Remember the Mozart effect? Thanks to a suggestion in 1993 that listening to Mozart makes you cleverer, there has been a flood of compilation CDs filled with classical tunes that will allegedly boost your baby's brain power. Yet there's no evidence for this claim, and indeed the original 'Mozart effect' paper1 did not make it. It reported a slight, short-term performance enhancement in some spatial tasks when preceded by listening to Mozart as opposed to sitting in silence. Some follow-up studies replicated the effect, others did not. None found it specific to Mozart; one study showed that pop music could have the same effect on schoolchildren2. It seems this curious but marginal effect stems from the cognitive benefits of any enjoyable auditory stimulus, which need not even be musical.
The original claim doubtless had such inordinate impact because it plays to a long-standing suspicion that music makes you smarter. And as neuroscientists Nina Kraus and Bharath Chandrasekaran of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, point out in a review published today in Nature Reviews Neuroscience3, there is good evidence that music training reshapes the brain in ways that convey broader cognitive benefits. It can, they say, lead to “changes throughout the auditory system that prime musicians for listening challenges beyond music processing”.