Soundbox Rethinking Mozart's Effect on the Womb

Listening to the Austrian composer is nice and may be calming, but don't expect it to make you or your unborn child smarter, a new study suggests.

"Most people use only 10 percent of their brain power"; "hypnosis is useful for retrieving memories of forgotten events"; "opposites attract." These are three of the 50 great myths of popular psychology that are analyzed in a book of the same name by Scott O. Lilienfeld (published by Wiley-Blackwell in 2009 ).

The book, which seeks to "shatter widespread misconceptions about human behavior" as the subtitle notes, discusses deep-rooted beliefs and myths about psychiatry, criminality, learning disabilities, suicidal tendencies, heredity and the subconscious; as well as birth, life and death.

In the sixth place on the list, leading off the chapter on "From Womb to Tomb, myths about development and aging," a widespread myth about music and brainpower is debunked: "Playing Mozart's music to infants boosts their intelligence."

This refers to the well-known "Mozart effect" that surfaced in a scientific study conducted in 1993, gained tremendous international support four years later following the publication of a bestseller by the same name by Don Campbell, and turned into a powerful financial and commercial force.

Campbell, a native of southern Texas, can easily fit the profile of a guru. As a member of the Methodist Church, he is a man of faith; as a classical musician he is imbued with Western art. He is a pianist, music critic, organ player in church and more; his extensive travels to the Far East showed him to what extent the West created a disconnect between music and everyday life, as he puts it.

A visit to the store on his Web site reveals the 18 books he has written (the most recent one is "Sound Spirit" about music and spirituality ), first among them, "The Mozart Effect Collection."

It is a set of 16 discs and two books for $200 and includes, "Strengthen the Mind: Music for Intelligence and Learning," "Heal the Body: Music for Rest and Relaxation," "Focus and Clarity: Music for Projects and Study," and "The Mozart Effect for Children: "Relax, Daydream, and Draw," "Mozart in Motion," and "The Mozart Effect Music for Babies Series: "From Playtime to Sleepytime," "Nighty Night," "The Mozart Effect Music for Newborns: Bright Beginnings" and "The Mozart Effect Music for Moms and Moms-To-Be."

Research bombshell

Is Lilienfeld right and is the Mozart effect, and especially the claim of an intelligence boost via the music of the young Austrian man who died over 200 years ago, really a myth fit for debunking?

In October 1993, Prof. Frances Rauscher of the University of California, Irvine, published together with two research fellows a study on the effect of listening to 10 minutes of the first movement of the Mozart sonata for two pianos in D major, K. 448, in comparison to listening to a relaxation tape for the same amount of time or silence.

On the IQ test (Stanford-Binet intelligence scale ) given to students who took part in the study, those who listened to Mozart achieved far better results in the spatial reasoning and abstract understanding sections and in shape analysis, multitasking and paper folding. Thirty-six students took part in all stages and all the groups and the results were unequivocal: They displayed higher IQ levels after listening to Mozart.

The study did indeed acquire a New-Age slant with a commercial impact on the back of Campbell's popular enterprise, but it also sparked unprecedented research interest. A lot of time would be needed, a meta-study of its own, to analyze the research trends since then: the relevant research databases generate over 1,000 responses for questions containing the search words "Mozart" and "effect" and they reflect the continuous reverberations of the research bombshell presented by Rauscher and her colleagues.

Scientific, musicological and other journals such as The Psychology of Music, the Journal of Music Educators, The Science of Psychology, Journal of Education Research in America, Studies in Musical Education, Neurology of the Child, and Holistic Therapy all have in-depth, peer reviewed articles on the effect. The journals tackle countless aspects of the Mozart Effect: debunking it, warning against it, and in contrast, also surprising findings about its veracity or at least the uncertainty about it; as well as practical applications of it in education, music therapy and psychological therapy.

Rap for preemies

In the American journal, Intelligence, psychologists Jakob Pietschnig, Martin Voracek and Anton Formann of the University of Vienna, Mozart's city, recently published a study on the Mozart effect based on 40 previous studies conducted on some 3,000 subjects.

"I recommend listening to Mozart to everyone, but it will not meet expectations of boosting cognitive abilities" Pietschnig wrote in summary.

The study found that the Mozart effect is nothing but a myth: from students who did well on tests after listening to the Sonata in D Major to rats that made their way through a maze more quickly after hearing it. This is in the best case an urban legend and a hoax in the worst. Knowledge acquired over the last 17 years proves this.

Everyone knows intuitively that music has a strong impact on the brain and emotions. In ancient times David played the harp for King Saul when there was "a foul spirit on him" (apparently a psychotic episode ); and Plato requested to refrain from certain musical scales in order not to destroy the souls of the youth. Today music therapy does wonders.

Contemporary research also supports this theory and recently in Israel this has been the case as well: Dr. Dror Mandel and Dr. Ronit Lubetzky of Tel Aviv University's Sackler School of Medicine, discovered in a recent study that preemies who heard Mozart music for a period of more than 30 minutes, once a day, expended less energy, meaning they needed less calories to grow more rapidly.

"It's not exactly clear how the music is affecting them, but it makes them calmer and less likely to be agitated," Mandel was quoted in the online journal, Science Daily. The Israeli researchers plan to expand the musical repertoire and some have also suggested playing rap music, whose repetitive style may have equally beneficial medical effects. "In addition to classical music, we will also play ethnic music, rap, and pop," Mandel said.

Whatever the practical ramifications of Mozart may be, those familiar with his music know that listening to it prompts a special feeling that perhaps does not boost intelligence but does cause intense happiness.

Campbell was wrong; there is no Mozart effect, but well beyond his claims and the scientific findings, those in the know recognize an effect that cannot be explained or described in words.