The idea that Mozart makes your baby smarter is one of parenting’s most persistent myths

It won’t get her into Harvard.
It won’t get her into Harvard.
Image: Reuters/Petr Josek Snr
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Many parents think classical music makes babies smarter.

They’re wrong.

“There is no good evidence that listening to Mozart, or listening to anything, does anything for intelligence or cognitive skills in domains that are not musical,” says Samuel Mehr, a PhD student at Harvard who studies music’s powerful—but mysterious—effect on people.

So why has the “Mozart effect” myth endured?

It started in the early 1990s, with a small group of University of California-Irvine students who listened to a little Mozart, specifically, Sonata for Two Pianos in D major, K448.

Researchers Gordon Shaw, Frances Rauscher, and Katherine Ky divided 36 students into three groups: one listened to Mozart, one listened to “self-hypnosis” spiel, and the third sat in silence.

Then, the groups were all given a test to measure spatial IQ, which went something like, “imagine mentally unfolding a piece of paper that has been folded many time and then cut; can you correctly select the unfolded paper from five examples?” Those who listened to Mozart averaged 8-9 IQ points higher than the others. The effect lasted for 15 minutes.

A movement is born

When trio published their research in 1993, the music-makes-you-smarter movement exploded among parents of young children—even though the authors made no claim of a “Mozart effect” and the subjects were college students, not infants. The governor of Georgia recommended that every child born in his state get a free classical music CD (Sony offered to produce them for free). Don Campbell claimed Mozart made you smarter, healthier, and happier, writing The Mozart Effect, The Mozart Effect on Children, and marketing a raft of related products.

Baby Einstein videos, with puppets playing and classical music in the background, became an essential feature of the guilt-free parenting toolkit—the products were marketed as educational, after all. And parents are forever searching for easy solutions to the endless array of conundrums presented by child-rearing: How to get kids to eat, sleep, put their shoes on and, of course, learn. Teaching, it turns out, is hard and exhausting; putting Mozart on Spotify and letting the music do the work is a breeze.

Scientists identified three possible theories to explain the short-lived improvement that Mozart listeners showed when predicting shapes: a neurobiological effect in which listening to complex music stimulates cortical firing patterns in the brain similar to those used in spatial reasoning; a “transfer” effect in which skills acquired in one area transfer to another; and an arousal and mood effect, suggesting that music stimulates the brain, which in turn improves cognitive function.

In 1999 Christopher Chabris, then at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, performed a meta-analysis of 16 studies on the effect of music on cognitive performance, and found a small effect on spatial reasoning skills, which he chalked up to an “intermittent, small positive ‘enjoyment arousal’ effect” (something the original authors ruled out).

Other studies and meta-analyses also showed a small effect, triggered by all kinds of music, including Yanni. One study of 8,000 British children found that 10 minutes of Mozart’s String Quintet in D Major improved the ability to predict paper shapes, but pop music from bands like Blur (pdf) proved even more effective.

So it seems listening to music helps to improve short-term, shape-predicting skills, but does little for improving overall intelligence in the long term.

Why the enduring debate? “People like to have simple answers,” says Mehr, who is studying the social effects of music on babies, among other things. “They have long-held ideas about scientific facts that turn out to be total bullshit.”

What’s the harm?

Even if it doesn’t make them smarter, classical music certainly won’t hurt an infant’s development. And if it calms a parent down, it will probably also calm the baby down.

Policymakers and parents are better served by well-researched solutions to improving cognitive function, and also important non-cognitive traits like perseverance. Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, points out that there is ample evidence that children learn more when their parents read to them, and this learning is cumulative. Being read to helps in early learning, which helps build for later learning.

“The research indicating that being read to makes a young child smarter is much, much stronger than the ‘Mozart Effect’ research,” Willingham writes.

Believing that listening to Mozart will make your child smarter is a bit like believing Lumosity will stave off dementia or Baby Einstein will “educate” your child. Both companies had to fess up to the fact that their advertising claims of enhanced intelligence were overstated: Disney-owned Baby Einstein offered refunds to parents whose children did not see improvements and Lumosity paid $2 million to the Federal Trade Commission to settle claims that it’s ”brain-training” effects were exaggerated.

Music is a wonderful gift to give a child. Discipline, perseverance, and pleasure are among the many things they might gain from it. But compulsively playing classical music in hope that it boosts a baby’s IQ later in life strikes the wrong note.