Will classical music make your baby smarter?
Over a little more than a decade, the findings of a small scientific study on the effects of classical music on brain function evolved into one of the most influential science legends of our time, setting the stage for a lucrative multimillion dollar industry profiting from parents who just wanted to help their babies get smarter.
“Introduce baby to the splendour of classical music with Baby Mozart Music Festival™ — one of the original (and most beloved) Baby Einstein videos! Baby Mozart Music Festival also captivates baby with stimulating, colourful images. Babies are naturally drawn to the Baby Einstein videos – with puppets, sounds, and rhythm. Both you and your child will love these enchanting versions of classic compositions by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.”
So goes the caption that accompanies the Baby Einstein Baby Mozart Music Festival video on Baby Einstein’s YouTube channel.
Initially posted in 2016, the 26-minute video has raked up an impressive 73 million views. Notably, the wording makes no promises that watching the video or listening to its soundtrack will make babies more intelligent; but that is an idea that persisted after it first gained popularity two decades earlier and turned a stay-at-home mum and her husband into pioneers of a multimillion-dollar industry.
The mum who revolutionised early child-rearing — until she didn’t
In 1996, Baby Einstein co-founder Julia Aigner-Clark was, “just a stay-at-home mom”, a former teacher who loved the arts and wanted to expose her daughter to classical music, poetry and art, Aigner-Clark told the New York Times in a 2001 article.
She and her husband William Clark used $18,000 (about R288,000) of their savings to produce a VHS tape that showed toys and visuals mixed in with music, numbers and words in various languages.
They named their company I Think I Can Productions and their first video Baby Einstein.
The following year the company received the 1997 Parenting Magazine award for Best Video of the Year. By 1998 they were raking in a reported $1-million a year in revenue. They renamed the company The Baby Einstein Company and produced their first Baby Mozart video, among others. By 2001, the company’s sales turnover was $17.6-million and Walt Disney Company bought the business and went on to produce other hit videos, such as Baby da Vinci, and made hundreds of millions more before selling it to Kids2, its current owners, in 2013.
At its height, the “classical music for infants” craze saw a reported one in three American families buying Baby Einstein videos for their kids. Aigner-Clark became a hit on the talk show circuit, appearing on the likes of the Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Morning America and The Today Show. She got the presidential nod when President George W Bush mentioned her in his 2007 State of The Union address.
But trouble was brewing for the company and for proponents of what became known as “the Mozart effect”.
Rogue science: The study that launched a multimillion dollar industry of falsehoods
The idea that classical music could make toddlers smarter was extremely popular when the Clarks founded their company, largely due to the widespread media coverage of a 1993 study which gave birth to the phenomenon of the Mozart effect. The study found that participants who listened to a Mozart sonata for 10 minutes significantly improved their performance on a spatial intelligence test taken immediately afterwards, by eight to nine IQ points.
Subsequent analysis of the study’s media impact shows it was cited in the top 50 US newspapers 11.4 times more than any other study over a period of eight years after its publication. Such was the Mozart effect phenomenon in the US, the state of Georgia passed a bill to distribute free classical music CDs to new mothers, and the state of Florida passed a bill requiring state-funded daycare centres to play classical music daily.
While the Clarks have repeatedly said they never claimed listening to Mozart would make babies more intelligent, during the period in which they owned the company, it wouldn’t be unreasonable in the climate caused by the widespread coverage of the study to imagine parents associating a children’s video with classical music, from a company called Baby Einstein, with notions of genius.
Walt Disney Company did not shy away from marketing the potential for cognitive benefits of Baby Einstein products after buying the company in 2001, leading to an advocacy group, then known as The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, taking them to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for false advertising in 2006. Walt Disney quickly changed the wording in its product and removed testimonials about the videos’ educational benefits from its website, narrowly escaping negative findings from the FTC.
In 2009, under threat of a class-action lawsuit from The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the company offered cash refunds to unsatisfied parents, reportedly paying out some $100-million. By then, not only had numerous studies debunked the idea of classical music making children more intelligent, but some suggested it was in fact harmful and could slow down development of kids’ language skills.
