Doubt cast on intellectual benefits of 'amorous encounters'

April 14, 2000

Tony Tysome reports on the Mozart effect and how music influences our moods and intelligence.

Music may be the food of love, but the reasons why continue to elude scientists.

A conference at the University of Leicester last week gave psychologists and musicologists a chance to re-examine the emotional, social and academic effect music has on us.

Little progress has been made to date on discovering why and how music makes people feel or behave in certain ways.

The most groundbreaking "discovery" came seven years ago, when researchers claimed to have found that early, regular exposure to music made children brighter.

The so-called "Mozart effect" made children stronger at temporal reasoning skills by developing the part of the brain responsible for abstract mathematics and map reading, they said.

But the most recent work, unveiled at this week's conference, casts doubt on these initial claims.

Studies of three-year-old children in the United States suggest that music instruction rather than passive listening reaps academic benefits.

School-age children who received piano instruction scored higher on spatial-temporal tests than those in control groups, but maintained their advantage only if instruction continued for at least two years before the age of seven.

Frances Rauscher, of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, said: "These studies suggest that music instruction may facilitate the learning of abstract mathematical problems, including ratios and fractions."

But popular claims that listening to classical music made babies smarter were still "unsubstantiated", she added.

The conference also heard how background music could have an impact on creativity.

A study of children aged ten and 11 found that they were more likely to write an "exciting" story while listening to "calming" music, rather than "arousing" music or no music at all.

Other groups of adult learners found it harder to concentrate on logical reasoning tests while the arousing music was playing, even though it was no louder than the calming music.

Alex Lamont, conference coordinator and a member of the music research group in Leicester's psychology department, said a further study might provide an explanation for this.

Edited parts of Mozart's orchestral compositions were found to affect the listener's blood pressure, body temperature, respiration rate and pulse - physiological symptoms often associated with an amorous encounter.

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