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What is the Mozart Effect?

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  • Written By: M.C. Huguelet
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 26 August 2016
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The term Mozart effect refers to the widely contested theory that exposure to the music of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, particularly from an early age, can improve one’s general intelligence. This theory grew out of 1993 research findings which showed that listening to Mozart temporarily strengthened spatial logic among a group of college students. From the time of their publication, many members of the media and the public misinterpreted these findings, leading to the misinformed notion that exposure to Mozart can provide an overall boost to the intelligence. While most psychologists regard it with skepticism, the concept of a Mozart effect persists among many members of the public, due partly to the sale of classical audio recordings alleged to improve intelligence.

Researchers at the University of California unwittingly planted the seeds of the Mozart effect in 1993, with the publication of research exploring the link between the composer’s music and spatial logic. These researchers alternately exposed a group of students to ten minutes each of a Mozart sonata, a monotone voice, and silence. After each listening session, the students completed problems which tested their spatial reasoning. The researchers found that the students scored higher on these tests after listening to Mozart.

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It is important to note that this 1993 research indicated only that Mozart’s music strengthened spatial logic. Furthermore, the effect was found to diminish approximately ten minutes after Mozart exposure. Nevertheless, many members of the media and the public took liberty interpreting the results of this study. In time, the concept of a Mozart effect, or the belief that exposure to the composer’s work can improve many or all forms of intelligence, took root and rapidly grew. The extent of the public’s belief in the Mozart effect is perhaps best evidenced by the 1998 pledge by Georgia Governor Zell Miller to provide every newborn in the state with a Mozart CD.

While the Mozart effect has been widely criticized by members of the psychology community, the theory continues to attract subscribers. Its sustained popularity is partly due, no doubt, to the sale of classical audio recordings marketed to parents with the promise that they will improve a child’s intelligence. For the most part, however, these claims are not substantiated by scientific research. Instead of encouraging the “quick fix” promised by the Mozart effect, many psychologists interested in the relationship between music and cognition point parents toward the demonstrated benefits of playing musical instruments on a child’s educational experience.

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