Music & Intelligence: Will Listening to Music Make You Smarter?

by Duane Shinn

Will listening to music make you smarter? Will learning to play a musical instrument make your brain grow larger than normal?

Questions like these ones have been popping up all over the place in the past few years, and not just in scientific journals either. In recent times the media has been fascinated by the research surrounding brain development and music, eagerly reporting on the latest studies to the delight of the music-loving parents of young children. But all this information - and some misinformation too - has led to generalized confusion about the role of music and music training in the development of the human brain.

The bottom line is this: if you're confused by all you read about music study and brain development, you're certainly not alone. In part, this is due to the manner in which the phrase "the Mozart Effect" has been popularized by the media and bandied about to describe any situation in which music has a positive effect on cognition or behavior.

In fact the Mozart Effect refers specifically to a 1993 research finding by Frances Rauscher, Gordon Shaw and Katherine Ky and published in the prestigious journal Nature. The scientists found that 36 college students who listened to 10 minutes of a Mozart sonata performed higher on a subsequent spatial-temporal task than after they listened to relaxation instructions or silence.

An enchanted media reported this interesting research as "Mozart makes you smarter" - a huge over-simplification of the original results.

As Rauscher explains in a later paper, the Mozart Effect was studied only in adults, lasted only for a few minutes and was found only for spatial temporal reasoning. Nevertheless, the finding has since launched an industry that includes books, CDs and websites claiming that listening to classical music can make children more intelligent.

The scientific controversy - not to mention the popular confusion - surrounding the Mozart Effect, has given rise to a corresponding perplexity for parents. They wonder: "Should my kids even bother with music education?"

In fact the answer to this question is still a resounding yes, since numerous research studies do prove that studying music contributes unequivocally to the positive development of the human brain. Other researchers have since replicated the original 1993 finding that listening to Mozart improves spatial reasoning. And further research by Rauscher and her colleagues in 1994 showed that after eight months of keyboard lessons, preschoolers demonstrated a 46% boost in their spatial reasoning IQ, a skill important for certain types of mathematical reasoning.

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