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. 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.
From this narrow finding, the media, parents, and even legislators made the leap that simply playing music to babies and children and adults made them more intelligent (something that Dr. Rauscher and her associates never suggested). Books, CDs, and other baby and child products touting the so-called “Mozart effect” became wildly popular. Since then, various studies have examined the idea that just playing some classical music to children can make them smarter and found this theory to be unlikely and unsupported by any real 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. The real story behind the link between music and learning is a little more complex than “Mozart makes you smarter”: 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 benefits to learning to play music.
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. But now that we know it’s not such a simple equation as “listening to Mozart=increased intelligence,” it’s worth noting that solid research is showing that there is a link between music and learning–it’s just not what we thought.
Putting aside for a moment the fact that there isn’t one single “intelligence” in a person that can be measured with a single IQ test (It’s now known that we have “multiple intelligences,” including musical intelligence), studies show it’s not that passively listening to classical music that makes you smarter; 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:
Promotes discipline (They practice with their instruments, learn to get ready for lessons and performances, and follow schedules.)
Helps kids’ brains process language
Improves reading skills
Imparts joy (Making and listening to music can be fun.)
Encourages a love of learning
Gives kids a means to express creativity
Offers children social benefits (It’s a great way to connect with other musicians and play together and enjoy music together.)
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.
Music, particularly learning to read and play music, seems to be linked to a number of benefits for kids, including better processing of language and improved reading skills. And how well a child processes the parts of sound—pitch, timing, and timbre—can be a fairly good predictor of how well that child will read, according to research conducted by Nina Kraus, Ph.D., a professor of neurobiology and director of the Auditory Neuroscience Lab at Northwestern. 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.