Does Listening to Classical Music Make You Smarter?
Ever since figures like Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart stunned audiences with their compositions in the early 19th century, music lovers have known that classical music can affect the mind. But in 1993, when a study tracing the so-called “Mozart Effect” on the human brain was popularized, the idea that the genre could brighten our intellects really caught on.
People across the country greeted the notion with a standing ovation: “Smart baby” music products exploded onto the market. Georgia and Tennessee governors had classical music sent to every new infant in their states. Baby Bach and Mozart for Babies were, well, born, and as expectant parents stocked up on Pachelbel’s works sales of classical music soared.1
Indeed, “The Mozart Effect” has become so entrenched in modern culture some may forget it’s still just a theory—and not necessarily a fact.
So, what’s the truth behind the myth? Let’s listen in to find out.
What Is The Mozart Effect?
In 1993, the popular science journal Nature published findings from a study indicating that listening to Mozart could give a slight boost to intelligence.2
The study followed a group of 36 college students who were asked to listen to a 10-minute clip of a Mozart piano sonata before taking a spatial reasoning test. Compared with two other experiment conditions (listening to 10 minutes of silence and 10 minutes of a person speaking in a dull, monotone voice), the researchers observed that the students’ performance did, in fact, improve after listening to Mozart. The only catch?
The cognitive effects of Mozart lasted a mere 10 minutes.
Nevertheless, their findings ignited a popular cascade of interest in classical music and its promises to bolster intelligence and brain development—even if the scientists themselves stated that their discovery was modest, at best.
The Mozart Effect: Fact or Fiction?
Since Nature let the proverbial classical cat out of the bag, more than 300 research papers have been dedicated to the relationship between classical music and intelligence. The idea remains divisive: while its defenders say music is one of the keys to improving intellectual capacity, adversaries insist that “The Mozart Effect” is a pure urban legend.
Here’s what some of the most recent science says:
- One study conducted on patients with epileptic seizures found that listening to Mozart decreased seizures (even in participants who were in a comatose state) and increased delta brain waves.3
This may not indicate a direct link between classical music and cognition, but the study’s authors contend that the brain does indeed “resonate” with Mozart’s music.3
An analysis helmed by cognitive psychologist Dr. Lois Hetland found college students’ performance on spatial reasoning tests improved after listening to works by some of classical music’s greatest artists: Mendelssohn, Schubert, and, yes, Mozart.
Pearl Jam, Phillip Glass, and other musicians? Not so much—and ditto for the effects of silence and “vocal-relaxation” music.4
- On the flip side, a study from the UK discovered school children who listened to 10 minutes of the British rock band Blur performed better on spatial reasoning tests than those who listened to Mozart or a recorded discussion.5
The scientists interpreted this to suggest that any kind of music that resonates with us may increase our attention spans and give us that jolt we need to perform better (just think of how your favorite playlist can power you through a workout).
The Benefits of Music Education in Brain Development
Despite the mixed findings and beliefs surrounding “The Mozart Effect,” both researchers and advocates of classical music have outlined just how impactful learning and listening to music can be for child development. One of their most significant discoveries is that it isn’t “passive” music listening that fires up a youngster’s mind—it’s musical instruction.
One analysis of 15 published studies focusing on children from preschool to elementary school-aged demonstrated the distinction:
- Child participants involved in active music lessons—like dancing to the rhythm of music, receiving piano lessons, learning to sing, or developing skills on the drums—scored higher on spatial reasoning tests than children who were given passive musical instruction.
- Moreover, kids who also learned how to read music during their instruction showed the most significant increase on spatial reasoning tests.
This analysis, coupled with the most recent science on the subject, suggests there are several specific benefits musical instruction could have on learning abilities:
So, are these enhancements due to the intrinsic power of music? That’s up for debate.
Many scientists and educators argue that it’s the process of instruction itself—i.e., teaching music—which positively affects cognition and helps kids develop new skills. From that perspective, lessons of any kind can encourage discipline and resilience.
Is Classical Music Good for Babies?
In separating the myth from the felt power of music, you may ask: “does classical music make babies smarter?”
There’s no evidence to suggest that playing classical music for babies in utero will impact their IQ scores once they’re born. Additionally, there’s not sufficient proof to suggest playing it for little ones will turn them into the next baby Einstein or Yo-Yo Ma.
