Can listening to classical music make your kids smarter?

21 August 2018

Interview with

Dr Duncan Astle, Cambridge University

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The Mozart Effect is a term given to the idea that listening to classical music can make your child more intelligent. This might be good news for music vendors, but does it stand up to scientific scrutiny? Katie Haylor put this to Cambridge University neuroscientist Duncan Astle...

Duncan - Well, the Mozart Effect, so-called, stems from an original paper in 1993 where the authors compare people’s performance - these were adults - immediately after listening to Mozart versus just silence. And they found that there was a short-lived boost to performance on particular spatial exercises following the Mozart. The original authors were quite muted - pun intended - on their findings. But of course when the findings sort of hit the more popular media, it got somewhat sensationalised, the idea that playing Mozart will make you more intelligent or make you smarter.

Then it really took off later in the 90s when a guy called Don Campbell published a book which is titled “The Mozart Effect: Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the Mind and Unlock the Creative Spirit.” And that really spurned this idea that playing classical music, Mozart in particular, or listening to it will make you more intelligent, and that’s where the Mozart Effect, so-called, comes from.

Katie - So this was actually done with adults and not kids then?

Duncan - Yeah. It was done with kids. He later published a book which is called “The Mozart Effect for Children” and a whole industry kind of came about, even to the point that one state in the US allocated some of its budget to buy every child a CD so that they could listen to Mozart and enjoy the benefits.

Katie - Right. So how much scientific weight does this hold?

Duncan - Well, the Mozart effect’s been incredibly difficult to replicate so other labs who have tried to run a similar study have found it very hard to show the same effects. I think current opinion seems to suggest that it’s likely more to be an “arousal effect”. Other studies have shown that if you play people music that they like or they have a preference for, it can have a positive impact on their arousal, and that might have short-lived benefits for particular cognitive exercises. So rather than make people smarter per se, it might have an impact on mood or arousal.

Katie - Okay. So can we say then that playing your kids classical music does not necessarily make them more intelligent.

Duncan - There’s no compelling evidence to suggest that it would.

Katie - Got it. Rather than listening to music, what about playing music? Is there any evidence to suggest that getting your kiddies to learn an instrument could have any cognitive benefit.

Duncan - Well, it’s quite hard to study because you can’t just sort of roundup kids who play musical instruments and compare them with those who don't because there might be all sorts of other differences. It’s hard to attribute any difference just to learning to play a musical instrument.

But there have been some really nice studies where scientists have followed children over time or where they randomly allocated children to different type of musical training. And they have shown it can have some positive benefits for fine motor skills or listening skills. Some studies have used brain imaging to show that brain areas associated with those skills showed changes and that certain connective pathways in the brain so, for example, the connections between the two halves of the brain are boosted by musical training. So there is more compelling evidence that learning to play a musical instrument could have positive benefit for children’s cognition.

Katie - What about listening to music then whatever your age, whatever music you want to listen to, should we be doing it? Is there a cognitive impact?

Duncan - I think we should be doing it. I think it’s hard to demonstrate that there’s a direct cognitive benefit to doing so. But there is very good evidence that will have a positive benefit on the mood, reducing stress, that kind of thing which could improve performance. But that’s not the same as saying that’s making you smarter by listening to it.

Katie - So you have a musical instrument Duncan?

Duncan - I do. I can play the oboe.

Katie - Ah! And you didn’t bring it in for us to play.

Duncan - If only you’d asked.

Katie - Ah no! Okay, well next time.

Georgia - I have a question Duncan. So there’s some genres of music that have a tainted reputation, that people associate listening to with doing bad things or being more aggresive. ACDC, Marilyn Manson, that sort of thing. Is there any evidence that music can negatively affect your personality or make you less intelligent?

Duncan - Not negatively affect your personality or intelligence, but people have shown that it can have a relatively short-lived effect on mood. So it does stand to reason that if you listen to highly aggressive music that might have a short carry over effect, or a priming effect, on your mood and state of mind.

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