Why You Love Music: From Mozart to Metallica-The Emotional Power of Beautiful Sounds - John Powell (2016)
Chapter 6. Does Music Make You More Intelligent?
The Mozart effect
In 1993 a team of psychologists led by Frances Rauscher published a paper called “Music and Spatial Task Performance” in the highly prestigious scientific journal Nature.1 The research they carried out was designed to find out how well students performed in a particular intelligence test after spending ten minutes doing one of three things: some of the students spent the time listening to relaxation instructions, some just sat around in silence, and the final group listened to ten minutes of Mozart’s piano music. Then they all took the same test.
The results showed that the group who listened to Mozart performed better than the ones who listened to relaxation instructions or did nothing. The enhancement in performance was the equivalent of adding eight or nine points to their IQ—a useful improvement.
The test involved looking at some drawings of a piece of paper being folded and cut and then predicting what the paper would look like if it was unfolded. Here’s the sort of thing they were tested on: Can you see which of shapes A-E you’d get if you folded and cut the paper as shown below? (You’ll find the answer at the end of the chapter.)
The problem is what happened next.
If Dr. Rauscher and her team had published their results in an obscure psychology journal, her colleagues in the field would have read it, added it to the pile of stuff we know about how brains work, and carried on diligently adding to the pile. But Nature is big league. It’s where a lot of the really interesting, world-changing science is published, which means that a lot of newspapers employ an intellectual (or at least someone who wears glasses) to read it from cover to cover every month, looking for stories about cancer cures and trousers that never need ironing and so on.
After the Rauscher results were recycled by these bespectacled newshounds, the media were full of stories about classical music increasing your IQ. The Mozart effect was born. Rauscher never said that listening to Mozart increased general IQ and has explained this to the short-sighted members of the press several times, to no avail. She was only talking about specific skills, having to do with how we visualize the outcomes of certain actions.
Of course, no one listened. The idea that classical music made you brainier was far too sexy to be quashed by facts.
Before long all sorts of people were jumping on the bandwagon. The UK radio station Classic FM brought out a best-selling CD called Music for Babies. Back in the States, New Hampshire was handing out classical music CDs to new mothers, Florida passed a bill insisting that state-funded day care centers should play classical music, and Texas prisons played symphonies to inmates,2 which undoubtedly led to a lot of stabbings in the showers as criminal overlords fell out about the respective merits of Rachmaninoff and Sibelius. By the end of the 1990s, surveys carried out by psychologists Adrian North and David Hargreaves in California and Arizona found that four out of five people were familiar with the Mozart effect. Amadeus would have been delighted.
Since then a lot of psychologists have looked into the possibility of there being a relationship between IQ and listening to Mozart. In 2010 a review of thirty-nine investigations into the subject (involving more than three thousand participants) finally confirmed that there actually is a Mozart effect—but it has nothing to do with Mozart.3
Psychologist E. Glenn Schellenberg and his colleagues from the University of Toronto have done a lot of work in this area and, in one of their experiments, decided to swap Mozart’s music for an audio recording of a Stephen King novel. This might seem like a strange exchange, but Professor Schellenberg and his team were working on the idea that maybe the music itself wasn’t important. Maybe just listening to anything enjoyable before doing an intellectual test put you in a good mood and made you perform better. The people they were testing were university students who, I think we can all agree, are just as likely to enjoy a Stephen King story as a two-hundred-year-old piece of piano music. Lo and behold, the students reliably did better on the same “what will this cut paper look like when I unfold it?” test if they listened to either the music or the story beforehand rather than sitting in silence. After the test the students were asked if they preferred the story or the music. Those who preferred the story got their best score after the story and, similarly, the music brought out the best scores in the music lovers.4
So now we don’t have to try and work out how Mozart’s music manages to magically reweave your brain patterns to make them more effective. The “Mozart effect” is just an example of something that is quite well known—that being in a positive frame of mind improves your intellectual performance.5
