Music and Babies: The "Mozart Effect" and more

For years, mothers have been strapping headphones to their belly to play Mozart to their unborn children.  What mother wouldn’t want their child to become a genius? Photo: Ted Johnson

SILVER SPRING, MD, October 27, 2011 - For years, mothers have been strapping headphones to their belly to play Mozart to their unborn children.  The reason – reports that classical music helps in brain development; and what mother wouldn’t want their child to have a leg up on their way to becoming a genius?

After a 1993 study showed increased test scores in participants that listened to Mozart before taking IQ tests, the term “Mozart Effect” made its way into the American lexicon. Researchers at the University of North Texas had similar results with Handel. 

Since then, more and more people have bought into the idea that listening to classical music can have positive cognitive effects.  Spawning the launch of an entire line of “Mozart Effect” CDs for newborns, babies, adults, and even car travel. 

Many books and CDs have been published based on research showing listening to classical music improves test scores. Click to enlarge.

Further studies have shown that it is music in general that has positive effects on the brain, but the largest gains come from music instruction.  A Science Daily article quotes a 2006 study where children, between 4 and 6 years old, taking musical instruction showed different brain development and memory improvement than children who didn’t take music lessons. 

The improvements were shown in literacy, verbal memory, visiospatial processing, mathematics and IQ. 

Too make it all easier to understand, a group at Northwestern University compiled all the research that has been done over the last 2 decades in a report published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience in 2010.  The bottom line is that music does have definite effects on the brain, impacting memory, attention, and language and speech skills.  Music accomplishes these things by adding new neural connections in the brain. It shows that actively working with music increases the brain’s ability to adapt and change… and it doesn’t have to be classical music.

So, what does all this research results mean for your baby?  After all, babies aren’t taking IQ tests in controlled settings, and infants are too young to sit up by themselves, let alone read sheet music.  Consider this, research at Brigham Young University has shown that music can have a significant positive impact on the physical development of premature infants.  Further, music has a calming effect, resulting in relaxation and stress reduction.  This effect, is not only seen in adults, but has been observed in infants for centuries.  Lullabies have long been used to calm babies.

Overall, the biggest benefits from music come from learning to play an instrument.  And while infants are too young to start strumming a guitar or playing scales on a keyboard, there are ways you can give your child the benefits that come from music.  

Companies have jumped on this research and have created products designed to boost babies’ development through music.  Baby Einstein, produced by Disney, has a DVD line called Baby Mozart. There are musical mobiles to hang over cribs, playmats and play yards that have small pre-programmed music players, and cubes that light up while playing music among numerous other musical toys.

Of course, you don’t have to spend lots of money to give your baby the benefits of music.  Simply listening to music has benefits, and research shows that the genre of music doesn’t matter, rather it’s the complexity of music that cause the increase in brain activity.  So, whether you play your baby classical music, pop, jazz, blues or any other genre, loading up the mp3 player, popping a disc into the CD player, or turning on the radio are all inexpensive ways to give your baby exposure to the brain building benefits of music.  Singing to your child also helps provide exposure to the varying rhythms and tempos that are inherent to music and creates a bonding experience between you and your child. 

As your baby gains more control over his hands, you have additional options.  Aside from things like toys that play different tunes when buttons are pushed, there are also the more traditional toys like xylophones and toy pianos.  Music also helps enhance creativity.  You can use that creativity and imagination to create instruments from items around the house.  Empty boxes, bowls, or pots can be used as make shift drums.

Musical toys are a good way to introduce music early to your child. Photo by Dennis Hill. Click to enlarge.


Incorporate music into tasks throughout the day.  Aside from singing lullabies at bed-time, you can also sing a good-morning song.  Clean-up songs are frequently used at day care centers which make cleaning up more of a game than a chore.  In a similar vein, you can also create songs for bath time, or as you’re changing your baby’s diaper. 

If you want to give your child the brain building boost that comes from music before they can start taking music lessons, turn off the television and turn on the stereo and start singing.

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Brighid Moret

Brighid is a freelance writer and first time mother.  She holds an MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University.  Find her on Facebook @Brighid Moret


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