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Biology 202
2003 First Web Paper
On Serendip

The "Mozart Effect"- Real or just a hoax?

Grace Shin

In 1998, Zell Miller, the governor of the state of Georgia, started a new program that distributed free CDs with classical music to the parents of every newborn baby in Georgia. Why did he do this? He certainly was not just trying to be nice and win a political statement; instead, his idea came from a new line of research showing a link between listening to classical music and enhanced brain development in infants. (1) So, what evidence was there for this governor to make a $105,000 proposal to give classical music for the newborn babies? I considered how my sister and I took music lessons, the Suzuki method, since we were 7 or 8 years old, and how my mother always had classical music playing in the house. My mother was convinced that musical ability will not only help us to be more well rounded people, but also that it will help us to be smarter individuals. Did all those years of piano lessons really pay off? Did all that money spent on buying classical music and attending classical concerts really play a role in determining where my sister and I are in our education?

Previous to this initiative by Gov. Miller, many researchers probed at the question of whether or not classical music enhanced intelligence. One of the initial experiments used musical selections by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to test for improvements in memory and this idea thus became known as the "Mozart Effect". The original experiment was published in 1993 by scientists at the University of California at Irvine. College students were required to listen to ten minutes of Mozart's sonata for two pianos in D major, a relaxation tape, or silence. Immediately after listening to these selections, they took a spatial reasoning test (from the Stanford-Binet intelligence scale). The results showed that the students' scores improved after listening to the Mozart selection. (2) However, soon enough, it was found that these results lasted only 10-15 minutes and more research quickly was undertaken by various groups all over the world.

However, before continuing in this search of the validity of the Mozart effect, I feel like there needs to be a definition of "intelligence". Since we learned how tricky notions of words can be on our minds from class, I took the liberty to search for how intelligence is measured and decided to take the definition used by Wilfried Gruhn as being associated with cognitive and intellectual capacity, the psychobiological potential to solve problems. This can be correlated with higher speed in neuronal signal transmission and signal processing, stronger and more efficient neuronal interconnectivity, and high correlation between IQ and neuronal activity (r=0.50 - 0.70). (3)

Now, if brain = behavior as we are learning in class (4), then there indeed should be a measurable correlation between musically trained minds and their intelligence. In addition, there must be one or more parts of the brain which are responsible for both these two "behaviors" of being "musically inclined" and "intelligent". And since the measure of intelligence is defined mainly concerning the brain activity, I delved into the "effects on music on brain" idea that has always been accepted in my childhood.

Assuming that brain = behavior, I wanted to find out if music really did affect the brain itself. If musically trained people were collected what would be the difference in their brains? One line of research found evidence that music training "beefs up brain circuitry". In a study conducted by the Society for Neuroscience, it was found that several brain areas such as the primary motor cortex and the cerebellum, which are involved in movement and coordination, are larger in adult musicians than in non-musicians. Another example given was that the corpus callosum, which connects the two sides of the brain, was larger in adult musicians. A third example is the auditory cortex, which is responsible for bringing music and speech into conscious experience, was also larger. (5)

Few other studies suggest that "music alone does have a modest brain effect." (5) One study showed that listening to the intricacies of Mozart pieces did raise college students' spatial skills. Rats were also tested and it was found that rats were able to complete a maze more rapidly and with fewer errors when exposed to Mozart tunes. As the research continued, even the earlier studies seem to show that the brain changes associated with musicians enhance mental functions such as ability to read and write music, keep tempo, memorize pieces, as well as functions not associated with music like word memory tests. Out of the adults tested in these memory tests, musicians scored much higher than non-musicians did.

The research continued with preschoolers, who were given piano lessons for about six months, and then tested in their puzzle-solving abilities. The experiment found that the preschoolers who had lessons performed better than those who did not have lessons. This was further supported when a group looked at the effects of music lessons on spatial reasoning and found that after 8 months, the children who took piano lessons, when tested on their ability to put puzzles together (spatial-temporal reasoning) and to recognize shapes (spatial-recognition reasoning), had improvements in the spatial-temporal test. Even when the children were tested one day after their last keyboard lesson, they still showed this improvement. (6)

Another study done with children consisted of testing second-graders who took piano lessons in their ability to play special math games. Again, it was found that they were able to score higher compared to other second-graders who took other lessons such as English. This study continued to see their performance in fourth-grade and found that they were able to better understand concepts such as fractions, ratios, symmetry, graphs, etc. (5)