Worse still, Frances Rauscher, author of the 1993 study that launched the Mozart effect craze, openly said she, too, was puzzled by the spread of the notion that listening to classical music improved intelligence in infants. In a 2007 interview published by Scientific American, she stated: “I would simply say that there is no compelling evidence that children who listen to classical music are going to have any improvement in cognitive abilities… It’s really a myth, in my humble opinion.”
Facts be damned: The making of a lasting science legend
According to Rauscher’s own writing at the time of the study, she and her team specifically tested for improvement in spatial tasks rather than intelligence in general.
“Our measure of spatial reasoning skill was the mean number of paper folding items that the subjects answered correctly,” Rauscher wrote. The improvement in performing spatial tasks was also short-lived, lasting no longer than 15 minutes. Also, it was performed on college students, not on infants.
A 2004 study published by the British Journal of Social Psychology, tracked development of the Mozart effect phenomenon over a decade following the publication of Rauscher’s study and found that, though no studies were conducted on infants over the subsequent decade, media coverage increasingly made less mention of the college students who were the subjects of the study and began to associate the Mozart effect with children and babies, sans scientific evidence.
“The most striking finding is the increasing association of [the Mozart effect] with infants. There is no scientific research whatsoever linking music and intelligence in infants, and yet, from 1997 onwards, more articles mentioned infants than college students,” authors of the 2004 study wrote.
Their analysis of media coverage revealed that 80% of the articles made mention of the college students in 1994, with no mention of babies, and just over 30% mentioned children in general. By 2002, the opposite was true: more than 80% of coverage associated the Mozart effect with children, about 50% associated it with babies, and only 30% made mention of the college students.
This is thought to be partially because of the findings of another study by Rauscher, published in 1997, which showed that “keyboard lessons increase spatial reasoning performance in preschool children”. That is quite different to the Mozart effect, which merely requires listening to the music.
“This fact is confused in some articles, one of which states that [Rauscher’s initial study] showed that ‘listening to brief snatches of Mozart appeared to have a short-term effect on the spatial intelligence of pre-schoolers’ (Newsday, December 17, 1995),” the authors wrote.
Worse still, a 1999 analysis of various other less popular 1990s studies around the phenomenon that followed Rauscher’s study concluded that the overall size of the effect was actually negligible, even among the college students. Rather than classical music being singularly beneficial, numerous other studies concluded that it was the enjoyment of music, whatever the genre, that could hold some short-term benefits by improving focus and priming the brain for spatial tasks among older children and adults.
Beyond being merely harmless, and other than unnecessarily getting parents to pay for a potentially useless product, a University of Washington survey of 1,000 families, conducted by Frederick Zimmerman, suggested the videos might contribute towards slowing down the development of children. They concluded that “for every hour per day spent watching baby DVDs and videos, infants aged 8 to 16 months understood an average of six to eight fewer words than babies who did not watch them.”
In a 2007 statement published by Reuters, Zimmerman states: “The most important fact to come from this study is there is no clear evidence of a benefit coming from baby DVDs and videos, and there is some suggestion of harm… Parents and caretakers are the baby’s first and best teachers. They instinctively adjust their speech, eye gaze and social signals to support language acquisition. Watching attention-getting DVDs and TV may not be an even swap for warm social human interaction at this age. Old kids may be different, but the youngest babies seem to learn language best from people.”
Another study, performed in 2010 on toddlers between 12 and 18 months, found that “young children who viewed a popular DVD regularly for one month, either with or without their parents, showed no greater understanding of words from the program than kids who never saw it”.
As for listening to and enjoying music, while it may not turn your toddler into a baby genius, Unicef highly recommends exposing infants and even the unborn to music and suggests people should enjoy music together — for numerous other benefits, including social connection. Parents are also encouraged to enable their children to learn a musical instrument, which requires and supports the development of fine motor skills. DM/ML
Daily Maverick © All rights reserved