#277      24 min 24 sec
Music and mind: Can Mozart really sharpen your neural connections?

Cognitive psychologist Prof Glenn Schellenberg scrutinises the relationship between music and cognitive development. With science host Dr Dyani Lewis.

"Music makes us human.  It doesn't need to be justified in terms of improving your language skills or your IQ" -- Prof Glenn Schellenberg




Prof Glenn Schellenberg
Prof Glenn Schellenberg

Glenn Schellenberg took piano lessons from the age of 5 to 16, and played in several rock bands as a teenager and a young adult. He subsequently composed music for video, television, and film, and he was nominated for a Genie award for Best Original Song for the 1994 musical film Zero Patience. He received a bachelor's degree in psychology and linguistics from the University of Toronto in 1989, and a doctorate in psychology and statistics from Cornell University in 1994. He held positions at the University of Windsor and Dalhousie University before accepting his present position at the University of Toronto in 1998, where he is currently a Professor of Psychology, cross-appointed to the Faculty of Music. His research focuses on reciprocal influences between cognition and music. He has published over 100 chapters and journal articles, including papers that appeared in Psychological Science, Cognition, Journal of Experimental Psychology, Developmental Psychology, Journal of Educational Psychology, Music Perception, and Psychology of Music.

Prof Schellenberg visited Melbourne as a guest of the Melbourne Neuroscience Institute.

Credits

Host: Dr Dyani Lewis
Producers: Eric van Bemmel, Peter Clarke, Dyani Lewis
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Kelvin Param & Eric van Bemmel

View Tags  click a tag to find other episodes associated with it.

Download file Download mp3 (22.3 MB)

VOICEOVER 
Welcome to Up Close, the research, opinion and analysis podcast from the University of Melbourne, Australia. 

DYANI LEWIS
I'm Dyani Lewis, thanks for joining us.  Music is a universal component of human culture from amateur dabblings on the guitar or upright piano to gamelan ensembles in the villages of Indonesia, to Mahler symphonies performed at Carnegie Hall.  It's clear that as a species, humans both individually and in groups are somehow compelled to express themselves through music.  Even casual observers or listeners can be profoundly affected by music.  It can make us get up and dance or it can move us to tears.  It can inspire awe or it can make us reach for the off switch.  But does music offer us any practical advantages?  Can music change the way we think?  Does listening to Mozart make us more creative or, perhaps, smarter as some would have us believe?  Do music lessons, the bane of many a childhood, actually boost our IQ?To help us understand the relationship between music and mind, I am joined on Up Close today by an expert in the field of music cognition, Professor Glenn Schellenberg.  Glenn is a cognitive psychologist and Professor of Psychology with the Department of Psychology, and the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto.  Professor Schellenberg is visiting Melbourne as a guest of the Melbourne Neuroscience Institute.  Welcome to Up Close, Glenn.

GLENN SCHELLENBERG 
Thanks for having me.

DYANI LEWIS
Glenn, the idea that simply listening to music makes us smarter is very attractive, where did this idea originally come from?

GLENN SCHELLENBERG 
Well it came from an article that was published in a very prestigious journal called Nature in 1993 which showed that the spatial abilities of University of California undergraduates increased after listening to Mozart compared to after sitting in silence of listening to relaxation instructions.  The effect was large so it seemed that simply listening to Mozart made you miraculously smarter, so the finding got lots of attention.

DYANI LEWIS
So let's have a listen to a short segment of this piece.

[Music played]

DYANI LEWIS
Quite a nice piece of music.

GLENN SCHELLENBERG 
If you like that sort of thing.

DYANI LEWIS
So it was just specifically spatial ability, so what kind of test would they use to test spatial abilities?

GLENN SCHELLENBERG 
Well IQ tests like the Stanford-Binet IQ and the Wechsler tests include tests of spatial abilities in combination with tests of verbal abilities and mathematical abilities and abstract reasoning.  This particular test that's been used in most of the research involved watching black and white drawings of a piece of paper being folded and then cut and then you have to choose from a series of five options what the paper will look like when it's unfolded.

