For decades, headlines have claimed that Mozart’s music has all kinds of amazing effects on people’s behaviour and performance. But once you look closer at the different studies behind those headlines, the truth is often much simpler. Out of all possible music to look at, researchers often choose Mozart’s music when they just needed a sample of any type of music.
Much of the hype around Mozart’s effect on the brain started in 1993, with a single page letter in Nature called “Music and spatial task performance”. This paper reported the results of a study in which 36 college students performed spatial reasoning tasks after either listening to music, listening to a relaxation tape, or not listening to anything at all. The students who listened to music performed better.
It’s an interesting study, but it took on a life of its own once it hit the news. The music the students listened to was a 10-minute fragment of Mozart’s sonata for two pianos in D major, K488, and when this small study was reported in the media, the fact that they listened to Mozart was often part of the headlines. It quickly grew out of control and spiralled into the myth that Mozart supposedly makes you smarter, also known as the “Mozart effect”.
Remember, this all came from a very small study involving 36 college students. After they listened to music they did a bit better on their spatial reasoning tests, and the music they listened to just happened to be one particular piece of Mozart music. That’s what set off the entire Mozart effect myth. Of course, the researchers themselves never claimed that there was anything special about Mozart. They just needed some music for their study, and they picked a well-known piece of music by a well-known composer.
Since then, there have been many other experiments that showed that listening to music can make it easier to carry out certain tasks or affect how people act. Very often, these studies use Mozart’s music. Not because there’s anything special about Mozart, but because it’s easy to come by, in the public domain, well-known — and often also because other people before them also used Mozart in their studies.
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For example, recently a group of researchers studied how music affects the way your body sways while in a virtual reality environment. They found that the loudness of the music doesn’t really change how you move when using a VR headset, but to study this, they needed some music. They chose a sample of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony, because that was the same piece of music that was used in a previous study in 2010, where it appeared to help people stabilize better. By picking the same piece of music, the newer study was trying to make sure they were using music that could affect stability and swaying. They only used Mozart because others had done so before them.
In that earlier study, researchers used four music samples to see how music affects balance. The sound that happened to be best at stabilizing a group of twelve volunteers was a 51-second fragment of Mozart’s Jupiter. If you tried the exact same experiment with completely different pieces of music, you’d also find one that does better than others at stabilizing people. It doesn’t have to be Mozart. Besides, Mozart’s Jupiter symphony is half an hour long with different movements and each orchestra that plays it will make it sound slightly different. Listening to less than a minute of it doesn’t mean much without knowing which part of the piece it was, how fast it was played, which instruments played the theme, and any other relevant information about why that piece might have done the trick.
There is a lot of really interesting research being done about how different types of music affect people, but they usually look at specific factors that determine how your brain processes the sound. For example, whether the piece of music is sung or instrumental could have an effect, or what the tempo of the music is. But whether something is Mozart or not does not have much meaning on its own.
So any time you see a headline claiming that listening to Mozart’s music has an unexpected amazing effect, remember that the same is probably true for many other types of music. Listening to any music will have an effect on your brain. It doesn’t have to be Mozart – he’s not that special, just easy to find for scientists who need some music for their research.