Dr. Ray L. Winstead
Professor of Biology (retired), Indiana University of Pennsylvania

The Mozart Effect: Fact or Fiction?

My Own Little Study with 605 Students and a
Downloadable File Online for Your Own Test

Ray L. Winstead
September 2017


 You probably have noticed how music can make you feel better, or at least different.  “The Mozart Effect” is the idea that listening to classical music can not only reduce stress, but also improve a person’s verbal ability, spatial intelligence, creativity, and memory.  For an example of one effect, studies have shown that foreign languages can be learned noticeably more quickly and retained noticeably longer when classical music is played in the background during the learning process.  The idea of “The Mozart Effect” was popularized by Don Campbell in his 1997 book of the same name, and many studies have shown that some major, positive effects seem to be going on.  However, other researchers have been critical of the idea and have debunked some of the earlier, strong conclusions.  For example, one conclusion about “The Mozart Effect” was that it would increase IQ scores, however further research has shown that this result is now known not to be valid.  While exploring one facet of this concept with my students, I conducted my own little study of the effects of listening to different types of music in the background on short-term memory with 605 students in thirty, IUP biology lab sections over ten years.  This concept becomes more important when one realizes that the study environment of today’s students often has recorded music from a variety of electronic sources playing in the background.  Is this audio enhanced (worsened?) environment while studying influencing students’ ability to learn?  Recently, I dug out the saved data sheets I had collected from each student to see if any preliminary results jumped out from a collation of those data.  (I saved them, since perhaps one day I will do a more thorough, statistical analysis of the data, e.g. with a Within-subjects Analysis of Variance on the original, raw, memory scores.)

Methods and Procedures

 Most of the students involved in this study chose to participate in this lab after reading a description of the lab.  In particular, this lab was one of many more esoteric, biology labs I developed to be a part of the IUP General Biology II Elective Lab Program, where students selected different labs offered by different professors as part of their course requirements during part of the Spring semester course for nonmajors.  During the two-hour lab six short-term memory tests were given under three different conditions: classical music playing in the background, contemporary music playing in the background, and the control condition of silence in the background.  Replication is one key to obtaining valid conclusions, however because of the time constraints of a two-hour lab, only two replications of only those three conditions of music playing in the background just before and during short-term memory tests were conducted.  (My original thoughts were to include other types of music, too.)  The two classical (actually Baroque) music selections used were the “Air” from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No.3 and “Siciliana” from Handel’s Concerto Grosso Opus 6 #8 in C Minor.  The two contemporary music selections used were chosen each year from those suggested by students at my request before the lab.  To reduce the possible influence of the order of the testing conditions on the results, the tests were given in the following order: Silence #1, Classical #1, Contemporary #1, Classical #2, Contemporary #2, Silence #2.  (There was not enough time for presenting and grading any more tests.) 

Each short-term memory test consisted of the following procedure.  A random sequence of ten letters was displayed on a screen to students for five seconds.  (See below for access to the actual test I developed.)  Students would then write down the letters they remembered seeing.  This was repeated ten times so that one test consisted of ten sequences of ten letters.  At the end of the test the answers (original sequences) were shown on the screen, so that students could count the number of letters they remembered correctly for each sequence.  (Background music for the NEXT music condition was started while students were grading this test and continued through the next test.  The score for the test was the average number of letters remembered over the ten sequences, e.g., 6.6 or 8.9.  This procedure was repeated for each of the six music conditions using a different test in the same format.  At this point, individual students could see for themselves how they performed under each music condition.  After all the tests had been given, each student then RANKED their raw memory scores, so that the results from each test for each student consisted of the ranking of each music condition from 1 to 6, with rank #1 being the highest raw memory score for that student.  (Ties of memory scores were handled in the standard way of dealing with tied ranks.  Just for example, if the raw memory scores for the second and third ranked conditions were tied, then each received a rank of 2.5.)  This took into account the wide variety of memory abilities among the different students and concentrated on the RELATIVE rank for each music condition.  These ranks were then compared as a lab class by publicly displaying the ranks (rather than the raw memory scores) for each student on the front classroom chalkboard with anonymous ID numbers to provide an overall conclusion for the lab class.  In this way individual memory scores were not publicly disclosed to other students, but the relative rankings of music conditions were publicly displayed.  Likewise, after some collation of the data from the class, students could see the results for the entire lab class.  For the results reported below the ranks of the two replications of the same music condition were combined (added together) to give a final, ranked index for each of the three music conditions for each student.


The results of this study are based on the ranked data from each student and for each lab class, and the results are considered and presented from different perspectives.  Out of the thirty lab sections over ten years, twenty-eight (93.3%) of them showed that students did the best on the short-term memory tests under the condition of having classical music playing in the background just before and while taking the memory tests.  One lab section out of the thirty did the best when the background music was contemporary music (barely by one student better than the classical music condition), and one section did the best when the background was silence (barely by one student better than the classical music condition).  Another way to look at the results is to note that out of those 498 students whose memory tests indicated that they scored better under one of the three conditions, 61.2% of them did better on the memory tests when the background music was classical, 21.1% of them did better on the memory tests when the background music was contemporary, and 17.7% of them did better on the memory tests when the background condition was silence.  When tied values between the top two conditions are taken into account for all 605 students tested, then these percentage values become 50.4% classical, 17.4% contemporary, 14.5% silence, and 17.7% tied between the top two conditions.


 So, my conclusion is that yes, something is going on here, at least relative to the one aspect I tested of classical music playing in the background having a positive effect on short-term memory.  However, even though having classical music playing in the background does seem to have a positive effect on short-term memory for most people, individual variation, of course, is also a major factor, and any conclusion, in general, about a group does not mean the conclusion will be valid for all members of that group.

You can try this experiment out for yourself to see what works best for you.  Make no assumptions, but try out different music conditions objectively.  Try it yourself by downloading and using my PowerPoint slide show that displays my sequences of random letters automatically for five seconds at:     http://raywinstead.com/Mozart2.ppt     .  (After you write down the letters you remember, then click on the PowerPoint slide that has automatically gone blank after five seconds to see the next slide.)  You will need to provide your own background music.  Play the background music some before you actually start each test, too, for example, while you are grading the previous test.  You can find popular, contemporary music for the current week at http://www.billboard.com/charts/hot-100.  Of course, you will probably want to include your own favorite types of music as options while taking the tests, however you are also encouraged to try different types of music.  Don’t forget to include replications using different music selections of the same type to obtain more valid results.


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