Written by Marko Ahtisaari & Ketki Karanam
Parents want the best for their children, typically going out of their way to create optimal surroundings for their kids to grow up in. Music is an easy way to enrich the home environment, and many parents seem to intuitively think that music listening is beneficial for cognitive development. However, links between music listening and enhanced overall cognition have not been convincingly demonstrated. Exposure to music does however influence the development of auditory processing and through its effects on emotion and mood, music can be used to enhance performance in different cognitive tasks.
Many parents intuitively look to music to enhance the cognitive development of their children, for instance deciding to play classical instead of pop music with the thought of cultivating more refined cognitive skills. Where does the research stand on this, is there any evidence that listening to music might influence cognitive performance or the development of cognitive skills?
Research on the effects of background music on cognitive performance is partly inconclusive and contradictory. In a review on the effects of background music on different kinds of tasks (1), no clear effect for background music in hindering or enhancing performance in cognitive tasks was found, as many variables affected the outcome of these studies. The effects of background music depend on things like the specific cognitive demands of the task at hand, the characteristics of the music, the context of the task, and the personal preferences of the individual exposed to the music.
As an example, for some children classical music may be calming and thereby help cognitive performance in a situation where the child is nervous and cannot concentrate. For other children, classical music might be exactly the wrong choice if looking for a calming effect. Background music is not a one-size-fits-all-solution. Furthermore, there is no comprehensive view on the effects of long-term music exposure on childhood cognitive development. More research is needed to investigate how background music and other kinds of music listening activities influence cognitive functioning in different contexts and whether music as a part of the childhood environment could influence development outcomes.
Research on the effects of music listening before completing a cognitive task are clearer. One of the first studies to look at the effects of listening to music before a task reported a “Mozart effect”. Even though the original study has been debunked, the notion that playing classical music to children will enhance cognitive skills has stuck - there are even records of synthesized, deadpan classical music on sale, promising to support an infant’s cognitive development. In the original Mozart effect study (2), university students who listened to music by Mozart before taking a test for spatial reasoning performed better than students who did not listen to music, but sat in silence. The result was explained by purporting that the music of Mozart could somehow prime spatial reasoning, a link that really has no reasonable theoretical foundation. A meta-analysis (3) on further studies on the influence of listening to Mozart before completing a visuo-spatial task show that there actually is a “Mozart effect”, but the effect is small and that music other than classical music and by composers other than Mozart can induce it. Other studies (reviewed in 4) on the Mozart effect also conclude that the effect is probably not related to musical structure but to the way that music listening influences emotions and increases arousal (that is, listening to music you like before a task improves your mood and arousal which results in a better performance on the task).
There is a good body of research showing that emotions and mood interact with cognitive functions such as memory and attention (5). Also, brain areas typically associated with emotions have been found to play an important role in cognitive processes (6,7). As described in previous posts, music has a profound link to emotions and music that one enjoys activates the brain systems related to rewards, motivation and pleasure. Music could therefore, through its link to these mechanisms, support cognitive function. Indeed, research evidence is accumulating to support this notion. For instance, in a study (8), over eight thousand 10-11 year old children were assigned to either listen to a song by the band Blur, a Mozart piece, or a recording of a discussion. Performance in a test for spatial abilities was best for the children who heard the pop music - in other words, there was a “Blur effect”. In another study (9) with 5 year old children, listening and singing to regular children’s play songs versus classical music (Mozart and Albinoni pieces) increased performance in a measure of creativity. Therefore, even though you might think that some of the children’s songs are very simple, or in the case of adolescents’ musical choices even obnoxious to adults, they are just the thing that works for that age group! The benefits that music listening can have on cognition are tightly linked to the music being enjoyable. And what is enjoyable varies at different ages and phases in life.
In summary, music listening can help cognitive performance but the effects of background music depend on a multitude of factors. Therefore, music is, sadly, no shortcut to developing a super-brain, but rather takes a detour: In testimony of the deep entanglement of feelings and reason in human existence, the cognitive benefits of music listening depend on the powerful but highly subjective influence that music exerts over emotion.
1. Kämpfe, J., Sedlmeier, P., & Renkewitz, F. (2011). The impact of background music on adult listeners: A meta-analysis. Psychology of Music, 39, 424-448.
2. Rauscher, F. H., Shaw, G. L., & Ky, K. N. (1993). Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365, 611.
3. Hetland, L. (2000b). Listening to music enhances spatial-temporal reasoning: Evidence for the “Mozart effect”. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 34(3/4), 105:148.
4. Schellenberg, E. G., & Weiss, M. W. (2013). 12 Music and Cognitive Abilities.
5. Västfjäll, D. (2002). Emotion induction through music: A review of the musical mood induction procedure. Musicae Scientiae, 5(1 suppl), 173-211.
6. Pessoa, L. (2008). On the relationship between emotion and cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9(2), 148-158.
7. Lindquist, K. A., Wager, T. D., Kober, H., Bliss-Moreau, E., & Barrett, L. F. (2012). The brain basis of emotion: a meta-analytic review. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 35(03), 121-143.
8. Schellenberg, E. G., & Hallam, S. (2005). Music listening and cognitive abilities in 10- and 11-year-olds: The Blur effect. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1060, 202-209.
9. Schellenberg, E. G., Nakata, T., Hunter, P. G., & Tamoto, S. (2007). Exposure to music and cognitive performance: Tests of children and adults. Psychology of Music, 35, 5(19.)