EVER HEARD THE PHRASE, “MOZART MAKES BABIES SMART!”?
Since its inception, this claim has scattered like dandelion seeds. It is the basis of million dollar franchises such as Baby Einstein, a company that makes DVDs and products with classical music and other forms of art that are “proven” to help promote cognitive development in children.1
Where did this blown-up myth come from?
In the 1990s, 36 students in a study at the University of California at Irvine listened to 10 minutes of a Mozart sonata before taking an IQ test. Dr. Shaw, the psychologist in charge of the study, reported that the student’s score went up by an average of 8 points. Unfortunately, the public failed to note that the results only showed increased performance on certain spatial-temporal parts of the test, and could not be generalized to intelligence as a whole. Thus, the “Mozart Effect” was born.
Though this claim has long been deemed a neuro-myth, there has been an enormous amount of research in the decades following the “Mozart Effect” study. New studies have been dedicated to researching the differences between the brains and processing abilities of trained musicians and non-musicians.
While merely listening to classical music has no profound effect on one’s cognitive ability, extensive musical training does. Playing music offers a rich cognitive, motor, and sensory experience — from reading notes on sheet music and keeping rhythmic time to moving fingers along instrument keys and processing sound.
Looking back in history, all of the famous virtuosos began their musical training at a very young age. A study conducted at the Beijing Normal University in China took a group of musicians who began their training before the age of seven (around when brain maturation peaks) and musicians who had begun their studies later and scanned their brains using MRI. They found that the musicians who started before seven had thicker cortical tissue in the right superior temporal gyrus, (traditionally associated with auditory processing) and in the precuneus (believed to be involved in self-awareness) than those who started musical training later in life. “Our study suggests a potential role of onset age of musical training in human brain development,” Wang explained.
But it’s not just brain structure that evolves with musical training. It’s increased performance in certain processing tasks.
Playing an instrument requires multisensory input from the audio, visual, and tactile percepts. Julie Roy, from the University of Montreal, set out to evaluate if trained musicians had any differences in multisensory processing compared to those with no musical training. During her study, participants heard two or more tones while receiving a single vibration on their finger. After being told to ignore the tones and attend to the tactile stimulus, the subjects were asked to report on the sensation they felt.
She found that when musicians and non-musicians heard only one sound, both groups accurately reported one single vibration on their finger. However, when they heard two or more tones, the non-musicians described feeling multiple vibrations on their finger, while musicians continued to accurately report feeling only one vibration. The musicians’ ability to distinguish between the auditory stimuli and the tactile stimuli suggests that long-term musical training influences multisensory processing.
“Music’s ability to concurrently simulate multiple systems in the brain may improve the communication and connectivity between key regions in the brain,” Roy explained. Perhaps such effects could be applied to people suffering from neurological impairments and sensory disabilities.
The “Mozart Effect” may not be all bad. It has sparked an interest in a new field of cognitive neuroscience that seeks to investigate the role of music in brain plasticity and has opened up new options for therapy in people with neurological disorders. This good news is worth enough to turn up Rondo Alla Turca and thank Mozart himself!
Lucy Lai is a sophomore from Lovett College at Rice University.
1. Freeman, S. Top 10 Myths About the Brain. http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/10-brain-myths.htm#page=2 (accessed 2/6/2015), part of howstuffworks.
2. Rauscher, F.; Shaw,L.; Ky, C. Music and spatial task performance. Nature. 1993, 365, 661.
3. Inside Neuroscience: Tuning the Brain to Music. http://www.sfn.org/news-and-calendar/news-and-calendar/news/spotlight/2014/tuning-the-brain-to-music (accessed 2/6/2015), part of Society for Neuroscience.