Can classical music make us smarter?

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1. Mind music

Classical music is often seen as the choice of the cultured – music for clever people with sophisticated tastes. But that’s not all.

While many people regularly listen to classical music for pleasure, there have been claims that listening to and playing classical music can do far more than entertain us. Research has tantalisingly suggested that the music of Mozart might actually boost the power of our brains and help us become more intelligent.

So should we all be reaching for the nearest violin or tuning into Mozart on the radio? Could classical music really be a quick-fix to making us smarter?

2. What's so special about classical?

Writer and broadcaster Suzy Klein visits the Royal College of Music Museum to explain the power of classical music for her and find out if she thinks it has made her any smarter.

3. What is classical?

So how did classical music become to being seen as the soundtrack to intelligence?

Classical music as we recognise it today began to develop in the 18th Century thanks to a way of writing music down that was accepted across the whole of Europe.

Not only did this allow complex musical instructions about what to play, how to play it and who plays it, it also helped preserve music for future generations.

It is this formal nature that sometimes can make it seem difficult to understand for a general audience.

Classical has its own terms such as symphony, sonata and concerto that can mystify people who aren’t trained musicians or those just used to three minute pop songs.

Music even has its own language full of strange symbols. Musicians have to be able to read these musical notations before they can pick up an instrument and play a piece of music.

Playing classical music to a good standard also requires years of practice – further reinforcing the ‘serious music’ reputation.

If any music was going to be linked with levels of intelligence classical was always going to be the obvious choice.

4. The Mozart Effect

One reason we think classical music is associated with intelligence is because of a study dubbed the Mozart Effect.

In 1993 researchers carried out an experiment. Volunteers were split into groups and each group asked to perform complex origami-style tasks.

In the experiment, each group listened to different music and had their speed and efficiency in carrying out the task measured. The research found that the group that had listened to Mozart's music excelled in the task and were also found to have had their IQs boosted for the duration of time they did the task.

The researchers published their findings in the respected science journal Nature and unexpectedly kick-started a phenomenon. Classical music was soon hailed as holding the key to unlocking the untapped reserves of our minds. The Mozart Effect had been born.

Problems emerged when other researchers struggled to replicate the Mozart Effect. Some did trigger a similar effect – but not with Mozart's music.

One group even proudly boasted of a ‘Blur Effect' – named after the Brit Pop group that triggered the best response. It became clear that the effect could be triggered by any form of music.

The Mozart Effect may have been largely de-bunked but science’s fascination with music and its effects on the brain did lead to a genuinely fascinating discovery – and playing music was at the forefront.

5. Learning and playing music

The key to music boosting our brains may lie not in listening to it but in learning to play it.

Learning a musical instrument has been shown to sharpen our listening skills, hone our motor coordination and improve our memories. The usefulness of these skill boosts extends far beyond music and into everyday life.

And more than just teaching us new useful skills playing a musical instrument can permanently rewire our brains.

Scans of professional musicians' brains have shown that there has been greater development in areas involving sound processing, movement and coordination compared to non-musicians. The hours of practice has paid off by boosting certain areas of the professional musicians brains.

While there is no evidence that musicians are any more intelligent as a result of playing an instrument or singing, it is true that the musicians’ brains have been changed for the better by their love and dedication to music.

Many people enjoy listening to and playing music and this enjoyment often helps us relax and find out more about ourselves. Ultimately though, the lesson seems to be if you want to boost your brain through music don’t just listen to music, perform it. Join a choir or pick up an instrument and play it and it will be good for your brain be your choice Mozart or Motorhead.

6. How do you train your brain?

Keeping the brain active is not only important for youngsters. Learning new skills and keeping the brain stimulated helps keep our minds healthy into old age.

Crossword puzzles

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Crossword puzzles

Crosswords are excellent at stimulating centres of the brain that deal with language and memory.


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Strange as it may sound, juggling is a fantastic brain-trainer. Juggling stimulates areas of the brain associated with coordination and motor skills.

Music instrument

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Music instrument

Playing an instrument involves hand eye coordination, listening skills, concentration and memory. How could your brain not be boosted!