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Timeline: The Mozart Effect And The Intrinsic Value Of Art

U.S. Public Domain - collage by James Stewart
The Mozart Effect suggests that listening to Mozart's music could increase the cognitive ability of developing brains.

When my kids were infants I remember being told to be sure and play music for them during the day, at naptime and while they were asleep. The music had to be Mozart. Mozart was the key to making them smarter. Maybe you’ve heard of this before, the so-called “Mozart Effect.”


This idea was championed by Don Campbell in the 1997 book The Mozart Effect: Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the Mind, and Unlock the Creative Spirit. This book suggested that listening to Mozart’s music could actually increase the cognitive ability, spatial reasoning and IQ in developing brains. It caught on, sparking commercial recordings, product branding and even the governor of Georgia proposing a budget that would have given every newborn child a CD of classical music.

Is there such a thing as the Mozart Effect? Mostly no, since the late 90s there have been various studies exploring how listening to music influences developing brains. The results were rather contradictory. It turns out any music of any genre or even a story that engaged the child gave them a short-term boost in their cognitive and motor functions. The “Mozart Effect” was ranked as number six in Emory University psychologist Scott Lilienfeld’s book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology.

Let me make it clear, I’m a huge fan of introducing Mozart to kids. However, what bothers me about ideas like the “Mozart Effect” is how it seems to be justifying music’s existence based on how it effects other disciplines. It’s as if art needs to have another reason to exist.

As students we are told that listening to music will help us do better in math and science. “It worked for Einstein, so why wouldn’t it work for you.” Every time a school budget seeks to cut arts education these arguments reappear. “Music, or art, helps improve test scores.” Whether they do or not is debatable according to the latest research, and honestly it’s not the point. Art’s existence doesn’t need to be justified. Art has value on its own.

Art is an expression of our humanity and creativity. Its value comes from itself, for its own sake, not for the sake of something else.

Art has intrinsic value just has each life has intrinsic value. To quote George Mallory, we climb Mount Everest, we explore the heavens, we make music and we participate in art “because it’s there.” We need no other reason.

This brings me back to the “Mozart Effect.” No, passively listening to Mozart’s Eine Kliene Nachtmusik won’t improve your child’s test scores or give their IQ a boost. But, on the other hand, disciplined study and practice of music making, singing, playing or composing over the course of years could benefit their life, health and mind in countless ways. The true benefit of that work and effort isn’t found in how it affects scores in reading, writing and arithmetic, the benefit is the music itself.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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