Swiss and American psychologists have shown the common perception that classical music makes small children more intelligent is an urban myth.
Their report in the British Journal of Psychology points out that media articles drove claims that listening to Mozart will help a baby's development.
The so-called "Mozart effect" was announced in the prestigious scientific journal Nature in 1993. Two researchers at the University of California had run tests on students, making them listen to a Mozart sonata for ten minutes to see if it would have an effect on intelligence.
The two scientists said the classical music had enhanced listeners' minds, although nobody since has been able to reproduce their results. Other researchers showed in 1999 there was in fact no justification for the Mozart effect.
But the original Nature article had grabbed people's attention.
Despite the fact that the tests had been run only on university students, it soon became widely accepted that listening to classical music would make teenagers, small children and babies more intelligent.
Failing education systems
Adrian Bangerter, a professor at Neuchâtel University who worked with Chip Heath at Stanford, wanted to understand how this idea became widespread in the United States.
Their findings show that people became interested in the effect in an attempt to quell fears about failing education systems.
"American parents and educators are constantly preoccupied with children's intellectual development, far more than Europeans," Bangerter told swissinfo. "If the school system is bad, people are for example more interested in something like the Mozart effect."
To back up this claim, Bangerter and Heath studied 500 US media reports between 1993 and 2002 to see how classical music became a must for children, and considered in which states the articles were published.
They found a correlation between unsatisfactory education systems and the number of reports published about the effect. Some states even heavily promoted the use of classical music in schools and day care centres, or handed out CDs to parents of babies.
"Laws were passed," said Bangerter. "Since 1998, crèches in Florida have to play half an hour of classical music every day for the children."
The psychologists also found that after 1997 children were mentioned more frequently in articles about the effect than the university students who were actually tested.
"When the original submission to Nature was published, journalists jumped on the story," said Bangerter. "As time went by, articles no longer referred to the research and more and more errors crept progressively into reports that were being published on the effect."
Even though the non-existence of the Mozart effect was widely reported by the media in 1999, this information has not filtered through and the idea of classical music being good for the developing brain is still common.
For Bangerter and Heath this is because commercial interests and some educators are still pushing the concept.
"Marketing specialists made the most of the effect by selling music-related articles aimed at making children more intelligent," added Bangerter. "Teachers began playing classical music during exams."
The Swiss psychologist admits little can be done about this, stating that his study highlights the risk of overstating the results of scientific research.
"To build up a scientific fact takes ten to 20 years and researchers tend to be wary of reading too much into their work," he told swissinfo. "But this is not really compatible with the way people think, because they tend to draw far more imaginative conclusions."
swissinfo, Scott Capper and Pierre-François Besson
Bangerter and Heath's research showed:
Articles in Nature are usually cited six to eight times in the 50 biggest American newspapers, whereas the report on the Mozart effect was cited 70 times over more than eight years.
Media interest lasted over a decade.
In US states where the education system is considered to be failing, media interest was higher.
Over time, references to the Mozart effect in the press had no connection to the original article in Nature.
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