Image Credit: Royal Opera House Cover
Various methods have been suggested, backed up by scientific studies, to enhance memory and performance in mental tasks - from exercising and sleeping well, to eating berries and chewing gum. However, what if I told you that you could perform significantly better in various mental tasks simply by listening to Mozart’s music? Well, I would be lying. Partly.
The ‘Mozart effect’ refers to certain research conclusions which have suggested that listening to Mozart’s music can improve one’s performance in mental tasks which require spatial-temporal reasoning. This is the kind of reasoning used to fold a paper or solve a maze.
There have also been findings which indicate that listening to Mozart’s music during childhood can induce significant benefits on mental development. However, to what extent is there any truth in these statements?
In 1993, in a study conducted by Frances Rauscher, Gordon Shaw,and Catherine Ky, which was later published in the renowned and well-established journal Nature,found that participants performed better in spatial-temporal reasoning tasks when listening to Mozart’s sonata K. 448 than when they were listening to verbal relaxation instructions, or when they listened to nothing. However, the effects were temporary and wore off after 15 minutes.
Furthermore, suggestions that listening to Mozart’s music can make one more intelligent or smarter, as the media had interpreted the study’s findings, could not be drawn from the study since participants’ IQ was never measured. In addition, participants in the study were only found to improve in spatial-temporal reasoning; a finding that cannot be generalized as improvements in one intelligence type do not necessarily extend to other intelligence types.
A meta-analysis of 16 different studies in 1999 indicated that it is true that listening to music enhances one’s spatial-temporal reasoning skills but found that the benefits were short-lived and did not suggest that it makes people more intelligent.
Therefore, claims such as ‘Listening to Mozart can make you more intelligent’ fail to correspond to the actual findings of the study. Nevertheless, the fact that participants performed better when listening to Mozart’s music than in the other conditions suggests that further analysis must be carried out to find out why this was the case.
In 2010, a larger meta-analysis of nearly 40 studies on the ‘Mozart effect’ concluded that there is, indeed, a positive effect on people’s performance on mental tasks but found that this was not unique to listening to Mozart’s music. Listening to other kinds of music also induced the same effect. One study found a “Blur effect” whereas another even suggested a “Stephen King effect”. The key finding was that the exact music that one listens to does not make significant difference in their performance.
What makes the difference is one’s enjoyment of the music and engagement with it. Therefore, what can be deduced from studies investigating the ‘Mozart effect’ is that one is expected to perform better in spatial-temporal reasoning tasks if they are listening to any kind of music or form of speech that they find enjoyable and has a positive effect on their mood.
Thus, in the absence of appreciation for the music one is listening to, it is unlikely that there will be an ‘enjoyment arousal’ which will have a positive effect on one’s mood and, subsequently, on their performance in mental tasks.
Despite the replication failure of Rauscher’s, Shaw’s, and Ky’s study, the study which proposed the ‘Mozart effect’, Rauscher stands by her research’s findings. “Because some people cannot get bread to rise does not negate the existence of a `yeast effect’”, she said. To her defense, in a study that she conducted in rats, she reported that rats which listened to Mozart’s sonata K. 448 solved a maze faster than rats which listened to Philip Glass’ music or to white noise.
This finding cannot be explained using the meta-analyses previously mentioned as rats are not generally seen as able to have music preferences which would induce an‘enjoyment arousal’. Nevertheless, a number of studies and meta-analyses seem to support the ‘enjoyment arousal’ hypothesis; that is, that one will be able to perform significantly better in mental tasks when they listen to music that they enjoy.
Thus, if you like listening to music when studying, the options are unlimited: the Beatles effect, the Metallica effect, the Lady Gaga effect. You name it.