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To pick up on our recent thread of hearing and cognitive science, Audicus looks at the age-old claim that listening to classical music will allow us to absorb and learn things faster, thereby resulting in more healthy hearing.

Healthy Hearing: The case for Mozart

In the mid 90s, a study at the University of California at Irvine took a stab at proving this pattern. Researchers made a sample group of students listen to a Mozart sonata for 10 minutes, before giving them paper folding and cutting exercises. The group was able to perform them far quicker than students that had listened to silence or other types of music. The “Mozart effect”, as it was quickly labeled, appeared to increase spatial intelligence.

The resulting paper, published in Nature magazine, triggered a national healthy hearing frenzy where, among others, the New York Times claimed that “listening to Mozart actually makes you smarter” and the governor of Georgia proposed a yearly allocation of $105,000 in the state budget to provide every child in Georgia with a tape or CD of classical music. The state of Florida went even further, passing a law requiring classical music to be played daily in state-funded childcare and educational programs. To the present day we live with this belief, but is it really true?

Healthy Hearing: The case for Gaga

For starters, spatial intelligence is not equal to IQ, as many inflated it to be. Neither is it lasting: the study showed that the heightened effect was short-lived and wore off after 15 minutes.

Moreover, a series of subsequent studies undermined the noisy (no pun intended) Mozart movement: one study in particular showed that slow and sad classical music – whether it was Mozart or not – does not increase spatial intelligence, and may even interfere with it.

A study among Japanese pre-school children showed that children who listened to children’s music during drawing lessons were willing to sit down for longer periods than their non-music-exposed counterparts and exhibited a higher degree of creativity in their drawings.

A few years later, a land-mark study among 8,000 11 year olds was conducted in the UK.  They were played Mozart, pop music and radio interviews and had to perform a series of spatial exercises shortly after, involving origamis and cubes. Astonishingly, the results showed that the pop-exposed children were far better at handling the paper folding tasks than the ones who had to muse in Mozart or endure the grind of a radio interview.

In the end, it is not so much the structure of the music that causes the effect, but rather a change in the mood of the listener: anyone listening to music they like and enjoy, will gain some benefit to their cognitive abilities. Healthy hearing is as simple as that.

Should Lady Gaga find her way to the nation’s school rooms?

… or should you just scrap it all and do it yourself? How to maintain healthy hearing with Music

What seems to have a far more marking effect on learning is playing music, rather than listening to it.

In the mid 2000s, researchers in Hong Kong studied 90 children between the ages of 6 and 15. One half had received musical training in the past in the form of lessons or by playing in an ensemble – the other half didn’t. Verbal memory tests to see how many words they recalled from a list and a visual memory test for images were given to all subjects.

Those students who had been exposed to music did substantially better than their counterparts in recalling words and were also able to remember more words than their peers when tested 30 minutes later. Furthermore, their verbal memory seemed to improve the more years of musical training they had received. In contrast, the two groups exhibited no difference when it came to visual memory.

The findings suggest that music lessons stimulate the left side of the brain, which also controls verbal learning. “Giving music lessons to children “somehow contributes to the reorganization [and] better development of the left temporal lobe in musicians, which in turn facilitates cognitive processing mediated by that specific brain area, that is, verbal memory. Students with better verbal memory probably will find it easier to learn in school,” said the lead researcher, Agnes Chan, to the BBC.

While the ‘music and learning’ debate is still raging, keep your healthy hearing intact, as there can be only upsides from being able to hear and process music. Both Mozart and Gaga might agree.

Sources: Audicus Hearing Aids, BBC, Audiblox, Interlude, Brain Friendly Trainer, New York Times

by Patrick Freuler