Mozart Music Not Magic

Alexandra Reinecke, Art & Literature Editor

It was typical evening.  I was babysitting; my babysitting kids were flipping through one of those old DVD packs, complete with the salmon-scale-backside gleam which accompany real DVDs, and I was making a menial and failing effort at conjuring a bowl of decent-tasting popcorn from scratch. “Baby-Mozart,” one of my babysitting kids had said, the third oldest and most disobedient of the family’s four. “Nooo,” had said another one, and so once I’d melted the butter over the stove and poured it over the plastic bowl of kernels, we settled in for Finding Nemo instead.

As fish and starfish and a severely “out-of-it” turtle swam around a never-ending turquoise backdrop, however, I wasn’t thinking even minimally of the sea. The suggestion of Baby-Mozart had brought forth a strange fascination. As these fish and turtles bobbed across the screen while my babysitting kids accumulated butter-dampened hands, I began to research the so-called “Mozart Effect.”

Having grown up myself a so-called “Mozart-Baby” I wanted to believe what many people involved in the various studies believed: that listening to Mozart did, in fact, expand one’s intelligence. The results, as I found, a third of the way through Finding Nemo, were far from clear-cut.

A 1993 study by University of Wisconsin Oshkosh professor Frances Rauscher showed that “after listening to Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos for 10 minutes, normal subjects showed significantly better spatial reasoning skills than after periods of listening to relaxation instructions designed to lower blood pressure or silence” as well as that “mean spatial IQ scores were 8 and 9 points higher after listening to the music than in the other two conditions,” according to Journalism of the Royal Society of Medicine, or JRSM.

The medical media source also revealed that while various researchers “confirmed that listening to Mozart’s Sonata K448 produced a small increase in spatial-temporal performance, as measured by various tests derived from the Stanford—Binet scale such as paper-cutting and folding procedures or pencil-and-paper maze tasks,” some investigators were “unable to reproduce the findings.” What the JRSM was clear in pointing out was that subjecting listeners to Mozart did not lead to the results much of the public misunderstood them to–causing an increase in intelligence–but in fact resulted in increased IQ which “did not extend beyond 10-15 minutes.”

Feeling discouraged, I began to fill my Google search-bar with phrases such as “Mozart Effect, real or fake?” and “Rauscher study findings” through a good of the kids’ movie.

I made the kids more popcorn, an extra privilege they appreciated.

When I returned to the couch it was also to a Washington Post article which much more vehemently argued against the study results’ veracity. “Listening to classical music does not, in fact, make you smarter,” it says frankly, in its first line. It continues to say that “the Mozart theory has been debunked.”

Google was overrun with articles which attempted to reason with what had been, in the early 2000s, and which continues to be the public’s fascination with and desire to buy into this effect. “It is one of those ideas that feels plausible,” says Claudia Hammond of BBC Future. “Mozart was undoubtedly a genius himself, his music is complex and there is a hope that if we listen to enough of it, a little of that intelligence might rub off on us.” She is also fast to explain that the study’s results do not actually report increased general intelligence, but only an intelligence in spacial or physical tasks, such as folding paper and drawing shapes. With this, she states that “all you need to do a bit better at predictive origami is some cognitive arousal” and that other awakening stimulants can achieve the same effect as Mozart, or as music at all, whose value she understands as lying in its ability to wake-up the brain. “Doing a few star jumps or drinking some coffee,” apparently, would be of similar value as a classic sonata.

In an interview with NPR, Rauscher explained that her study, which included 36 young-adult schoolchildren and not toddlers or elementary schoolers, as many came to understand the study as having been warped and manipulated by the American public’s inertia towards self-improvement. “Generalizing these results to children is one of the first things that went wrong,” Rauscher said. “Somehow or another the myth started exploding that children that listen to classical music from a young age will do better on the SAT, they’ll score better on intelligence tests in general, and so forth.”

If the test group was so small, and the results so limited, why did the American public latch on to such a study to produce what the article describes as “a small cottage industry of Mozart CDs for toddlers and babies”? The same article reasons, “Americans believe in self-improvement, but also are fond of quick fixes.” Another explanation is made by the researches of a 2004 Stanford study on the subject, who state that, “It seems to be a circumscribed manifestation of a widespread, older belief that has been labeled ‘infant determinism,’ the idea that a critical period early in development has irreversible consequences for the rest of a child’s life.”

By the time I had come to understand my view of the music as flawed, Finding Nemo was coming close to its conclusion on the screen. The DVD holder still lay open on the ottoman, the back of the Baby-Mozart disk gleaming from its plastic case. I no longer reminisced over its pink and blue lettering, but over the nostalgia-inducing teddy bear on its front. I viewed it as well-branded misconception, an innocuous societal error for which I felt a certain sympathy. A pop song blasted through the TV speakers as the movie credits cascaded down the blue screen in tiny white font, and after two hours of research during which I had unknowingly been playing Mozart over in my head, I welcomed the change.