Does Music Make Children Smarter?

What do you think of the Mozart effect, the theory that listening to classical music raises children’s IQs? Is there anything to it?

– November 2, 2006

The so called "Mozart effect" comes from a 1993 study performed at the University of California at Irvine, which showed that 10 minutes of listening to Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major enhanced short-term spatial reasoning among college kids. That rather esoteric bit of research spawned an industry. Exaggerating claims that went far beyond the findings of the initial research, record companies and entrepreneurs pushed child development CDs at expectant and new parents. Hospitals gave out tapes of Mozart’s music, and pregnant women played CDs to their unborn babies, hoping the effect would reach into the womb.

Since then, various researchers have attempted to replicate the original study’s findings with little success. Finally, two studies published in the August 26, 1999, issue of the scientific journal Nature disputed the original study and concluded that listening to Mozart does little, if anything, to boost IQ. Even the researchers who conducted the original study agreed that their findings had been widely misinterpreted. In the first place, they studied college students, not infants. Second, the effect lasted only ten minutes, not a lifetime!

A series of more recent studies published in the March, 2006, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences looks at the effects of both musical training and listening to music on intelligence. One study, showed that musicians have more gray matter in the auditory cortex of the brain’s right hemisphere compared to non-musicians, which the researchers attributed to use and practice, not genetics. Other researchers suggested that listening to music enhances memory and has positive effects on cognition.

A noteworthy Canadian study published in the August, 2004, issue of Psychological Science showed that music can boost I.Q. somewhat, but in this case, the brains affected belonged to first-grade pupils, not college students or infants. The researchers, from the University of Toronto, recruited 144 youngsters via newspaper ads offering free music lessons. They divided the kids into four groups: one group got keyboard lessons, another singing lessons, another drama lessons and the fourth no lessons (these kids got the music lessons promised by the ad the year after the study ended).

While all of the kids’ IQs improved, music lessons increased the IQs more than drama or no lessons. The youngsters in the drama group showed improvements in social skills. The researchers suggested that the fact that the kids who got music lessons showed improvement in not just one skill – math, for instance – but in all areas may mean that the lessons reinforce things that they were already learning in school: memory, concentration, practicing a skill, and understanding a new "language." They also said that the study doesn’t reveal anything about the long-term effects of the music lessons.

We’ll need more research to tell us what effects music and music lessons have on youngsters’ intellectual capabilities. However, there’s little doubt that listening to music is good for you. Melodious classical music approximates the rhythm of the resting heart (70 beats per minute) and can actually slow a heart beating too fast. And we all know that music influences our moods; it can help us relax and generate positive emotions. As far as Mozart is concerned, his music remains timeless, beautiful, and inspirational. Listening to it has to be good for you.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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