Does music make us smarter?

Playing and listening to music makes you smarter: so goes the message oft-peddled to parents. But does picking up the violin or listening to Mozart really make us more intelligent?

The belief that music makes us smarter is no modern philosophy. Originally coined in 1991, the supposed phenomenon of the “Mozart Effect” gained traction after a 1993 study saw an 8-to-9-point increase in college students’ spatial IQ scores after ten minutes of listening to a Mozart sonata compared to silence or relaxation tapes. While the claim caused significant controversy in the scientific community after results were unable to be replicated, the public embraced the idea, with entire commercial enterprises cropping up on the basis that listening to Mozart made you smarter. The 1998 Governor of Georgia, Zell Mill, even proposed setting aside $105,000 to make Mozart’s music available to the state’s infants.

But is putting on some Mozart prior to your final exams or next meeting really a trustworthy path to intellectual success? Well, according to science: probably not.

How does music affect the brain?

Dr Frances Rauscher, who conducted the 1993 experiment, has stressed that the findings extend to only spatial-temporal reasoning, and not to general intelligence, as has been suggested in the media and popular culture.

However, the notion that music is related to brain development is not without merit – various studies have shown that there is a correlation between children who consistently practise music and increased cognitive function in specific neurological areas. A 2011 study carried out by Dr Sylvain Moreno and colleagues found that 90% of children who received musical training over 20 days showed improved verbal intelligence.

Similarly, Rauscher, who conducted the Mozart Effect study, conducted a separate experiment which trained a group of pre-school children aged 3–4 on the keyboard over a 6-month period. The results showed that the musically trained students performed 30% better than untrained students at spatial-temporal reasoning tests for their age group, but there was no improvement in spatial recognition tests. However, these effects were observed only 24 hours after the discontinuation of the keyboard training, as the study was not continued, and thus long-term effects were untested. Rauscher claimed that results in curricular that are greatly dependent on spatial-temporal reasoning, such as science and mathematics, could be enhanced through musical training, despite the limited evidence for sustained levels of elevated spatial-temporal reasoning.

There are two theories regarding the neurological mechanisms underpinning this effect: neural connection theory and rhythm theory. Proposed by Gordon Shaw and researchers at the University of California, neural connection theory is based in the notion that musical and spatial regions of the the brain overlap, and that because of neurological connections in the cortex, their development are linked; if you improve your musical ability, you will also, according to this theory, improve your spatial recognition abilities.

Lawrence Parsons and colleagues proposed rhythm theory, which is based in the notion of “mental rotation”, or being able to rotate two and three dimensional images in the mind. As both mental rotation and rhythm are produced in the cerebellum, a part of the brain which regulates motor movements, they argue that the processing of rhythm could stimulate and even enhance ability to perform mental rotation tasks, which are linked with spatial-temporal reasoning.

However, these are only two theories out of many, theory being the operative word – the reality is that we still don’t know. Results from studies are mixed, and are often limited to short-term and relatively inconsequential performance boosts in spatial-temporal reasoning. What we do know is that like any muscle in your body, your brain can be trained to improve at a particular task; but if you stop training it, all progress will start to deteriorate.

Musical claims fall flat

So are musical endeavours the key to nursing the next generation of little geniuses? The answer is: probably not.

While it can’t hurt to encourage kids to pursue musical hobbies, it won’t drastically raise their grades or general intelligence. There is the possibility that music might improve some aspects of special-temporal reasoning, but limited evidence for long-term changes and uncertainty about the degree to which it is beneficial.

Much is still not understood about the brain. Being as complex and mystifying as it is, the brain still has a few secrets we haven’t managed to uncover – and the effect of music on our intelligence is one of them.


Zoe McDonald, science writer

Last updated:
9 November 2018