This “positive frame of mind” is a combination of being in a good mood and being moderately aroused. “Aroused” in this context means the opposite of bored. If you are under-aroused (bored or sleepy), your brain isn’t ready to do much work, and you will score badly if someone suddenly hands you an IQ test. On the other hand, you can be over-aroused—in an excitable or panicky state—which will also make you perform badly. You will achieve your highest score if you start the test in a moderately aroused state, which is how you’ll find yourself after listening to a story or a piece of music. On top of this, the more you enjoyed the story or music, the better your mood will be—and a good mood can also improve your score. When you are in a good mood, your dopamine levels rise, and this is thought to improve the flexibility of your thinking processes, enhancing your ability to solve problems and make decisions.6
Pursuing this idea, the Toronto team started trying all sorts of music before the test to see what would happen, and pretty soon they had discovered the Schubert effect, which was, unsurprisingly, exactly the same as the Mozart effect. Other composers also worked well, but the team forecast that there wouldn’t be an Albinoni effect. Tomaso Albinoni is one of music’s one-hit wonders. You’ve probably heard of his Adagio,* but this piece is so miserable and slow that it’s unlikely to raise your arousal level, or put you in a good mood. Sure enough, when this music was used before the fold/cut test, no Albinoni effect emerged.7
The Mozart piece used in the original test was in a major key and was moderately fast in tempo, giving it a chirpy, happy feel. The Toronto team tried playing this piece to their participants at a slower speed and also had an altered version of it made in which it was transposed into a minor key (since, as we’ve learned, minor keys tend to evoke sadder emotions). Using these different versions, they confirmed that the faster music was more effective at arousing people and major key music produced better moods—so faster, major key music led to optimum performance on the test.
By this time the team had run out of test victims in Toronto and decided to invade the UK, where they roped in the BBC to help them test nearly eight thousand schoolchildren at the same time. In each of about two hundred schools, the ten-and eleven-year-olds were divided into three groups and herded off into three rooms, each of which contained a radio. One group listened to the pop band Blur on BBC Radio 1, a second group listened to Mozart on BBC Radio 3, and the third group listened to psychologist Susan Hallam discussing the experiment they were taking part in. After this listening exercise the kids performed a couple of tests on their spatial abilities. As we might expect from the good mood/arousal theory, the children performed best after the listening event that had stimulated them most and that they enjoyed most—so now we have the Blur effect.8
The upshot of all this is that it doesn’t matter what you listen to—Mozart, Blur, or Stephen King stories—before you head into your next mentally challenging activity. Listening to anything mildly stimulating that you enjoy will temporarily improve your brain’s performance.
These tests were all looking at what happens when both your arousal level and your mood are improved by listening to something. But although they often rise or fall together, your arousal level and your mood are not always linked. You can be happy and sleepy or happy and excited. Your mood is linked to how much dopamine you have sloshing around in your brain at any given moment, and your arousal is linked to an entirely different chemical called norepinephrine.
In order to separate out the effects of music, mood, and arousal level on mental performance, psychologists Gabriela Ilie and William Forde Thompson carried out an experiment on several groups of people in 2011. They asked subjects to complete mental tasks and creativity tests after listening to seven minutes of recorded classical piano music. Some of the listeners heard the music played loud, fast, and high on the piano keyboard; some heard it quiet, slow, and low-pitched; and other groups heard different combinations of the loudness, speed, and pitch height. The tempo of the music had the biggest effect on arousal (the faster music was the most arousing), and the pitch was more important as far as mood was concerned (the higher-pitched recording made people happiest). So the music produced groups with differing levels of mood enhancement and arousal.
The creativity tests the listeners had to do are known as Dunker’s candle problem and Maier’s two-string problem. For the candle problem, you are given a box of thumbtacks, a book of matches, and, of course, a candle. The task is to use what you’ve been given to attach the candle to the wall in such a way that it will burn without dripping wax on the floor.
