Those who hope to seem smarter by listening to Mozart may be on to something. At least temporarily.
Researchers at the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at UC Irvine have determined that 10 minutes of listening to a Mozart piano sonata raised the measurable IQ of college students by up to 9 points.
The effect on the intelligence of the students in the study, however, barely lasted longer than the echo of the piano chords. The IQ boost dissipated within 15 minutes, the team reported today in the journal Nature.
The researchers suggested that classical music may enhance abstract reasoning, such as that involved in mathematics or chess, by reinforcing certain complex patterns of neural activity. They suspect that the complexity of the music itself is the key. Simpler, repetitive rhythms of grunge rock or minimalist New Age jazz may actually interfere with abstract reasoning.
Moreover, making music, rather than simply listening to it, may have a more permanent impact on intelligence, they said.
“Everybody is intrigued by this study because it fits everyone’s intuition about music and mathematics,” said Frances H. Rauscher, a research fellow at the UC Irvine center involved in the study.
“We think that really repetitive music will have a very negative effect,” Rauscher said. “It would sort of burn out those (neural) patterns instead of enhancing them or exercising them.”
Efforts to increase intelligence are as controversial as the IQ tests themselves. Breast-feeding and increased income have been shown to raise IQ scores, while the disruption of summer vacations has been shown to lower scores. But none of those studies are conclusive.
“It is remarkable, if it is true,” said Nicholas Christenfeld, a social psychologist at UC San Diego whose research focuses on emotion and mental effort. “The finding is surprising. . . . The whole point of an IQ is that it is supposed to be unchanging from conception to death.”
However provocative the new music study seems, other psychologists warned, it is still inconclusive and, the researchers themselves acknowledged sheepishly, open to misinterpretation or abuse by overanxious parents and educational hucksters. “You can never control what the marketers will do. It is a very scary thought,” Rauscher said.
The research grows out of theoretical neurobiology and ideas about how different parts of the brain may communicate with each other.
“There is a common language the different parts of the brain use to communicate,” said Gordon Shaw, a physics professor at UC Irvine who studies the structure of the brain’s cortex and who was involved in the project. “There are certain neurological firing patterns that occur when people are doing high levels of abstract reasoning. We take those as describing the internal language of the brain.
“The music presumably excites these same very structured patterns,” he said.
In the study, described in a letter to Nature, 36 college students were given standard IQ tests after listening to Mozart, a recorded relaxation tape or meditating in silence for 10 minutes. Each student was tested after each listening exercise.
Every student’s test score was higher after he or she listened to the classical passage from Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, the researchers reported.
“The music is priming these other regions of the brain that may be involved with other tasks,” Shaw said. “It is not that the Mozart will make you permanently smarter; it may be a warm-up exercise for parts of the brain.”
The team hopes to determine whether early music training permanently increases IQ. Their work is funded by the National Assn. of Music Merchants and the Yamaha Corp. of America--which donated keyboards for the experiments--as well as the university’s Ralph and Leona Gerard Foundation.
To gauge the long-term effects of music on the brain, Shaw and Rauscher are studying 75 3-year-old children, teaching them songs and keyboard playing.
“We are looking to see if music training might induce some permanent enhancements,” Shaw said.