Skip to main content

Try out Artist Pages for FREE now! 💅

Get it here
iMusician logo
All blog posts

Debunking Myths: Does Classical Music Make You Smarter?

Share this article on
Does classical music make you smarter? - header

According to some, listening to classical music makes you smarter. But is this assumption, commonly known as the Mozart effect, valid? And where does it originate from? This article tells the story of a researcher and their team whose findings were distorted by the media, leading to much misinformation and dire consequences.

The Mozart effect: why people (still) believe classical music makes you smarter

In 1993, professor and psychologist Frances H. Rauscher and colleagues published an article titled "Music and spatial task performance." The publication presents evidence that listening to Mozart's work for 10 minutes can improve visual-spatial reasoning skills. Its main finding was that "one specific composition of Mozart enhanced adult spatial test performance for up to about 15 min."

Not long after, the study sparked an unexpected debate initiated by the media. Suddenly, more and more people began claiming that classical music makes you smarter. Such statements came at a significant disadvantage to Rauscher and colleagues, who had never claimed that Mozart's music could enhance overall intelligence. In fact, IQ was not measured in the first place: In a 2006 article, Rauscher explained that the findings "do not suggest that listening to Mozart's music transfers to spatial task performance or that it changes the physical structure of the brain."

However, back then, the media did not care to report on the study accurately. For example, some outlets began claiming that classical music makes children smarter. Although the original research involved adult college students, parents of small children suddenly became the target group of music marketers, who began convincing them to purchase recordings of Mozart for their kids. To make things even grander, in 1998, Gov. Zell Miller from Georgia proposed a campaign to distribute free classical music CDs to new parents.

Unfortunately, articles and reports containing false information eventually led to dire consequences for Frances Rauscher. In a conversation with NPR, she explained how a TV program misquoted her by claiming she believed rock music had a negative impact on cognition. As a result, people began accusing her of criticizing rock music and even threatened her on the phone over a statement she never made.

Ultimately, further research discovered that improved spatial reasoning may have much to do with whether one enjoys the music they listen to. Or, as Rauscher explained in the interview, "If you hate Mozart, you're not going to find a Mozart Effect. If you love Pearl Jam, you're going to find a Pearl Jam effect."

What made the myth that classical music increases intelligence so appealing?

But how was it possible for the findings of the study to become this distorted? Francis Rauscher believes that much of it reflects the United States’ culture of self-improvement, paired with parental care and the attractiveness of simple solutions. Similarly, musicologist Lina Shaver-Gleason explains that in neoliberal societies, “everything must be seen to serve a purpose to justify the use of resources.” As a result, people often seek to justify their choices, preferences, and actions. This also allows for better marketing: “When everything’s societal value is determined solely by “the market,” then anything that doesn’t sell well must be repackaged,” says Shaver-Gleason.

Another explanation may lie in what people commonly associate classical music with. Classical music is often considered elitist, as money continues to play a role in who can or cannot become part of the industry, one that does not shy away from presenting itself in a serious, sophisticated, suit-and-tie manner. Thus, because affluence and financial success are often associated with intelligence, it is relatively easy to make connections between classical music and being smart.

Moreover, classical music is known for its complexity, creating a broader perception of the genre as one that requires practice, talent, and intelligence. These aspects allow for further generalizations and false assumptions about how smart one has to be to become a classical musician, enjoy the music, or how the genre can impact intelligence.

It is important to keep in mind that such an approach can quickly become problematic, especially when people see themselves and their preferences as superior to others and their choices. As Shaver-Gleason explains, society constantly scrutinizes artistic expressions for their value and impact rather than celebrating various art forms for what they are. In other words, just because one art form is characterized by complexity or depth, it does not make it or its consumers better than others.

So, does classical music make you smarter? The answer is no – that listening to classical music increases one’s IQ is merely a stretch. But what seems to positively contribute to various skills in the long term is learning to play a musical instrument. Similarly, relaxing music, including classical, can help with anxiety or sleep-related issues.

These statements make much more sense, although interpreting findings on its impacts on intelligence should remain the task of scholars. Scientific language is often complicated, which leaves much room for misinterpretation by people outside of a particular field. This may be another reason the Mozart effect became a sizable media sensation. Moreover, it highlights the dangers of arbitrary statements and faulty journalism, which can easily result in fake news and threaten the safety of others.

Ready to get your music out there?

Distribute your music to the widest range of streaming platforms and shops worldwide. 

Get Started
Share Post:
Share this article on
Always stay up-to-date

All You Need.
All in One Place.

Get tips on How to Succeed as an Artist, receive Music Distribution Discounts, and get the latest iMusician news sent straight to your inbox! Everything you need to grow your music career.