What we do know, though, is that classical music has both a calming and invigorating effect on the human mind. If classical music is your go-to for decompressing, or it helps your child fall asleep faster, by all means: play it, maestro!
Is Classical Music Good for Your Brain?
The discussion around whether or not the classical genre is good for the brain will probably endure long into the future as we continue to make discoveries in the realm of neuroscience.
One thing we do know? Music may have a positive impact on the autonomic nervous system and reduce stress.9 And in the absence of anxiety, we may be able to concentrate better, perform at a higher level, and problem-solve with greater ease.
Jumpstart Your Brain With These Excellent Classical Music Pieces
Science has yet to turn up a direct connection between classical music and increased intelligence. That said, there is ample evidence to show that music electrifies our brains and does wonders for our frame of mind.
Our recommendation? Run the experiment on yourself, dive into a new headspace, and start getting inspired with these 5 riveting classical music albums.
- Glenn Gould: The Goldberg Variations, by Glenn Gould – Originally recorded in 1955, this rousing album captures Canadian classical pianist Glenn Gould mastering Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” with exquisite aptitude. Both sharp and stirring, it might just get your brain moving while mellowing you out at the same time—the perfect state of mind to be in for tackling a big project.
- “Time,” by Hans Zimmer – As one of the most gifted classical music composers of the modern era, two-time Academy Award winner Hans Zimmer has supplied some of the most marvelous film scores in history. He’s scored films like The Last Samurai, Gladiator, and the recent sci-fi hit Dune. “Time,” a composition featured in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, is especially rousing, making it an ideal track for switching on your creativity.
- A Beautiful Mind, by James Horner – Will this record give you John Nash-level genius? That we cannot say. What we can insist on, though, is that this extraordinary film score can be played on loop for hours, with the power to galvanize any dedicated workflow.
- “Moonlight Sonata,” by Ludwig von Beethoven – Beethoven has become a staple in coffeehouses because of his facility to incite both calm and wonder. You may already be familiar with the slow, sonorous Moonlight Sonata—a gorgeous “gateway” piece of classical music and perfect for honing your focus on any task at hand.
- “Piano Concerto No. 3,” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – We couldn’t very well talk about “The Mozart Effect” without mentioning the man behind the myth, now could we? This is one of the classical music forebear’s greatest concertos, filled with splendid melodies and wonderful rhythms. The evidence is still forthcoming, but we’d wager it’s well worth a spin to help you fine-tune your focus.
While some would argue these are the best classical music has to offer, they are also good introductions to people not familiar with the genre.
Stimulate Your Mind with Victrola
The truth behind “The Mozart Effect” is a little more generous than the notion that classical music alone boosts cognition. In reality, music (period) is an excellent way to energize the brain.
In other words: it needn’t be Mozart, per sé. It could just as easily be Pearl Jam.
Wherever you stand on the “does classical music make you smarter?” debate, one thing is certain: listening to classical on vinyl renders each work’s texture even more riveting. Create a vivid listening experience by browsing Victrola’s intelligently curated record store to find a classical gem that transports your collection, moves your soul, and, yes, revitalizes your mind.
- CNN. Georgia governor bringing classics to newborns. http://www.cnn.com/US/9806/23/baby.music/
- NPR Morning Edition. Mozart effect, schmozart effect: science misinterpreted. https://www.npr.org/2010/06/28/128104580/mozart-effect-was-just-what-we-wanted-to-hear
- NIH. The “mozart effect” on epileptiform activity. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9660010/
- The New York Times. Debating the Mozart theory. https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/library/national/080600edlife-hersh-edu.html
- University of Toronto/University of London. Music listening and cognitive abilities in 10- and 11-year-olds: The Blur effect. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/79528074.pdf
- NPR. Music ability and the brain. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5028224
- PBS KIDS for Parents. The benefits of music education. https://www.pbs.org/parents/thrive/the-benefits-of-music-education/
- Sage Journals. Music lessons IQ. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1111/j.0956-7976.2004.00711.x
- Plos One. The effect of music on the human stress response. The Effect of Music on the Human Stress Response - PMC (nih.gov)
- The New York Times. The Mozart effect. https://www.nytimes.com/1999/08/10/science/l-the-mozart-effect-987182.html