From Mozart to Liszt, some of the greatest and most influential composers of all time began their musical pursuits from a precociously young age. Not everyone displays such extraordinary talent so early in life, but could classical music actually help with children’s education and improve their cognitive abilities? That’s the argument made by a popular theory known as the ‘Mozart Effect’.

Here, we explore the truth behind the Mozart Effect, and ask whether it could provide music teachers with a new method for engaging their students.

What is the Mozart Effect?

The Mozart Effect is usually understood as the idea that listening to classical music can make children more intelligent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is an oversimplification of the concept as it was originally conceived.

Back in 1993, the scientific journal Nature published the results of a study that compared the performance of two groups of teenagers in a series of reasoning tests and mental tasks – one group listened to Mozart’s 1781 Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major while preparing for the test, another group listened to non-classical music and another listened to nothing at all prior to the test. The researchers observed that the teenagers who had listened to Mozart performed better in certain spatial tests, although the improvements in performance soon wore off.

Despite the rather modest, cautious conclusion reached by the researchers, the idea only increased in popularity in the ensuing years. Along the way it was freely adapted, misquoted and misinterpreted. Its influence even extended into the political sphere: in 1998, Zell Miller, the governor of the US state of Georgia, unsuccessfully proposed a scheme by which every new-born baby would be provided with a CD of classical music.

However, sceptics of the Mozart Effect have pointed to similar studies that suggest any form of music with which the listener is already familiar can cause a temporary boost in cognitive function. This is, after all, the field of thought behind music therapy, whereby the therapist encourages patients to communicate and express themselves via music, rather than through language. It would, however, be quite a stretch that music could actually make people more intelligent.

What Does this Mean for Music Teachers?

While the cognitive boost caused by music may not be limited to classical, it can certainly be employed to a music teacher’s advantage. Simply listening to classical music may not turn students into overnight symphonic virtuosos or make them instant experts when it comes to mastering music scoring software, but a sensory approach to music lessons, one that immerses them in classical music from the very beginning, can help to build up their familiarity and connection with the music. After all, teachers have a limited time in which to educate and inspire their students – why not use the sensory elements of classical music to fully engage them?

When it comes to teaching music in the classroom, helping students to understand the theoretical framework or become adept with composing software are all important factors, but an approach that makes room for the sensory aspects of music will always be preferable to an overly dry or technical one.

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