DYANI LEWIS
Now you've looked at this Mozart effect with other recordings to see if you could replicate it, what did you find with that?

GLENN SCHELLENBERG 
Well I found a Schubert effect and a Blur effect, with the British pop band Blur, when you test British kids, 10 or 11 years of age.  And also, a children's play song effect with five year olds growing up in Japan.  So the effect is not specific to Mozart at all.  In fact, it's not even specific to music.  So you can play a narrated story and if somebody likes a story better than Mozart you'll see a story effect.

DYANI LEWIS
Does this mean that any auditory stimulus improves our spatial abilities?

GLENN SCHELLENBERG 
I think it would be any auditory stimulus that makes you feel good or awake, in a positive mood but I don't think it needs to be auditory whatsoever, it could be eating a piece of chocolate or smelling a rose, for example.

DYANI LEWIS
So if it's not the music, per se, then what is it that's happening with listening to music?  Just purely a mood effect?

GLENN SCHELLENBERG 
Yeah, I mean we typically speak of mood as positive or negative affect which slightly different than arousal.  So it's really both arousal and mood.  Arousal isn’t sexual arousal, it means how alert or awake you feel.  So music can both wake you up or make you feel alert and make you feel in a good mood compared to a bad mood.  And I think it's both of those components that contribute to subsequent performance on a test of cognitive abilities.

DYANI LEWIS
Are there any forms of music that actually have a negative effect?

GLENN SCHELLENBERG 
Well in the research we've conducted, if you play really sad sounding music, you don't seem to get the effect.  We know that people listen to sad sounding music all the time, so it's not like it's bad for you or anything, but as far as I can tell, it doesn't put you in that awake, that alert, sort of positive mood that facilitates performance on cognitive tasks.

DYANI LEWIS
Does what we consider happy music depend on the culture that we've grown up in?  Some cultures have, for example, much more dissonant music or music that has more minor keys which, in Western culture, are usually associated with sad music.  Does the culture change the effect, do you think? 

GLENN SCHELLENBERG 
Oh yeah, for sure.  I think that, across cultures, fast tempos tend to be associated with happy music whereas slow tempos are associated with sad music.  That seems to be a cross-cultural phenomenon.  So it's universal.  But mode is specific to Western music.  And in our culture, in Western culture, major music tends to sound happier than minor music but that is definitely a learned phenomenon.

DYANI LEWIS
And you mentioned earlier, likability of the music.  So a person's personal preference for whether they like to listen to Mozart or whether they like to listen to a recording of a narrated story, has an impact on whether the effect exists or not.  So does this mean that something like death metal could have the exact same Mozart effect that Mozart has on some people?

GLENN SCHELLENBERG 
Well I think if you have a metal head who loves death metal then it's likely to get the effect.  In my own case, I've found Mozart effect, a Schubert effect, a Steven King effect, a Blur effect.  People say, well what about Megadeth or whatever?  They're welcome to do those studies, but for more the story's more or less over and I would assume that you would find those same positive results from somebody who liked heavy metal.

DYANI LEWIS
This is Up Close, I'm Dyani Lewis in this episode, we're talking about music and the brain with cognitive psychologist Professor Glenn Schellenberg.  Glenn, the Mozart effect, or the Schubert effect or the Steven King effect, it's about improving spatial abilities that occur after a listener has listened to the music, but what about if we look at something like background music where we're listening to music, say, when we're studying for example?  Is there any indication that music in this sort of context alters the way that we perform certain tasks?

GLENN SCHELLENBERG 
Well there is, it's just that it's not very consistent across the various studies that have been conducted.  So sometimes you see positive effects of background music and sometimes you see negative effects.  The main difference with the issue of background music compared to Mozart effect is that you're hearing the background music while you're doing some other task, like reading or driving or studying for an exam or something. The complication is that we have cognitive limitations, we can't do an infinite number of things at the same time.  So in some circumstances, like if the music has a lot of information per unit of time, so it could be very fast with a lot of notes and very loud, then it could occupy a lot of your consciousness, or what we would call working memory, at the time which would then inhibit how well you could process other information.But at the same time, the music could have positive effects on your mood, which would facilitate performance and understanding on the primary task.