In contrast, many laboratories have tried to use the music of Mozart to improve memory, but were unable to find similar supporting results. One group of scientists used a test where students listened to a list of numbers, and then repeat them backwards, known as a backwards digit span test. However, listening to Mozart before this test had no effect on the students. Other researchers have said that the original work on the Mozart Effect was flawed because only a few students were tested, and it was possible that listening to Mozart really did not improve memory. The latter suggested that it was possible that the relaxation test and silence impaired memory. In 1999, Dr. Kenneth Steele reported that when they used the exact procedures from the original experiment, the results did not give conclusive evidence of the Mozart effect. (7) Because there are many supporting as well as non supporting evidence of the Mozart effect, I soon came to realize that it will be fascinating to see where this all will lead to. Because so many people are caught up with the idea of wanting to be intelligent, by the time I have children, there definitely will be more information available to parents who want "intelligent" children!

Continuing in my search for the correlation between music and intelligence, I found an interesting direction that these studies are taking, which is the chance of musical training becoming a possible treatment of brain damage. (5) Music therapies are being used in many different clinics for various behavioral and neurological problems such as depression, autism, and aphasia.

An example of music affecting brain damage is the report by Berlin et al who studied seven patients with aphasia. Using Melodic Intonation Therapy (MIT), which consists of speaking in a type of musical manner, characterized by strong melodic (two notes, high and low) and temporal (two durations, long and short) components. Evaluating the effects of MIT on the brain, measured by relative cerebral blood flow and PET scanning during the hearing, they saw that "MIT-loaded" words recovered speech capabilities, which were thought to be lost. Going back to the brain = behavior idea, this experiment was further examined to find that critical regions, like the Broca's Area in the left hemisphere, which is involved in language and speech, of the brain were activated by "MIT-loaded" words, and not regular words. (8)

Another example involves the study reported in Lost & Found, an online journal on the autism web site. In 1996/7, where procedures like AIT, Auditory Integration Training, is showing great potential for benefiting the growth and development of various special children. In this report, they modeled the possible effects of AIT in newly born domestic chicks. After an exposure to an AIT-type program for ten days, the neurochemical changes in the brain were studied. Repeatable data were collected and results showed that music had an incredible effect in the chicks. Four groups of chicks were exposed to the followed auditory conditions: 1- Musical treatment with AIT-type modulated music, 2- Musical treatment without modulated music, 3- Verbal treatment of the human voice, and 4- Control with no treatment. After 10 days of these conditions, and after two days following the termination of the treatment, chemicals in the chicks' brains were measured. Concentrations of norepinephrine (NE) and its principle metabolite MHPG were elevated in the groups with the music treatment, and more so in the music treatment with the AIT-type modulated music. Though the relationships among these observations to humans are not yet fully known, these results are quite promising. NE is known to be related with attention processes, not to mention that these observations are related to the type of brain change that is thought to mediate the antidepressant effects of tricyclic drugs like desipramine. (9)

In conclusion, I do not believe that there is conclusive evidence to believe in the Mozart effect. However, despite the fact that we cannot reach a conclusion just on these experiments, there is a vast amount of data out in the web for the public to further probe for themselves. Thus far, we are torn between conflicting results and many parents are still being misled by various advertisers who says that classical music will enhance children's learning capabilities. However, I think it is safe to say that there is some evidence that the brain is affected indeed somehow by music and that music lessons can not hurt the growing stages of a child. I think it will be very exciting to see where the research regarding treatments of brain damage is headed despite the unwillingness on my part to make any conclusions as to whether or not these observations on the brain necessarily enhance intelligence.


1)CNN News web site, Article under Entertainment.

2)Entrez-PubMed, National Library of Medicine's search engine for literature.

3)Wilfried Gruhn - Brain Research - Forschung und Lehre, Article published in European Music Journal.

4)Biology 202 Lecture Notes , on the Serendip web site.

5)Music Training and the Brain, in the Society for Neuroscience web site.

6) M.I.N.D. Institute's site for research papers.

7)Music and Memory and Intelligence.

8)The Effects of Music and the Brain, web site on the value of music education.

9)Therapeutic Options: Effects of Music on the Brain, Lost & Found, Journal on Autism.

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