Music Learning and the Mozart Effect

Three girls playing violin outside

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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.

In fact, while listening to classical music may boost some skills, 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, Ph.D., 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 and found that 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 evidence of improvements in intelligence was not shown by the study.

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).

Still, 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 been found to be unsupported by any solid evidence. 

A number of studies, including a December 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 listening to or learning classical music and an increase in intelligence, research has shown that 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 so many 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.

Rather than just one type of intelligence, people have "multiple intelligences," including musical intelligence, and studies have shown that it's not passively listening to classical music that makes you smarter. Rather, it's that music learning opens doorways to other learning and strengthens the skills kids will use the rest of their lives in school and beyond.

Some of the many ways music may enhance kids' learning and overall development:

  • Boosts memory
  • Builds self-esteem
  • Development of 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 they 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, Ph.D., 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 like a loud restaurant or party) 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.

According to the research, 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.

The researchers make an insightful analogy between music and physical activity: the same way exercise is important for physical health, music plays a key role in toning the brain for auditory fitness. Music training in kids can play an important role in developing crucial skills in children that will help them learn, such as listening, paying attention, concentration, memory, and reading ability.

How to Expose Them to More Music

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. If not playing music, they may prefer learning all about how composers make music and how songs and symphonies are structured.

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 look into discounted group rates at local music schools.

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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