One of the most widely disseminated fad ideas in the history of psychology, the Mozart effect is a term for the improvement in brain development that allegedly occurs in children when they are exposed to the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart prior to the age of three. This idea has become so widely accepted that the governors of Tennessee and Georgia have both sponsored programs to provide a free Mozart CD to every newborn baby in their respective states. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (the organization that sponsors the Grammy awards), not to be outdone, has also given away free recordings of classical music to hundreds of hospitals.
Given the expense involved in these acts of philanthropy, and the attendant publicity the idea has received, the average new parent might be forgiven for believing that the Mozart effect is a real, well-documented scientiﬁc phenomenon. As so often happens with widely known psychological ideas, the consumer would be mistaken. The origin of the idea lies in a study conducted in 1993 by Gordon Shaw, a physicist, and Frances Rauscher, a developmental psychologist and former concert cellist. A small sample of college students listened to the ﬁrst ten minutes of Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D major (K.448) and experienced a temporary improvement in spatial-temporal reasoning, as compared to students who listened to nothing or who listened to a relaxation tape. This result has been misreported in many ways, probably most egregiously as the claim that Shaw and Rauscher produced a ﬁfty-one-point improvement in SAT scores. In fact, the task they used involved folding and cutting paper, most certainly not the SAT. Although they agree that their work has been misrepresented, Shaw and Rauscher recognized that their work had spawned an industry, and have joined the ﬂood of entrepreneurs seeking to spread the Mozart effect message. Their Music Intelligence Neural Development Institute (M.I.N.D.) sells software intended to improve children’s spatial-temporal reasoning, for example.
The business enterprises of Shaw and Rauscher are small-time efforts, however, compared with the work of online entrepreneur Don Campbell. Campbell has actually trademarked the phrase “the Mozart Effect” and operates many business enterprises built around it, including Mozarteffect.com, where concerned parents may purchase a wide range of books and CDs, including many multi-volume series. Rather than limit his market to concerned parents with disposable income, however, Campbell also claims that “The Mozart Effect shows how music can be used to improve memory and learning, boost productivity, soothe jangled nerves, strengthen endurance, unlock creative impulses, sound away pain, and heal the body from a host of ailments” (Mozarteffect.com).
The scientiﬁc reliability of Campbell’s ideas may be best assessed by considering his claim that he caused a blood clot in his brain to disappear via a treatment consisting of listening to classical and sacred music, humming, and the use of imagery. Despite the lack of evidence for the Mozart effect (or any of the related phenomena that Campbell writes about), millions of people now believe it to be scientiﬁc fact rather than the myth that it is, and Campbell has become widely known as an “expert” on the effect, with frequent speaking engagements and interview requests in the mainstream media.
- Campbell, R. T. “Mozart Effect.” In The Skeptic’s Dictionary. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2003, pp. 233–235, also see skepdic.com;
- Mozart Effect Resource Center. “Don Campbell’s organization.” www.MozartEffect.com, 2004.