(If you’re in the mood you might want to try to work out a solution before you read the next line…)
A typical creative solution to the problem is to throw away most of the tacks, use two of them to pin the box to the wall and then rest the candle on the box.
Maier’s two-string problem is a lot more irritating, especially if you’re not feeling particularly creative that day. You are presented with two lengths of string hanging from the ceiling and asked to tie the two dangling ends together. The irritating bit is that if you hold onto one dangling end you can’t reach the other one. The only equipment you are given to help you complete the task is a pair of scissors and a chair.
(Once again you might want to think about how you’d solve this before you read on…)
I’m sure there are some people out there who’ve thought of some way of using the chair, but you don’t need it. Just tie the scissors to the end of one of the strings and start them swinging. Then, holding onto the end of the other string, you grab the scissors as they swing toward you. Once you have hold of both strings it’s easy to tie them together.
The final test the listeners were asked to complete was designed to require very little creativity. Instead it demanded high speed in doing a simple mental task. On a computer screen filled with 408 geometric characters, the listeners were asked to find and click on a particular type of character that appeared on the page fifty-eight times.
And the results? Well, if the music had resulted in high arousal without much mood enhancement, then the people involved tended to do very well at the high-speed simple task and not so well on the candle and string problems. By contrast, those who had experienced high levels of mood enhancement without much stimulation tended to do better at the creativity tasks but were slower at the simple character identification test. So the two conclusions of this experiment are: (1) improvements in mood help you think more creatively, and (2) increased stimulation makes you faster at easy thinking tasks.9 As I said earlier, your mood and stimulation level often rise together when you’re listening to music, giving you both benefits at once.
So far we’ve looked at the results of listening to music before you carry out a mental task. But what about background music playing while you are doing something that requires thought and focus—like studying, or filling in a tax return?
Does background music help you think?
Because it’s of interest to nearly everyone, from students to call center managers, hordes of psychologists have looked into whether or not background music is a help or a hindrance when you are trying to carry out an intellectual task. They’ve looked at our performance in reading comprehension, our memory of what we’ve just read, and our ability to do math. So far the result of all this research is a resounding “It depends.”
As we saw in the previous section, music, particularly music you like, will put you in a good mood—and good moods improve your thinking. On the other hand, you have only a limited amount of brain power, and some of it will be busy processing the music, leaving you with less to channel into the work. This processing of the background music is, of course, obligatory, because you can’t close your ears.
Whether background music is useful or intrusive depends, among other things, on what you are trying to do and where you are trying to do it. For example, it has been shown that surgeons learning how to carry out a new operation find the task more difficult if background music is playing.10 By contrast, students trying to read news items off a pocket computer in a noisy university cafeteria found that music helped them read faster and remember more of what they read.11 In the case of the surgeons, the alternative to the music was a generally calm, quiet environment—so the music was a distraction that used up some of their thinking capacity. For the students, the music (fast-tempo classical) was a welcome relief from the noise of clattering dishes and the voices of friends moaning about exam results and/or passing judgment on so-and-so’s new haircut. The music masked these noises and so reduced distraction.
If you are in an otherwise quiet environment, the distraction level of the background music will be highest for loud, busy (fast, jumpy) music. Loud music is more insistent that your brain deal with it, and the busier the music is, the more brain power is required to process it. There is also experimental evidence that music with vocals is more distracting than instrumental music—a phenomenon I have often noticed when trying to get some work done.
So if you are going to have music playing while you try to untangle your tax situation or help your daughter with her science homework, make it calm, quiet instrumental stuff. This should bring you the twin benefits of improving your mood and masking background noise (the neighbor’s vacuum cleaner, the sobbing of your daughter) without overly distracting you.
Does learning a musical instrument make you more intelligent?
There is a lot of evidence that musically trained children perform better intellectually and academically than their friends who haven’t been musically trained. But it has also been shown that kids with higher intelligence levels are more likely to take music lessons.
So is musical proficiency a cause or merely a symptom of higher intelligence?
