A popular theory that listening to Mozart will improve your reasoning skills has taken a hit this month. After trying to replicate the original research on which the theory was based, researchers have concluded that the music has no effect on the way students answer typical IQ test questions.
Ever since researchers reported in 1993 that college students performed better on spatial reasoning tests immediately after listening to Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, the so-called "Mozart effect" has enjoyed a spectacular career as pop science. Governor Zell Miller of Georgia promoted the idea of buying classical music for every infant in the state, and record stores sold CDs that were "scientifically proven" to boost your brainpower.
But other scientists had trouble finding a significant effect. And even if the effect was real, some argued, it was due to a positive mood induced by listening to Mozart. To sort these issues out, psychologist Kenneth Steele of Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, went back to the original experimental protocol used by psychologist Frances Rauscher of the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, and her colleagues. Steele gave the spatial reasoning test to 125 college students. Two days later, he retested them, priming some students with the 8-minute Mozart piece, while others got 8 minutes of silence, and a third group listened to 8 minutes of music by Philip Glass.
All the students did better the second time, but the improvement was essentially the same for all three groups, Steele reports in the July issue of Psychological Science. "I was very surprised when I did not get the effect at all," he says.
But Lois Hetland, a cognitive psychologist at Harvard University, believes the jury is still out. She says it remains to be explained why 26 of 27 studies, including Steele's own, have found some benefit to listening to Mozart--although in many cases the difference was not statistically significant. The researchers agree, though, that the public reaction to the Mozart effect has been overblown. "It's premature at best for policy decisions to be made on the Mozart effect," says Rauscher.