4 April 2013, 14:07

“Mozart effect”, or can music make you smarter?

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Classic music
Classic music

Much has been written on the “Mozart effect” - the theory that classical music can stimulate the listener's brain and make them cleverer. Further studies however have refuted the finding and have allegedly proved that the only real benefit to be gained from listening to music is pleasure. It now seems that this enjoyment could be of particular importance where health is concerned.

The “Mozart effect” has long been used as a marketing ploy to sell educational toys or child development materials such as CDs and DVDs. The basic idea was that children who listened to Mozart's music received a "brain boost" to improve their IQ. However, this theory is little more than a medical fairytale.

According to Dr. Jessica Grahn, a cognitive scientist at Western University in London, Ontario: “The Mozart effect is a media-driven myth. One study in 1992 showed that undergraduate students who listened to Mozart before a test did better than students who sat in silence or listened to a relaxation tape.”

Despite its appeal, the effect has never been confirmed by further studies. As Jessica Grahn said in an interview with the ‘Voice of Russia’: “Later studies showed that this improvement probably had nothing to do with Mozart at all, but instead happens anytime we do something that boosts mood and arousal.” 

In fact a beneficial effect might indeed be obtained from listening to Mozart; but other kinds of music have been shown to work just as well. What matters is the listener's taste. Dr. Glenn Schellenberg, a psychologist from the University of Toronto, said in an interview with the ‘Voice of Russia’ that: “It doesn’t matter if it's Mozart or Schubert. It is just that music makes you feel good. You can get lots of different effects like that with different kinds of stimulus, which make the listeners feel better.” 

A study on young children has shown, for example, the "Blur effect" similar to what Mozart was thought to achieve. The effect of music is not related to a specific musical genre. Dr. Glenn continued: “We’ve observed that with 9-11 year old children, pop music works better and on 5 year old kids, children's music works better. It actually depends on the listeners; on which music is going to make somebody feel good. The effects can be noticed with every kind of music, but not if the listener hates it!”

Enjoyment is the key; examining the brains of people who were listening to music, scientists have discovered that, while the main effect is pleasure, movement is also involved. Dr. Grahn underlined that: “Several studies have shown that 'reward' areas of the brain, areas that respond to pleasurable things like food or sex, also respond when listening to pleasurable music, particularly if it is music that can give you chills”. Music makes you feel good, but it also makes you move, as Grahn added: “I have also found that when people listen to music, areas of the brain that are responsible for controlling movement are active. This suggests music engages our movement systems, even if we're staying perfectly still.” 

Even so, music impacts ordinary listeners and musicians differently. As Jessica Grahn observed: “Many responses are similar across listeners and players. However, players sometimes show more responses in movement areas, perhaps because they are imagining playing along.” Moreover, several studies have proved that playing music regularly can improve IQ by a few points. 

Although listening to music doesn’t actually boost intelligence, it does make you feel good and in that way influences every aspect of life. Dr. Glenn Schellenberg observed that the effect of music on feelings should not be underestimated: “If you talk about a ‘mood effect’, you’re discounting the power that music has on well-being and health in general.” 

Music can have a crucial impact on health. “If people undergo an operation, if they’re listening to their favourite CD, then they need less medication. There are lots of examples of effects of music on health, and on well-being more generally. Music makes people feel good and how you feel really has a huge impact on every aspect of life,” Schellenberg stressed. 

The use of music as a complementary therapy is developing. Music is being utilised in hospitals and clinics around the world. More and more charities organise concerts in hospitals. Members of the British NGO “Music in Hospitals” play for patients all over the UK. Music can often minimise pain and increase a patient's well-being. For example, when people undergo surgery, the use of music as a part of their treatment eases anaesthesia, and helps to speed up the healing process. 

Although music has no real impact on intelligence, it does seem to have an important role to play as a therapeutic tool which will probably boost your health, but probably not your IQ!

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