Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Music and the Brain- A TEDx Talk by Dr. Jessica Grahn



Dr. Jessica Grahn, a cognitive neuroscientist from the University of Western Ontario, discusses the background of the “Mozart Effect”, which posits that listening to Mozart will make you smarter.

Many products surfaced after the suggestion of the Mozart Effect, claiming to make us smarter. Bach for the Brain, Mozart for the Mind, The Mozart Effect for Moms and Moms-to-be, and Mozart for Accelerated Learning are all examples of products that claim to stimulate bonding, communication and learning before birth; invigorate brain growth and development in the womb; and positively affect emotional perceptions and attitudes from pre-birth onward. The excitement surrounding the notion of the “Mozart Effect” reached a climax when Democratic Governor Georgia Zell Miller put forth a bill that would provide classical CDs to every baby born in the state of Georgia. The media claimed that this was all “backed with science”. 

But as Dr. Grahn explains in her talk, the origin of the Mozart Effect comes down to one study conducted by Frances Rauscher out of the Univeristy of Wisconsin in 1993. In this study, researchers Rauscher, Shaw and Ky wanted to find out if listening to the music of Mozart affected cognitive abilities outside of music.  Students were tested on spatial intelligence (the ability to visualize objects in space) in three different conditions (Mozart music, relaxation instructions and silence). This means that before the test on spatial intelligence, the first group listened to music by Mozart for 10 minutes, the second was instructed on how to relax and the third just sat in silence.  The results of the test showed that the Mozart group scored the highest, which led the media to conclude “Mozart makes you smarter”.

Many questions were raised from this study.  Specifically, what is special about Mozart? Could other kinds of music produce the same results? Could there be some other reason that the Mozart group does better on spatial tests?  Other researchers attempted to replicate results to try to solve this dilemma. One study compared children’s performance on spatial intelligence tests after listening to Mozart versus a popular children’s song.  Results of this study suggested that performance has more to do with enjoyment than the music itself.  Another study compared scores of students who listened to Mozart to those who listened to a Stephen King novel. Results showed that those who preferred the audio book over Mozart performed better after hearing the Stephen King audiobook, and those who preferred Mozart more than the audiobook, did better after hearing Mozart.  This further supported the notion that spatial ability had nothing to do with Mozart or music at all, but instead had to do with enjoyment, and the mood music put them in before the test.  Dr. Grahn explains that mood and emotional state has been found to affect cognitive abilities, such as spatial intelligence. This means that if one is in a positive mood, such as after hearing preferred music, then one is likely to do well on a test of spatial intelligence.

These studies demonstrate that music does not have special cognitive enhancing functions.  However, by changing our mood and emotional state it can produce powerful effects on our body and mind, which in turn can help our performance on tests.


Dr. Grahn’s presentation was very to the point and had a clear message. Listening to music does not simply make us smarter over night, but it does affect our mood and if we are in a good mood we tend to do better in our daily activities. As a musician and future music educator myself, I was hoping by the end of the presentation that I could confidently say that listening to music alone can enhance the cognitive power of our brains. Who wouldn’t want to be able to say that? To hear that it does not, I admit, disheartened me just a little bit. It always seems like music educators need to justify why music is important, and often those who do not think music is important demand scientific proof stating otherwise.

Rauscher’s 1993 study, which led to the “Mozart Effect”, all of a sudden gave us another reason to claim that music makes you smarter.  Although other research has led us to believe that listening to music alone cannot make us smarter, we can hold on to the fact music listening does have a powerful impact on our emotional state, which in turn has a powerful effect on our cognitive abilities. The fact that music listening can affect us in a universal way unlike anything else is important to understand for music educators and musicians.  At some point in our lives, we will all be in a position where we will have to defend this profession to others and having this research on our side I believe will help.

What I find interesting to note is that if just listening to music can affect our spatial intelligence and one’s ability on tests, then what could music training do?  This question requires more research then what was presented here by Dr. Grahn, but it is important information nonetheless, which could be very valuable to not only professional musicians but for teachers trying to convince students to take/stay in band.  In my opinion based from my experiences, I don’t think music training necessarily made me smarter but it has certainly developed certain qualities in myself such as my work ethic, my attention to detail, my presentation skills and my knowledge and appreciation for aesthetics, among others.  I would be very interested to see what research was done in this area and how it could affect my career moving forward.

Music can do a lot of things and I believe it holds a significant place in education and in health care.  As Grahn said in her presentation, it is used extensively in the rehabilitation process of dementia, Parkinson’s, stroke and is also a powerful tool for altering our mood and arousal which can only help motivate us to work.  This is all great information, and it proves that music has an important place in this world.  I am excited at what I learned about the effects of music listening, and I hope to continue this research to learn about music training and the effects that it can have on our minds.

Works Cited

Rauscher, F., Shaw, G. & Ky, K. (1993) Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 400(6747), 827-828.

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