Home     Content     Articles      La Scena Musicale     Search   

La Scena Musicale - Vol. 5, No. 2

The Mozart Effect : True or Bogus ?

by Lucie Renaud / October 1, 1999

Version française...

Do you believe in the power of Mozart's music? The media appears to be having a field day with this new controversy, but is it really a matter for debate?

First of all, what is "the Mozart effect"? After reading Don Campbell's book of the same title, it's apparent that, for him, therapeutic results can come not only from Mozart's music, but can be obtained by humming or dancing to an upbeat melody or by listening to a piece of music one finds inspiring.

What kind of music works best is a personal decision; the only warning would be not to use music played too loudly. That said, the human voice is the most potent tool available to alleviate sadness and pain. This notion helps explain why there is such a devoted public for operatic performances. The audience seems to thrive on neither the setting nor the orchestra, but on the opera singers sustaining those gloriously long high notes. The listeners await the climax of each aria: when the singer performs it well, they derive intense pleasure from the liberation of their tensions.

The general public first heard about "the Mozart effect" in 1993 when Dr. Frances Rauscher studied 36 undergraduate psychology students at the University of California in Irvine. After listening to 10 minutes of Mozart's Sonata for 2 pianos in D major K.448, the students scored a full 8 or 9 points higher on IQ tests. The boost was temporary, lasting between 10 and 15 minutes, but nevertheless, Dr. Rauscher and her team established that the increase in IQ scores was a direct effect of some unique aspect of Mozart's music. Of course, the media interpreted the findings by stating "Mozart makes you smarter". The next day, record stores all over the USA were stormed by hopeful buyers who cleaned out all the Mozart CDs from their shelves.

A few months ago, Kenneth Steele and his team of scientists at Appalachian State University tried to duplicate the study (increasing the number of subjects and diversifying the ages), but failed to obtain the same results. This rekindled the public debate about "the Mozart effect." What seems to be forgotten here is that the first study was performed on college students, not on young kids. The research team didn't analyse the brain of the students; they just examined behaviour. Dr. Rauscher, now a professor at University of Wisconsin, tried to dampen the media frenzy. In an interview to the New York Times, she voiced her concern that gross generalisations could hurt the scientists' credibility. "I am all for exposing children to wonderful cultural experiences. But I do think the money would be better spent on music education programs," she said.

Perhaps the debate is shallow. After all, music's virtues won't probably ever be fully comprehended by the scientific community. In the long run, it doesn't matter--we should simply be glad that the studies directed greater attention in our society to music.


As an ear, nose and throat specialist, surgeon, psychologist and inventor, Dr. Tomatis has been studying the ear's significance for the last 50 years. Nicknamed "Dr. Mozart" by his patients, he was the first to mention "the Mozart effect." He devised a unique method to help people with learning disabilities (Tomatis' method is especially useful in treating autism) or behaviour problems.

According to Tomatis, the ear's primary function is to help grow the brain of the unborn child. In spite of all of the other sounds surrounding him (mother's heartbeat, circulation, digestion), the fetus can recognise the maternal voice as early as 4 1/2 months before birth. It is as essential to his growth as food is. The umbilical cord feeds the body while the sound waves nourish the brain. After birth, the ear charges the neo-cortex and therefore ignites the entire nervous system.

Our nervous system can be "charged" or "discharged" by the sounds around us. High frequencies (such as those found frequently in Mozart's violin concertos) energise the brain. The lower ones drain all energy away. To use sound in a positive manner, Dr. Tomatis prescribes sonic therapy instead of medication. In doing so, his goal is to rebuild the inner ear's muscles so that the ear can once again differentiate all the frequencies of surrounding sounds. This retraining of the ear is done through "the electronic ear," Tomatis' own invention. in which modified headphones transmit sound through the bones as well as through air. Tapes of Mozart's music (specially-filtered to amplify the higher frequencies) are used, as well as recordings of the mother's voice (when available) and some Gregorian chants.

Tomatis also discovered that the human voice can reproduce only the frequencies perceived by the ear. He demonstrated that one ear is always dominant in the listening process, and that the analysis of sounds is easier to achieve when the right ear listens first. This finding was of particular interest to singers and musicians. In his autobiography The Conscious Ear, Tomatis recalls how Maria Callas came to him, unable to pursue her singing career because she had become unable to hear properly with her right ear. Tomatis retrained her inner ear and she was able to return the concert circuit with great success.

Today, the Tomatis method is used in over 250 centres worldwide, staffed by specialists in psychology, medicine, education, speech therapy and music.


"The Mozart effect" has become a big marketing operation. Several record producers are trying to renew the interest of the public in their Mozart catalogues by underlining the supposed benefits. I listened to a three-CD compilation endorsed by Don Campbell that promised to "open the minds" of children (young and old). The insert presents only the positive side of the story, of course. The music is supposed to be used as background music while other activities are performed. According to the literature, the effect will vanish after 25 minutes (too bad for those Mozart symphonies which happen to be 28 minutes long!).

I have to say that my musically-trained ear would have resisted ingesting more than the prescribed 25 minutes of some rather strange arrangements of the master's music. Mozart's music, when performed in a non-professional manner, can be as offensive as heavy metal! When presented in their original instrumentation however, the experience was much more pleasant. I must say here that the kids who listened in with me seem to have enjoyed themselves thoroughly. To be savoured sip by sip!

Version française...

(c) La Scena Musicale