Policy

Mozart Effect: As Bogus As the Plot of Amadeus

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That's Tom Hulce having the last laugh on parents who believed that listening to Mozart could enhance their youngsters' mental abilities. A team of researchers in Vienna have conducted an exhaustive study of the "Mozart Effect" — which spawned a great fad among overdetermined parents, sold countless "Baby Mozart" CDs, and allegedly led to cases of the neoclassical master's music being pumped into the womb — and it turns out you may have been better off sticking with Haydn:

The Austrian researchers analyzed 40 studies involving more than 3,000 subjects.

"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," head researcher Jakob Pietschnig told Agence France-Presse.

But there was no proof that Mozart actually improves intelligence, he said.

"I recommend that everyone listen to Mozart, but it's not going to improve cognitive abilities as some people hope," Pietschnig said.

For your listening pleasure, though apparently not your cognitive abilities, here's the wonderful Quintet in E flat, K452, led by James Levine, who could afford to pick up the tempo a little bit:

 

The Mozart Effect remains a great tale of popular psychology, which winds in and out of the movement for Organization Children, the myth of the first three years (or five years) and a bunch of other developmental rigmarole — all of which ends in the inevitable recognition that your kids are going to turn out however they're going to turn out, and that there is a depressingly small amount you can do about it (and you will almost certainly fail to do even that).

Leopold Mozart, the Murray Wilson of his time.

Fighting against this truth we have the Hungarian shrink and true weirdo László Polgár, who proved that you can in fact turn your daughters into chess masters through sheer behaviorist will, and Marv Marinovich, who inspired us all by showing you can make your son into an NFL quarterback for five minutes if you're willing to destroy his life in the process. But the greater claim of the Mozart Effect was that it would improve the child in all areas of development, and behind that is the greatest myth of them all: the making of the "well rounded person." Skepdic.com surveys the history:

The Mozart effect is an example of how science and the media mix in our world. A suggestion in a few paragraphs in a scientific journal becomes a universal truth in a matter of months, eventually believed even by the scientists who initially recognized how their work had been distorted and exaggerated by the media. Others, smelling the money, jump on the bandwagon and play to the crowd, adding their own myths, questionable claims, and distortions to the mix. In this case, many uncritical supporters line up to defend the faith because at stake here is the future of our children. We then have books, tapes, CDs, institutes, government programs, etc. Soon the myth is believed by millions as a scientific fact. In this case, the process met with little critical resistance because we already know that music can affect feelings and moods, so why shouldn't it affect intelligence and health, even if only slightly and temporarily? It's just commonsense, right? Yes, and all the more reason to be skeptical.

To be fair, one of the co-creators of the Mozart Effect, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh psychology professor Frances Rauscher, has tried to tamp down the more inflated claims about the  phenomenon:

"The term 'Mozart Effect' is now used to describe any study with music and learning. The term is meaningless," said Rauscher, who keeps a plush magnet of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on the file cabinet in her office — a gag gift from a graduate student.

Above all, Rauscher stresses that the experiments are effective only under three conditions: The instruction must occurs before age 6 or 7 and continue for at least two years, and it must be high-quality instruction.

For the record, my thesis that girl singers lead to economic boom times stands unrefuted. Take a break from Amadeus and its blatant anti-Italian bias with music guaranteed to make your kid richer: