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What music makes babies smarter?

Does Listening to Mozart Make Kids Smarter?

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Pregnant woman holding headphones on her belly

One of the most tenacious myths in parenting is the so-called Mozart effect, which says that listening to music by the Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart can increase a child’s intelligence. The idea has been promoted by advocates for arts education and by retailers who sell special recordings of Mozart’s works for infants and toddlers. Some pregnant women have even gone so far as to play Mozart recordings on headphones pressed against their bellies. And it’s not hard to see how Mozart’s name became associated with accelerated development. He was history’s greatest child prodigy, performing astonishing feats of memory and musical dexterity for kings and queens at an age when many of us were content with tunelessly mumbling through “I’m a Little Teapot” and eating the occasional crayon.

So, if you have kids or you’re expecting to have them, how seriously should you take the Mozart effect? Is the child who is deprived of hearing Exsultate, Jubilate in the cradle doomed to a life of mediocrity? Are you a bad parent if Junior doesn’t know Eine kleine Nachtmusik from Die Entführung aus dem Serail?

Relax. There is no scientific evidence that listening to Mozart improves children’s cognitive abilities. The whole idea comes from a small study done in 1993, which found that college students who listened to Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major (K 448) showed modest improvement in a test of spatial reasoning. This finding was later stretched into something more extravagant by the musician and entrepreneur Don Campbell, who in 1997 published the best seller The Mozart Effect: Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the Mind, and Unlock the Creative Spirit. Campbell’s claims about the miraculous powers of Mozart’s music were repeated endlessly in the media and fueled a craze for Mozart-based enrichment activities. In 1998, for example, the governor of Georgia requested funds to send classical-music CDs to all parents of newborns in the state.

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Since then, scientists have examined the claim that Mozart boosts intelligence and found no evidence for it. The original experiment with college students was reviewed in 1999, and the increase in the students’ spatial skills was found to be negligible. In 2007 the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research commissioned a team of experts to examine the scientific literature regarding Mozart and child development, and they found no reason to believe that it boosted intelligence.

The ‘Mozart effect’: will classical music really make your baby smarter?

baby with violin

Studies suggest that listening to classical music can improve your hearing, spatial reasoning skills and even general intelligence. But is there any truth in the ‘Mozart effect’?

What is the Mozart effect?

The ‘Mozart effect’ was first reported on in 1993 by scientists at the University of California, Irvine, who asked individuals to listen to Mozart’s sonata for two pianos (K448) for 10 minutes, while others listened to either silence or relaxation audio designed to lower blood pressure.

The study found the subjects who listened to Mozart showed significantly increased spatial reasoning skills for at least 10-15 minutes.

The finding since led crèches in the United States to start playing classical music to children. The southern state of Georgia even started giving newborn babies a free classical CD shortly after the study came out.

Have a listen to Mozart’s sonata here:

The same study investigated the long-term effects of music on the brain, by giving a group of three to four-year-old children keyboard lessons for six months. At the end of training, their performance in a spatial-temporal reasoning test was 30 per cent better than that of children of a similar age who were given computer lessons for six months or no special training.

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The young children’s increased spatial-temporal abilities lasted for 24 hours, in contrast to the initial Mozart-based experiment, the results of which only lasted for 15 minutes. According to the study, this result was down to the greater plasticity of the young brain, and the length of exposure to the music.

A separate test was later carried out on a group of rats in utero who were exposed to Mozart’s sonata for two pianos and minimalist music by Philip Glass, before being tested for their ability to find their way through a maze.

The Mozart group again completed the maze test significantly more quickly and with fewer errors than the Philip Glass group, suggesting that it might be the musical complexity of Mozart’s compositions that has a positive impact on people’s spatial reasoning.

Does music really make you smarter?

The results of the study have proven to be controversial. Most criticism of the findings argue that the ‘Mozart effect’ is due to ‘enjoyment arousal’; in other words, the subjects’ enhanced spatial reasoning was down to their enjoyment and appreciation of the music, rather than any mysterious effect Mozart’s music might have on the brain.

“Those who listened to music, Mozart or something else – Bach, Pearl Jam – had better results than the silent group. But we already knew people perform better if they have a stimulus,” Jakob Pietschnig, who led the study, told The Telegraph.

“I recommend everyone listen to Mozart, but it’s not going to improve cognitive abilities as some people hope,” he added.

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The scientists themselves suggested that the basic activity of listening to music activated of the areas of the brain which are concerned with spatial reasoning – in which case, the result might be more accurately named the general ‘music effect’.

This baby, for example, loves a bit of Paganini.

Baby music: The soundtrack to your child’s development

A toddler reaches up to touch keys on a piano.

Did you know that music can make you and your baby smarter and happier?

Carlota Nelson, director of the documentary Brain Matters, explains the science behind why music benefits young minds.

We’ve always known that music has a powerful, transformative and unifying effect on people. But only now do we know that music contributes to better memory and cognitive skills.

This is because listening to, and playing music, produce changes in the brain. Also, both activities can release a healthy dose of endorphins, the so-called ‘happiness hormone.’

What happens when babies listen to music

Neuroscientists who study baby brains say music has long-lasting benefits for babies, too.

Music makes a big difference to the baby brain. One study from the Institute of Learning and Brain Sciences detected that after babies listen to music, their auditory and prefrontal cortexes look different. These are the regions of the brains in charge of processing both music and speech.

Not only that: when young children interact with others, the positive effects of listening to music have been seen to extend to personality traits, like being helpful and cooperative.

Listening to music vs playing music

While listening to music impacts the brain, making music is even more powerful. This is because making music requires fine motor skills (such as being able to grip and squeeze objects), as well as linguistic and mathematical precision, and creativity ─ firing up several areas of the brain.

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Tapping into these skills means developing the bridge between the two hemispheres of the brain, which allows messages to get across the brain faster and across different routes.

From research to practice

When all this scientific evidence gets translated into our homes and early learning centres, even in short doses, our children get smarter. “We see an impact in literacy, numeracy, physical development, gross motor coordination [such as running and jumping], fine motor skills, as well as social and emotional development,” says Graham Welsh, a British neuroscientist who studies the impact of music on young children’s brains.

“It’s very easy for schools to feel they need to focus on literacy and numeracy because those are the outcomes they are judged on. But music can unlock a child’s path for learning in a way that nothing else might. It builds children’s confidence and language skills, and can improve their math scores when they get to school.”

The benefits of music for your child

When young children are exposed to music, their brains change. Among other benefits, music can:

  • Improve moods and empower young children by reducing stress levels. Even listening to sad music can be good thanks to its cathartic power, making it easier for children to get in touch with their emotions.
  • Stimulate the formation of brain chemicals such as dopamine and oxytocin. When these are released, children are encouraged to share toys, empathize and trust others.
  • Boost concentration skills and productivity.
  • Improve learning and grades.
  • Develop spatial intelligence – laying the ground for an interest in mathematics, engineering, computer science and architecture.
  • Improve vocabulary and creativity.
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The benefits of music can be experienced in many forms. Listen to a song, play an instrument or pick up anything that’s in the classroom or at home and make music with it! Now that we know the science of music, it’s time to put a soundtrack to children’s early years.

Carlota Nelson is the writer and director of Brain Matters, a groundbreaking feature documentary about early brain development in children. Before filming began, Carlota spent eight months researching early childhood development with the world’s leading neuroscientists and members of the early childhood development community.

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