DYANI LEWIS
If mood is involved in this as well then other behaviours, I guess, other than just cognitive tasks could be altered by the type of music that you're listening to in a particular context?

GLENN SCHELLENBERG 
Well sure, I think if you were a painter and you were working on a drawing or a painting and you got a little tired and then you put on some upbeat music, it could spur you on to go for another hour.

DYANI LEWIS
I was thinking, actually, in terms of consumer behaviour.  There's been research into music and consumer behaviour, hasn't there?

GLENN SCHELLENBERG 
Oh yes, that research is a bit disturbing in the fact that it just seems humans are very, very susceptible to manipulations that they're not necessarily aware of.  So for example, if you play French music, so a stereotypical French accordion music in a wine shop, then people are more likely to buy French wine than they would otherwise.  If you played German music, they are more likely to buy German wine than they would otherwise.  Similarly, if they're in a restaurant and you're playing pop music of jazz music or classical music, you tend to order more and spend more money on your food if you hear classical music, presumably because it's associated with wealth and sophistication.  Also, if you're in a flower shop and you hear romantic music, you spend more. And you also order food that's in line with the ethnicity of the music that's playing in the background.

DYANI LEWIS
What about at the other end of the spectrum from this passive listening to active participation of music?  So if we look at music lessons, is there a difference between people who take the music lessons and people who don't, in terms of those cognitive abilities?

GLENN SCHELLENBERG 
Absolutely, lots of studies have shown that children and adults who are musically trained differ from other people in lots of different ways.  In particular, they're good listeners.  So they're better at perceiving speech and noise, hearing small differences in frequency that aren't necessarily a very musical kind of task.  More interestingly is that they tend to have better memories, the better spatial skills, better at tests of general intelligence.  Of course, these associations don't mean that music lessons are actually causing the effects, it's more likely that smarter, high functioning people are more likely to take music lessons and to perform well on virtually every test you give them. 

DYANI LEWIS
So it's really just measuring a correlation rather than a direct causation then?

GLENN SCHELLENBERG 
Exactly.

DYANI LEWIS
So how do you start to go about picking apart those different issues?

GLENN SCHELLENBERG 
You can't manipulate how smart somebody is, obviously, so that's virtually impossible.  I mean you can notice that the findings that you observe in the real world, so sometimes children come into our lab and we compare musically trained and untrained seven and eight year olds or 10 to 12 year olds, they differ in IQ by two thirds of a standard deviation, sometimes a whole standard deviation.

DYANI LEWIS
What's that in terms of IQ points?

GLENN SCHELLENBERG 
Well 10 would be two thirds and 15 would be a whole standard deviation.  The point being that when you actually have manipulations that are designed to improve IQ, you never get success like that.  So it's virtually impossible that something like music lessons would just have such a huge increased IQ as a by-product.

DYANI LEWIS
You've looked in particular at personality and how different personality traits can influence whether someone takes music lessons. What have you found there?

GLENN SCHELLENBERG 
Well what we find is that kids who take music lessons tend to be different on two of the five major dimensions of personality.  So psychologists consider a personality to vary on five variables or dimensions.  Two of these are openness to experience and conscientiousness.  Conscientiousness is being neat and orderly and paying attention to details, and exactly what it sounds like.  Openness to experience is about being interested in new ideas, being receptive to novelty, interested in novelty, interest in the arts in general, curious and so on.  More or less that it sounds like.  Openness to experience is the personality dimension that tends to be the most highly associated with IQ, whereas conscientiousness is the personality dimension that's the best predictor of performance in school.  Musically trained children tend to be high on both of these dimensions.

DYANI LEWIS
I guess it stands to reason, then, if you've got kids taking music lessons who are enriched in these two qualities that they would generally be higher IQ? 

GLENN SCHELLENBERG 
Exactly, and the thing that's really interesting is that musically trained kids are very good in school, in general.  I mean, I'm a psychologist, so this doesn't apply to everyone, right?  We're interested in general trends.  But in general, musically trained kids tend to be really good in school and they're even better students than you would predict from their IQ, which implicates another individual difference variable, which in this case seems to be at least partly attributable to differences in personality.

