Will Mozart make you smarter?

2 minute read

As the new semester gets underway, it's a good time to think of ways to improve all those assignments I will soon be reading. Few are as pain-free as listening to some old-school music. As in classical music.

As most people know, listening to Mozart will make you smarter. At least, that was the theme of the book The Mozart Effect, loosely based (very loosely) on work in the early 1990's that found that people did better on a spatial IQ test after listening to Mozart, as compared to listening to a relaxation tape.

Dave Munger at Cognitive Daily has been reviewing how the Mozart Effect has fared in the recent psychology literature (via Keats' Telescope). This post reviews a 2002 study that challenges the idea. That paper, McKelvie and Low (2002), shows no effect at all from listing to Mozart:

So in their task, McKelvie and Low used repetitive dance music by the group Aqua to compare to Mozart.
Students were divided into two groups -- one which listened to Aqua first, and the other which listened to Mozart first. After listening to an 8-minute musical excerpt, students were tested on spatial ability. Then they listened to the other excerpt and took a different version of the same test. The result: no significant difference for any of the music. All the test scores were statistically the same. There wasn't even a trend for Mozart.

This about sums it up:

If contrasting music doesn't result in lower IQ scores, then we're really not talking about Mozart enhancing spatial IQ scores, we're talking about verbal relaxation tapes inhibiting them.

Of course, that may explain Deepak Chopra as well...

But one later paper, reviewed in this later post, tends to support some kind of positive effect of classical music on performance, although pointedly not limited to Mozart.

Ivanov and Geake offer some interesting guesses as to why the music improves performance. They point to Rausher's argument that cognitive processing levels remain essentially the same while listening to Mozart's music. They also suspect that music may help to mask the otherwise distracting background noise that is present in nearly all "silent" classrooms.

Munger also reviews a second paper with equivocal results: it doesn't support a Mozart-specific increase, but it may be consistent with a music-related increase in performance.

As for myself, I wonder if this is related to the "mariachi effect" -- you know, how they play fast music in restaurants to make you eat faster.


McKelvie P, Low J. 2002. Listening to Mozart does not improve children's spatial ability: Final curtains for the Mozart effect. Br J Devel Psych 20: 241-258.