Does listening to classical music really make children smarter?

Those of us who did some shopping for young children recently couldn’t help but notice the huge range of toys, games, and music targeted at parents hoping to boost their children’s intelligence—and perhaps give their toddlers a “jump-start” on the competition for preschool.  Among the most popular items are music CDs designed to trigger the “Mozart Effect,” the supposed improvement in intelligence that results from listening to classical music.  But does it really work? Are babies who listen to Mozart really any smarter?  In his book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, Emory University Professor Scott Lilienfeld and his coauthors take a closer look at the facts—and the misconceptions—about this phenomenon (Lilienfeld, Lynn, Ruscio, & Beyerstein, 2010).

According to Lilienfeld, the original scientific study upon which the theory of the “Mozart Effect” rests has very little to do with the runaway media hype that followed.  Some background: In 1993, the highly respected science journal Nature published an article by three University of California at Irvine researchers who reported that college students who listened to ten minutes of a Mozart piano sonata showed a significant improvement on a special reasoning task when compared with a control group (Rauscher, Shaw, and Ky, 1993).  However, the finding “didn’t imply anything about the long-term enhancement of spatial ability, let alone intelligence in general” (Lilienfeld, 2010, p. 46).  The test applied only to one task, administered immediately after listening to the music, and the subjects were all college students.  Other investigators tried to replicate the study, but they found either no improvement in spatial abilities or only trivial improvement.  Later researchers concluded that some students did improve short-term performance on certain tasks after exposure to Mozart’s sonatas, but this was likely the result of enhanced emotional arousal rather than being specifically attributable to the music; in fact, they found that listening to a passage from a Stephen King horror story produced a similar result (Nantais & Schellenberg, 1999).  Basically, heightened alertness improved performance, but had no effect on overall intelligence.

These facts did nothing to dissuade the media—as well as manufacturers of “intelligence enhancing” music CDs and videos—from making wild claims about the effects of classical music on children and infants (even though neither group was ever studied).  Eager parents, well-meaning relatives, teachers, and even legislators joined the band-wagon, and a $100 million a year industry was born.  Yet, according to Lilienfeld and other experts in developmental psychology, there is no good evidence that these products work.

As Lilienfeld concludes, “Of course, introducing Mozart and other great composers is a wonderful idea” (p. 48) but parents hoping to raise the IQ levels of their babies may want to take a closer look at the research.

So have you, or any of your clients, been tempted to buy one of these “intelligence-boosters”? Are these products, and the claims made by their manufacturers, taken seriously by the parents in your practice?  What alternatives might actually have a positive, measurable impact on children’s development?  We would like to hear your opinion on this topic!

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