking about why it might have evolved. Some might argue that we should try to encourage any reason for funding music education that people will listen to – if they won’t fund it for the sake of music, why not try to show that music is beneficial in other ways? But I must admit, this standpoint does like a bit of a betrayal.

    Anyway, great post, and I look forward to your post on the effect of musical training on intelligence, if you end up writing one!

    Like

  2. Alvaro, thank you for sharing your viewpoints, you made an important aspect to some commonly made mistakes especially by the media effect. Specifically, speaking about intelligence seems to be gripping for many but maybe people are so stuck with popular concepts and they miss the important points even the basic definition of these concepts. Intelligence is our ability against a given task and it can vary depending on the task and the conditions that are confronted. So in this case, instead of talking about intelligence, “task performance” seems to be better, as you also stressed.

    As a colleague of yours, I really like your suggestions to people, if they want to improve their performance that they should socialise or eat chocolate and so on 🙂 Unfortunately maybe those suggestions are not always so practical with the specific aim of enhancing the performance. For instance, in order to improve your mood and motivation for studying, you cannot eat chocolate cause you might get fat 😦 However, instead, I might suggest a general application method which is called Binaural Beats… it is basic audio stimulation with some specific frequency arrangements that have several application to life. For a broader explanation about Binaural Beats, you may refer to the post: https://mmtfinland.wordpress.com/2017/05/18/magical-beats-to-enhance-quality-of-life/

    Similar to the research examples you gave in your post, the research titled as “The Effect of Binaural Beats on Visuospatial Working Memory and Cortical Connectivity” by Beauchene and his colleagues (2016) suggests that specific binaural beats stimulation leads to better performance compared to control conditions.

    Moreover, your post indeed reminded me an article which I have read years ago, by Bennets (2008), which is a nice demonstration of how listening music effects brain and thus performance. It does not only discusses about the Mozart Effect but also compares it with Binaural Beats. Hope it will bring another side to your topic of interest.

    Beauchene, C., Abaid, N., Moran, R., Diana, R. A., & Leonessa, A. (2016). The Effect of Binaural Beats on Visuospatial Working Memory and Cortical Connectivity. PloS one, 11(11), e0166630.

    Bennet, A., & Bennet, D. (2008). The human knowledge system: Music and brain coherence. VINE, 38(3), 277-295.

    Like

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