When it comes to human behavior, cause-and-effect questions are tricky. You’d think, for example, that happiness caused you to smile rather than the other way around. But it’s not that simple. Smiling and happiness are intertwined; they feed off each other. Just the mechanical act of smiling actually makes you more cheerful. This sounds like mumbo jumbo, but all you need to prove this point is a bunch of people and some pencils. You ask half of the people to put the pencil between their lips sideways and bite gently down on it—the way a horse holds a bit in its mouth. The other group put the end of the pencil in their mouth and purse their lips around it so the sharp end is pointing forward. Your subjects won’t realize it, but you have forced one group to smile and the other group to frown. Tests have shown that if you then give these groups something amusing to look at, like Gary Larson cartoons, the “forced smilers” will find the jokes funnier than the “forced frowners.”12 So your mum’s advice to “put a smile on your face—it’ll make you feel happier” is actually true.
As you can imagine, if the causes and effects of something as apparently simple as smiling are this entangled, finding out if musical proficiency is a symptom or a cause of higher intelligence in kids is an incredibly difficult task.
Let’s look at the facts that various teams of psychologists have unearthed in the past couple of decades.
Musically trained people are better listeners. They are generally better at detecting, for example, subtle changes in pitch in the final word of a sentence. This ability makes some, but not all, musically trained adults and children slightly better at identifying nuances of emotion being expressed by other people.13
Musically trained people have a better memory for things they have heard—whether the subject matter is music or words.
Musically trained young children perform better on tests of language ability; for example, they add words to their vocabulary more rapidly.14
Musically trained people have better visuospatial skills—the skills that allow you to recognize shapes and distances and make sense of what you see around you. Musicians, for example, have an easier time than non-musicians seeing shapes hidden in complicated line drawings and perform better on “what’s the difference between these two pictures?” tests.15 One odd outcome of the improvement in visuospatial skills is that musicians divide a horizontal line in two differently from non-musicians. When asked to identify the midpoint of a horizontal line, non-musicians tend to put their mark to the left of center. Musicians tend to put their mark nearer the center point—but slightly off to the right.
Many people believe that there is a link between music skills and mathematical ability. Psychologists have looked into this, but the results suggest that the connection between the two is either tiny or nonexistent. Some researchers have shown a small positive link between music training and mathematical skill, but a study of more than seven thousand fifteen-and sixteen-year-olds carried out in 2009 showed no relation between the two.16
Another study looked at a possible music-math relationship from the other direction, by trying to find out if having a high level of mathematical skill had any correlation with musical ability. Adult members of the American Mathematical Association were compared with members of the Modern Languages Association, and both groups were found to be equally musical.17 So I’m afraid that the widespread idea that musical ability is often accompanied by math skills is just a myth.
The fact that musical training is linked to better listening skills, language skills, and visuospatial skills is an indication of improved brain function, but does this mean it can improve your general intelligence, as measured by your IQ?
Testing in this area shows that the IQs of children undergoing musical training are generally higher than those of other children by between ten and fifteen points. It would be tempting to attribute this to the fact that the brighter kids are the ones who tend to have musical training. Professor Glenn Schellenberg, however, has carried out an experiment which suggests that music training really does cause a slight increase in IQ.18 He divided 144 six-year-olds into three groups. One group were given a year of music lessons (on top of their normal school lessons), the second group were given drama lessons, and the third group were given no extra lessons. The children completed IQ tests at the beginning and end of the year—and music lessons clearly raised the IQ of the music group by about three points compared to the others. So the effect is small, but there’s evidence that it does exist. (One interesting side issue is that although the drama students didn’t experience an improvement in IQ compared to the kids who did no extra lessons, their social skills were the best of all the groups by the end of the year.)
So, like the connection between cheerfulness and smiling, it seems that the link between IQ and music lessons goes both ways. Brighter kids are more likely to have music lessons, and having music lessons tends to make you brighter.
The answer to the fold/cut/unfold problem at the begining of this chapter is B.