DYANI LEWIS
Now what were the three difference measures that weren't at all related to whether children took music lessons?

GLENN SCHELLENBERG 
Okay, well personality varies on five dimensions, as I said, and it forms and acronym called OCEAN, so openness to experience and conscientiousness are the first two, then the remaining three are extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

DYANI LEWIS
Were any of those personality traits negatively associated with music?

GLENN SCHELLENBERG 
Not in a significant way, no.

DYANI LEWIS
So an introvert and an extrovert are just equally as likely to be taking music lessons?

GLENN SCHELLENBERG 
As far as I can tell.  I mean interestingly, when you look at a child who's, let's say, seven or eight so they're just beginning music lessons, it's harder to measure personality at that age anyway and typically it doesn’t necessarily have the same five factor structure that adults have.  But their parents' personality is a good predictor of whether they take music lessons or not.  In particular, the parents' openness to experience.  So personality is involved and it kind of - the child is playing a passive role initially and then more of an evocative or an active role where their personality is driving the environments that they're in.

DYANI LEWIS
It does indicate, then, that music can influence personality or there are culturally learned aspects of personality that play into this whole situation?

GLENN SCHELLENBERG 
Well, like any genetic disposition, you tend to seek environments that are compatible with it and then the environment further exaggerates the genetic predisposition you started out with.  I mean in general, personally though, is considered to be more genetically than environmentally determined.

DYANI LEWIS
I'm Dyani Lewis and my guest today is cognitive psychologist, Professor Glenn Schellenberg.  We're talking about the effect of music on cognition and personality, here on Up Close.  Glenn, do the character traits of conscientiousness and openness to experience, and also IQ, always go with an inclination to take music lessons?

GLENN SCHELLENBERG 
No, when you're talking about patterns in the general population, the associations, they never get beyond a correlation of 0.3.  So 0 means no association, 1 means a perfect association.  So when you look at the real world, there's lots of noise or different variables that are having an effect.  But psychologists are never the less interested in general trends.  But in terms of music aptitude or innate music ability, that seems to be associated with IQ in normally functioning people.  In general, people who perform well on a test of music aptitude, which then makes it likely that they would do well in music training and become a musician, also do well on virtually any other test you give them. There are some notable exceptions though, and those are people who are atypically developing.  In the case of autistics, you can have - autism is associated with musical savants - you could have somebody who's very good at music but yet very atypical in their development and their social skills.  There's also another developmental syndrome called Willliams syndrome, that's accompanied by very low cognitive abilities, so IQs in the range of 60, and a very, very poor spatial skills but remarkably good skills with language and music.  So these people aren't music geniuses or anything, but they're way better than you would expect them to be, on singing and any test of musical ability, than you would predict from their ability to estimate time or tie up their shoes or whatever.So there are these exceptions to that rule that aptitude is being driven by general intelligence.  There are also people who are normal functioning cognitively in terms of their IQ but yet are more or less hopeless in terms of music.  And that appears to be some sort of genetic anomaly where they find it difficult to discriminate very small differences in pitch.  But by small, that can be as large as one semitone and in Western music, one semitone essentially distinguishes a major chord from a minor chord and distinguishes Happy Birthday to you, the to you differ by exactly one semitone.  So if you don't hear that distinction then Western music becomes more or less a mush to you and then you fail to develop an appreciation of it and don't have that same sort of affinity with music as the normal person.

DYANI LEWIS
Now if we look at professional musicians, these are people who have presumably had some of the greatest inclination to play music in their life, are they at the high end in some of these measures that are associated with participation in music?

GLENN SCHELLENBERG 
No.  Musicians tend to have good listening skills, as you would expect, but when it comes to looking at general cognitive abilities, when you compare graduate students who are enrolled in a music faculty with psychology graduate students or business graduate students then the differences in general cognition disappear, or sometimes favour the non-music groups.  And when you look at people who are really highly trained, like musicians, they tend not to perform particularly well on tests of IQ.  But what I think is going on is that in those cases it's really the personality variables that are driving who ends up being a real musician or not and probably openness to experience.   That hasn't really been tested, although we're about to do that now, by testing very advanced students and performers in music and comparing them to people who are equally advanced in other disciplines. We expect to find that they differ in personality.  But that's just a hunch or a hypothesis at this point.

