The myth of the “Mozart Effect” holds that having children listen to the music of the eighteenth-century Classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart increases their intelligence. While initially assumed to impact infants in early developmental stages, the myth was later expanded to include babies in utero. It was widely believed that exposing young children to the music of Mozart specifically could permanently increase their IQ scores and give them a head start on learning when they reached school age. The Mozart Effect was highly influential in the 1990s and early 2000s, and beliefs regarding a it’s positive effects grew to encompass a wide range of ages and activities despite little or no scientific evidence to support it.
There are two principal reasons for why this myth caught on and became so widely believed, even as evidence disproving it began to emerge. The first involves parents, who, wanting their children to succeed and have every advantage in a competitive world, jumped on the idea of the Mozart Effect. If simply playing specific music could have a positive impact on their child’s mental development, what parent would not want to take advantage of this? Those that did not, the thinking went, would raise children who would not be able to compete intellectually with their peers in school. With parents on board, then came the producers and marketers of toys and other products for children – and, eventually, adults too. This is a huge industry and the ability to capitalize on popular trends is essential to remaining competitive. Playing on the hopes and fears of parents, marketers and then the media more widely created a vicious cycle perpetuating the myth and shrugging off those who challenged it.
The Mozart Effect myth emerged from a single scientific paper that found college students who listened to Mozart before engaging in specific spatial reasoning tasks performed better than control groups and displayed a slightly increased IQ. The paper made no claims about children, about the lasting effects of this improvement, or about its generalizability to other types of tasks. Nonetheless, the catchy phrase “Mozart effect” was developed and, as other commentators advocated for its use in children’s learning, the popular press picked up on and ran with the story. Not only was the limited applicability of the original study ignored, but the fact that it only implied correlation, not causation, was breezed over. Further studies quickly concluded that the Mozart Effect consisted of a trivial impact on IQ, was limited to certain types of tasks, and was of trivial duration, completely lacking the long-term developmental benefits that parents were hoping for. Not only that, but it was found that the music of Mozart itself was irrelevant to the phenomena, and that it was instead the state of increased emotional arousal that resulted in the trivial gains. The arousal could be achieved through the use of other composer’s music or any number of alternative methods.
One can still find products touting the Mozart Effect or similar benefits from having children engage with (usually classical) music. Popular myths are quite resilient and resistant to disproval through scientific methods. Many parents continue to look for any product or program that will give their children an edge in life and will give them a shot despite their being no evidence for their effectiveness.
I think myths like the Mozart Effect emerge through the desire to find easy solutions or shortcuts. This is a very American phenomenon and similar to get-rich-quick schemes and other scams. Unfortunately, this creates a culture in which people often diverge from the well-proven but more difficult path to take the supposed easy way in or out. A great deal of money was spent and made on products taking advantage of the Mozart Effect and this has only increased the toy industry’s tendency towards taking advantage of fads rather than legitimate research on child development. Babies are programmed to learn, and to do so in specific ways; exposing them to faddish trends may not only fail to help them, but actively stunt their learning if they are missing out on the appropriate stimulation they need for their age. On a more general level, across age groups: learning is hard work and there are no real shortcuts.