Music Learning and the Mozart Effect

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Most parents have heard the term "Mozart effect." It refers to the idea that merely listening to classical music can boost intelligence, especially in babies. It sounds simple, but the truth behind the theory is more complex.

Listening to classical music may boost some skills, and has other benefits and appeals. But a permanent enhancement of intellectual ability is unlikely (and not backed by evidence).

The Mozart Effect

The belief was sparked by a 1993 study led by Frances Rauscher, PhD, in which researchers played a Mozart piano sonata to a small group of college students and then asked them to complete a spatial reasoning test.

They then compared these results to scores of spatial reasoning tests taken after listening to 10 minutes of a relaxation tape or silence. The group exposed to Mozart scored measurably higher, even though these cognitive gains only lasted about 10 to 15 minutes. It's important to note that the study did not show evidence of improvements in intelligence.

From this narrow finding, the media, parents, and even legislators made the leap that simply playing music to babies, children, and adults made them more intelligent (something that Dr. Rauscher and her associates never suggested).

The study results were generally misinterpreted by the public (and companies marketing products) to mean that listening to classical music would improve children's intelligence.

As a result, books, CDs, and other products touting the so-called "Mozart effect" became wildly popular for babies and kids. Since then, various studies have examined the idea that just playing some classical music to children can make them smarter. This theory has not been supported by any solid evidence. 

A number of studies, including a 2013 paper by researchers at Harvard University, found that music does not enhance the cognitive abilities of children. However, while there doesn't seem to be a straightforward relationship between exposure to classical music and an increase in intelligence, there are a number of clear cognitive and mental health benefits to learning to play music.

Music and Learning

It’s easy to see why parents were willing to pay for all those music CDs, books, and videos championing the benefits of the "Mozart effect"—it was the promise of cognitive benefit for their babies with little effort and no drawback.

As it turns out, there is solid research is showing a link between music and learning. It's just not what we thought. Passively listening to classical music doesn't make you smarter. Rather, music learning opens doorways to other learning and strengthens the skills kids use in school and beyond.

Music may enhance kids' learning and overall development in many ways, including:

  • Boosts memory
  • Builds self-esteem
  • Develops prosocial skills
  • Encourages a love of learning
  • Encourages concentration
  • Enhances emotional intelligence
  • Gives kids a means to express creativity
  • Helps kids' brains process language 
  • Imparts joy; making and listening to music can be fun 
  • Improves coordination
  • Improves reading skills and academic performance
  • Increases vocabulary
  • Offers children social benefits; playing music is a great way to connect with other musicians, play and enjoy music together
  • Promotes discipline, as kids practice with their instruments, learn to get ready for lessons and performances, and follow schedules

In young children, music seems to play a particularly important role in language development. Research shows that music seems to strengthen kids’ natural abilities to decode sounds and words.

In children, the benefits of music (particularly learning to read and play music) have been linked to better processing of language and improved reading skills.

According to research conducted by Nina Kraus, PhD, a professor of neurobiology and director of the ​Auditory Neuroscience Lab at Northwestern, how well a child processes the parts of sound (pitch, timing, and timbre) can be a good predictor of how well that child will read.

The mechanism of the link between music and learning is clear. Being able to distinguish between similar sounds such as "bag" and "gag" is important for language development, and skills like keeping rhythm have been linked to reading ability.

Kraus has also pointed out that sound processing in the brain is a measure of how healthy the brain is. Not being able to process sounds (for example, being able to distinguish and hear a friend’s voice in a noisy environment) can indicate an underlying condition like autism or learning delays.

Research also suggests that kids from lower socioeconomic backgrounds may be at a disadvantage. Poverty and a mother’s education level were shown to be linked to a child’s ability to process sound.

Research has demonstrated that people who play music can hear better in noisy environments than those who do not play music.

The sounds we are exposed to change our brain. Similar to the way exercise helps the body become physically fit, music can help the brain achieve auditory fitness, which is linked to many learning benefits.

Music training can play an important role in developing crucial skills that help children learn, such as listening, paying attention, concentration, memory, and reading ability.

What to Look For in Music Lessons

The message to remember about music and learning is simple. Kids shouldn't be expected to listen to music to make them smarter; rather, parents should expose kids to music because it benefits their overall development.

Encourage your child to find an instrument they love and help them build skills and confidence through practice and lessons. It might take a bit of searching and some trial and error to find out which instrument or type of music your child likes.

You'll also want to find the right teacher—ideally, someone who can help your child figure out what aspect of music they're interested in. If your school doesn’t provide music lessons, look for community programs or local music schools (which may provide financial aid, if lessons do not fit into your family budget).

A Word From Verywell

Most of all, let your child enjoy music for just the sake of enjoying it, not to influence learning or for some other goal. You can encourage your child by introducing them to all kinds of music, from Miles Davis, hip hop, and Yo-Yo Ma to classical composers like Chopin, Beethoven, Bach, and yes—Mozart!

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Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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