DYANI LEWIS
Now we've been talking mostly about correlational studies, trying to find associations between people and certain abilities or whatever. But in science we often hear about randomised control trial as being, I guess, the gold standard in evidence and you have tried this.  So what did you find when you randomly assigned people to either take music lessons or not?

GLENN SCHELLENBERG 
First of all I got a large American grant to test the notion that music lessons confer cognitive advantages and we put an ad in the paper for free music lessons and of course we got lots of responses, people always want something for free. Then we explained to them what the study involves and the children had to be six years of age or just going into grade 1 or first grade.  The family had to agree that they would participate, whether the child was assigned to one of the music conditions or to drama lessons or to no lessons but they got music lessons a year later.So we took everybody's IQ, we measured their IQ before they started grade 1 and the lessons, and then at the end in the summer between grades 1 and 2.  What we found is that the increase in IQ was larger for the music groups than for the drama group or the no lessons group.  It was about a difference of 3 IQ points, so one fifth of a standard deviation.  So it's not a miniscule effect. The problem is that by doing something that's so highly controlled, which is of course the gold standard and necessary for causation, you can also create a world in which nothing bares any resemblance to the real world.So, for example, in this particular case, the families were getting the lessons for free so there was no impetus for the parents to insist that the children actually practiced between weeks.  So even though the lessons cost a fortune - they all went to the Royal Conservatory of Music which is in Toronto, which is the most prestigious music conservatory in the country and got free lessons.  So that costs a substantial amount of money.  Because the families weren't paying, they weren't telling the kids to practice and when they came back at the end of the year and we said, on average, how much did your kid practice?  Because we expected that kids who actually got engaged in the music might show larger benefits than kids who weren't so engaged, but in general the kids practiced like 10 to 15 minutes per week, not per day, per week.If you are a parent paying for music lessons and your child practiced 10 or 15 minutes per week, I think you'd probably discontinue the lessons more or less immediately. 

DYANI LEWIS
So in terms of, then, taking this into the real world situation for educators deciding on what level of music to put in a curriculum or for a parent deciding on whether to send their kids to music, what does this evidence say?

GLENN SCHELLENBERG 
Well this evidence says that if you're only interested in music because of some sort of cognitive by-products or tangential consequences then it's probably not such a great idea because the evidence is very weak.  But I would say that that's totally wrong headed.  Because if really that's the only reason you're interested in music, you're saying that music is useless without these benefits, which is like shooting yourself in the foot.  If you want to be an advocate for music, you should advocate for it on its own terms.  It's a thing that makes everyone dance together and communicate and experience some sort of social belonging and experience a sense of wellbeing.  Music makes us human.  It doesn't need to be justified in terms of improving your language skills or your IQ, just like we don't justify maths because it improves how well you read.My position would be that you should justify music, and a general arts education, just for those reasons in that it makes you a deeper person that has had a richer array of experiences and that's important in and of itself.

DYANI LEWIS
Professor Glenn Schellenberg, thank you for being our guest on Up Close today and talking to us about music and cognition.

GLENN SCHELLENBERG 
Thank you for having me.

DYANI LEWIS
Professor Glenn Schellenberg is Professor of Psychology at the Department of Psychology, and the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto.  If you'd like more information or a transcript of this episode, head to the Up Close website.Up Close is a production of the University of Melbourne, Australia, created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param.  This episode was recorded on 27 November 2013.  Producers were Eric van Bemmel, Kelvin Param and myself, Dr Dyani Lewis.  Audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer.  Until next time, good bye.

VOICEOVER 
You've been listening to Up Close.  We're also on Twitter and Facebook.  For more info, visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au, Copyright 2013, the University of Melbourne.


show transcript | print transcript | download pdf