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Myth: If children listen to Mozart, they become smarter

Myth: If children listen to Mozart, they become smarter

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

Myth busters

Available online at amazon.com: A Baby Einstein playpen with music by Mozart and Bach, a ‘self-discovery mobile’ to hang above the crib, with classical melodies and Baby 2 Be, a CD especially for unborn children, to listen to from the womb. The idea behind this merchandise is that children become smarter if they listen to classical music.

It all started with an article from 1993, says Michelle Moerel, researcher at the Maastricht Centre for Systems Biology (MaCSBio) and the Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience. “With an IQ test, scientists studied the spatial skills of 36 students – so not children. The test subjects completed the test three times. Beforehand, they listened to Mozart, relaxing music, or nothing. It turned out that when they had just heard classical music, they scored 8-9 IQ points higher in the test. But the researchers themselves said that this is only for a short term. The effect had disappeared after fifteen minutes.” This nuance disappeared in the media coverage. The students became children and instead of people talking about spatial skill, it was suddenly about intelligence in general. “It was picked up everywhere, but completely taken out of context.”

Many attempts were made to replicate the research, with varying results. “Some studies found nothing, others only a minor effect. And if anything came out of it at all, it never lasted longer than half an hour. For that matter, it didn't make any difference whether they listened to classical music or something else. Pearl Jam turned out to work just as well. As long as it is complex music, a simple relaxing melody is not enough.” If you want your children to become smarter, Moerel recommends that you get them to play an instrument. “In that case, at least they are learning something, which is always good for your brain.”

Whether there is a link between intelligence and music, is hard to say. “We don't know enough about it. I myself do fundamental research into how sounds are received by the brain. As soon as a sound enters the ear, it is split up into sound aspects like pitches and volume. These go to different auditory areas in the brain. Then the aspects are analysed and come back together. You can recognise and interpret sound by using sounds from your memory.”

Attention also seems to be important when processing sound. “We see that when people focus on speech, they can also hear that better. When they try to hear a single instrument in an orchestra, they can hear that better. This is the same for everyone. It would be interesting to look at professional musicians or people with perfect hearing. Does something different happen to them?”

Moerel’s research focuses on healthy test subjects. “Sometimes, people ask why I don't look into loss of hearing, but we don't understand yet how a healthy ear works. Finding that out would contribute towards a solution for those who are hard of hearing.”

Michelle Moerel has been nominated for the New Scientist Wetenschapstalent 2017. Together with four other finalists, she will present her research to the audience and a panel of judges, in the Kleine Komedie in Amsterdam on Thursday 22 June. The winner will receive a prize on the same evening from the hands of Noble Prize Winner Ben Feringa.

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