Some time during my childhood, there was buzz about classical music making you smarter. Was it a scheme cooked up by classical music enthusiasts feeling neglected in the modern frenzy? Or disgruntled violin teachers looking to make extra profit? I don’t know who started it, but it is a rumour with endurance. I latched onto this vague idea and dug it up in times of need.
During frantic study sessions, I’d turn the dial to a classical music radio station. Desperate for any bit of brain-boosting potential, I was quick to believe in its rumoured abilities. I didn’t make a formal experiment of this practice, but I am confident saying that it didn’t help. Nor did it hurt. It was nice, wordless music, enough to muffle the sounds of reality.
How did this classical-smart connection start?
Tomatis, a French doctor, first described what is now known as The Mozart Effect. In his book, Pourquoi Mozart? (Why Mozart?) Tomatis theorizes that the lack of sound stimulation during growth can cause abnormal communication development. He used Mozart’s music as an example, but the concept was canonized when Nature published a study in the early 90s. It chronicled the effects of classical music on learning. Rauscher, though the lead researcher of this study, was surprised to see how the study was extrapolated into the quasi-proverb we see today.
One can understand the confusion upon reviewing what the study actually was: paper-maze or paper-folding tasks done by college students. The study found that listening to Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D major, K.448 produced a small increase in performance on the abstract/spatial tasks (compared to silence and listening to relaxation instructions). The researchers stressed the specificity of the study, but the positive impacts were enough to impart generalizable hope to the masses.
So, is this not applicable to everyday life?
There is no need to confine yourself to classical music. Although there are some studies showing a positive impact of classical music, some studies suggest other types of music are better or that the music, not its genre, is enough to stimulate brain activity. Sure, emotional or punchy music may induce more stress, disrupting concentration, but this also depends on personal preferences. You may know someone who can study very well with rock music blaring while another works best in deafening silence. Something that doesn’t distract or disturb you is likely helpful. Even if it doesn’t increase your IQ, music may make you happier and reduce your stress, which can be just as good. Music therapy is regularly explored in the treatment for a variety of conditions, including epilepsy, psychosis and depression.
Listening to one particular kind of music will probably not alter your intelligence. Liking a specific kind of music also doesn’t reveal your intelligence levels, but there might be trends based on what kinds of music are more socially acceptable to different groups. Rather than listening to music because someone says it’s smart or cool, listen to what you like.
Unless it’s stupid and uncool.