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Biology 202, Spring 2005
First Web Papers
On Serendip

Can Music Make you Smarter? Happier

G Griffin

The purported effects of music on the brain are ones that vast majority people by now familiar with. In recent history, public has been inundated with reports about everything from how listening to classical while studying can help comprehension and retention, positive one's mood. Is there any truth so-called 'Mozart Effect make us happier? Exactly does affect brain? Experimenters have used various methods test brain, come a range conclusions, some even contradictory. For example, although scientists claim boost intelligence, others argue only learning such an effect. we know what believe? appears be two ways looking at brain: (i) observe whether or not changes academic ability arise as result exposure music, (ii) itself during different kinds music. Different researchers performed a variety of studies (1)(2)(3)(4) where comparisons were made between the cognitive skill levels (what this means differs depending on the experiment, but some examples are IQ, language, social and spatial skills, and academic performance) of individuals before and then after music lessons. In all instances there was an observable, though not always dramatic, increase in cognitive skill level. For example, in a study performed by Dr. E. Glenn Schellenberg in Toronto, 144 six-year-old children were randomly separated into four groups and then evaluated for IQ and academic skills. For the duration of one year, the children either received singing lessons, piano lessons, drama lessons or no lessons at all outside normal school. When their IQ's and academic skills were reevaluated, the children in both kinds of music lessons demonstrated the greatest gains.(5) This appears to prove the Mozart Effect true, however, in similar experiments where the individuals being tested LISTENED to music rather than LEARNED it, no significant improvements were noted. This seems to imply that although none of the researchers were able to cite a specific aspect of music education that leads to the boost in intellect, LEARNING music requires mastering a number of skills that can contribute to overall intelligence. "For instance, musical training requires kids to pay attention for long periods, to read notation, to memorize extended passages, and to master fine-motor skills".(6) Therefore recent studies indicate that, contrary to popular opinion, it is learning music, rather than listening to it, that can lead to increases in intelligence.

That is not to say that listening to music does not have an effect on the brain, however. The majority of people have had some sort of emotional experience with music; that is, whether they were uplifted, saddened, excited or comforted, they have had an emotional response as the result of listening to music. In fact, recent experiments have shown that the region of the brain that is associated with food and sex is also stimulated when test subjects listen to music that they deem beautiful enough to give them 'chills'.(7) In other words, when an individual experiences a moment of euphoria, PET (positron emission tomography) scans show activity in the region of the brain associated with emotions. Music it seems, is capable of inducing such euphoric moments, or in other words is capable of triggering parts of the brain that cause emotions such as happiness.(8) This comes as no surprise to anyone who has ever been moved by a piece of music however, for the soothing and mood enhancing effects are easily felt. Perhaps it is this very phenomenon that is at the heart of the few remaining reports that supposedly show a link between listening to classical music and elevated intelligence. That is, the negative effects of stress on cognition are well documented, and music often has a soothing, brightening effect, which could counteract those negative effects. Therefore it would be possible to say that listening to music has a positive effect on cognition and IQ.

It seems then, that whichever method you choose to examine whether music influences the brain, the evidence points to music's having an impact on brain functioning. This leads to a number of other questions; for example, how a cultural phenomenon like music has come to have the same neurological effects as basic biological stimuli such as food and sex. Also, what does this imply about the nature of the brain (or the mind) in terms of how much of our cognitive ability is genetically determined, and how much is open to influence by internal as well as external factors. While recent studies may point us in the right direction regarding these and other important questions, there is still a lot of research to be done on the influences of music (and other factors such as meditation) on the brain.

Web References:


1)Society for NeuroScience, Brain Briefings page of SFN site

2)American Music Conference Research Page, A site dedicated to music and music education

3)The Current Online, University of Missouri-St. Louis Student Newspaper Online

4)Science News Online, Weekly newsmagazine covering research in all fields of science

5)The Current Online, University of Missouri-St. Louis Student Newspaper Online

6)Science News Online, Weekly newsmagazine covering research in all fields of science

7)Aetna Intelihealth, A subsidiary of Aetna Inc, a healthcare provider that works with Harvard Medical School to educate the public

8)Aetna Intelihealth, A subsidiary of Aetna Inc, a healthcare provider that works with Harvard Medical School to educate the public

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