Spatial Intelligence and the ‘Mozart Effect’ – Does Listening to Mozart Make You Smarter?


The idea that classical music –particularly Mozart–makes you smarter has received a lot of press, and is widely believed to be an established fact. Music by Mozart sounds highly intelligent–it is intricate, skilful, precise and sophisticated. It seems natural to think that some sort of ‘brain entraining’ occurs just by sitting and listening to Mozart with full concentration–and that this makes you more intelligent. We can imagine our brain activity becoming coordinated or synchronized better in response to concentrating on the amazing harmony and complexity of Mozart. This is an appealing idea, but this article should convince you that it is not true that listening to Mozart makes you more intelligent.

The scientific evidence for the ‘Mozart effect’

Francis Rauscher and her colleagues published a study in the prestigious scientific journal Nature in 1993 that people have been quoting ever since in support of the ‘Mozart effect’ on IQ. They performed an experiment in which participants were randomly divided into three groups: one group sat in silence for 10 minutes, one group listened to a relaxation tape for 10 minutes, and the last group listened to Mozart for 10 minutes. After the 10 minutes were up, all three groups were given three sets of standard spatial intelligence tasks. They found that the average IQ score of the Mozart group was 8-9 points above the average IQ score of the other two groups. They also found that the IQ effect was only short-lived–for about 10-15 minutes.

The public imagination

Based on this study the idea of the ‘Mozart effect’ (as the Press called it) quickly captivated the public imagination. The Mozart recording used in the study quickly sold out in the Boston area in the US. Governor Zell Miller in Georgia was so enthralled by this study’s findings that he actually called for the legislature to allocate $105,000 to give a free classical music CD or tape to every new mother in the state. Tennessee followed with a similar bill, and day-care centers in Florida are now required to play classical music. Needless to say, commercial opportunities were quickly exploited. Businessman Don Campbell trademarked ‘The Mozart Effect’ and published a book by that title, irritating many people with its pseudoscience and false claims. soon advertised half a dozen CD titles relating to the ‘Mozart effect’ – one whole series called ‘Music for the Mozart Effect’, with other titles like ‘Better Thinking Through Mozart’ or ‘Mozart for Your Mind’– and even: ‘Ultrasound-Music for the Unborn Child’ featuring Mozart’s music.

But good science is not based on single studies. There are many examples of single scientific studies that initially catch he public imagination and get a lot of press coverage, but are subsequently proved to be invalid or relatively insignificant. But while the importance of a paper fizzles out in the scientific community, it may continue to live on in the media and public imagination–because it is appealing. The ‘Mozart effect’ is a case in point–as I hope you will be persuaded after considering the points below.

Unreliability of the ‘Mozart effect’

The ‘Mozart effect’ is not consistent–some researchers have found it, some have not. It is unreliable. One of the hallmarks of good science is that a discovery can be replicated–repeated by other laboratories at other times. Otherwise it could be argued that the so called ‘effect’ that was ‘discovered’ was due to chance or due to unintended effects in one particular laboratory that the scientists were not aware of. Science needs replications to draw sound conclusions. The ‘Mozart effect’ does not reach this standard. In a 1999 review study by of all the ‘Mozart effect’ studies that had been published up to that point, Christopher Chabris concludes that the effect is not significant.

When listening to Mozart has been found to have an effect, it is not a general intelligence effect

In those individual studies where an effect of Mozart on cognitive performance has been found, it is found only on a very specific type of spatial task, which in no way can be considered to be a test of general intelligence. A closer look at the original study reveals that participants only showed better performance in one of the three spatial IQ tasks they were given, in which you have to visualise folding and cutting a piece of paper. Does this sound like a good test of intelligence to you? Listening to Mozart has been shown to have no effect whatsoever on one of the most valid spatially based measures of general intelligence–the Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices. This contrasts with other training methods that have been shown to improve performance on this spatial intelligence test such as the working memory training exercise developed by Dr Jaeggi and colleagues in 2008. Another finding also shows us that the ‘Mozart effect’ has nothing to do with general intelligence. Working memory is known to be a cognitive memory system that is closely related to general intelligence. Individuals with higher intelligence have more working memory capacity. Listening to Mozart has been shown to have no effect on working memory performance.

So we can conclude that while listening to Mozart might improve performance on a very specific type of spatial task–and this is questionable because the effect is not reliable–it has been shown to have no effect on the majority of tests for intelligence, or on the spatial tests that are the most valid for measuring intelligence. It is therefore misleading to understand the Mozart effect (if it exists at all) as a effect on intelligence.

The effect is likely to be due to arousal or mood, not changes in cognition

Differences in mood have been shown to have an effect on performance in some reasoning tasks. Listening to Mozart generally puts people in a positive mood, and this mood might explain better performance on the paper folding spatial task. In support of this claim, one study showed you get exactly the same effect on spatial task performance when participants listened to a Steven King story if they preferred the story to Mozart. The authors of this study concluded:

…although listening to music composed by Mozart might contribute to an improved performance on subsequently presented spatial-temporal task, our research provide no evidence that the improvement differs from that observed with other engaging stimuli that are equally pleasing to participants. (Nantais and Schellenberg 1999)

The authors’ views on their own study

Frances Rauscher, the lead author of the original Nature study on the ‘Mozart effect,’ has repeatedly denounced the over-reaction of the popular press. “I’m horrified-and very surprised-over what has happened,” she has said in an interview. “It’s a very giant leap to think that if music has a short-term effect on college students that it will produce smarter children. When we published the study results, we didn’ t think anyone would care. The whole thing has really gotten out of hand.” “One of the things we have to be careful about is jumping to conclusions that we don’t have data on at all…I find that ‘Mozart makes you smarter’ thing is quite a bit of a leap.”

Conclusion: Listening to Mozart does not make you smarter

In conclusion, we have gone over a number of very good reasons to be skeptical about the claim that ‘Mozart makes you smart’. The effect is not reliable. When it is found it lasts for only 10-15 minutes, and is confined to a particular type of spatial task and not other tasks that are much better measures of general intelligence. And it is likely that the effect is due to changes in mood – not changes in cognition. The authors of the original study that caused all the excitement themselves are horrified at how their results have been interpreted. After knowing all this, can’t we confidently conclude that listening to Mozart does not make you smarter.’ It might put you in a better mood, and it won’t do you any harm, but it won’t make you more intelligent – whether that’s spatial intelligence or any other kind of general intelligence.

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