There’s a popular belief that’s been around for a while that playing classical music to a baby and even an unborn child will make them smarter. This is otherwise known as “The Mozart Effect”.

So, this rather begs the question …. “Is there any truth in this?” and if so “How much can a baby actually hear inside their Mother’s womb?

The Mozart Effect

That the ‘Mozart effect’ is so well known is especially surprising as the original study credited with introducing this concept had nothing at all to do with babies. Even the author of the original paper, Frances Rauscher, can’t understand how her work got credited with this astounding conclusion.

So, let’s take a step back and look at the genesis of this urban myth.

It was Psychologist Frances Rauscher’s short paper published in Nature in 1993 that unwittingly introduced the supposed Mozart effect to the masses. The study involved 36 college children who listened to either 10 minutes of a Mozart sonata in D-major, a relaxation track or silence before performing several spatial reasoning tasks. In one of the tests students who had listened to Mozart seemed to show significant improvement in their performance (by about 8 to 9 spatial IQ points).

But over the next several years, the notion that “Mozart makes you smarter” took off largly due to extended media covergage in U.S. papers – latter studies that tracked the media’s coverage of Rauscher’s study estimated that the U.S.’s top 50 newspapers cited her paper over 8 times more often than the second-most popular paper of the time.

The ‘Mozart Effect’ was promoted in books and turned into hundreds of DVDs, toys, CDs, and other products. In 1998 Georgia State Governor Zell Miller even mandated that mothers of newborns in the state be given classical music CDs and in Florida day care centres were required to pipe symphonies through their sound systems.

Several follow up studies have been done since 1993, most recently a follow-up study of all the follow-up studies. Researchers at the University of Vienna performed a meta-analysis of nearly 40 studies. Guess what? … They found no evidence that listening to Mozart’s music “enhanced” cognitive abilities in any way!

To this day Rauscher remains puzzled as to how this narrow effect of classical music extended from a paper-folding task to general intelligence and from college students to children (and even foetuses) and she surmises that …

“I think parents are very desperate to give their own children every single enhancement that they can”

Inside the Womb

30% of the sentences recorded in the foetal sheep’s inner ear (could be heard)

Debunking the Mozart Effect doesn’t of course mean that a baby can’t hear or respond to sounds outside the womb.

Indeed, researchers in America have discovered that the unborn baby can probably hear a lot more of what we say than we thought previously.

Ken Gerhardt and Robert Abrams from the University of Florida implanted a tiny microphone into the inner ear of a lamb developing inside its mother, and then played 64 recorded sentences on a loudspeaker near to the ewe. For comparison, they also placed microphones in the uterus and in the open air next to the sheep. They then asked 30 human adults to listen to the recordings from the various microphones and repeat what they heard. The volunteers understood all of the sentences recorded in the open air, about 70% of the sentences recorded in the womb, and 30% of the sentences recorded in the foetal sheep’s inner ear. On the whole, the researchers found that low-frequency sounds were heard better than highfrequency ones. Lead researcher, Gerhardt, said that the intelligibility of sentences was ‘actually much higher than we anticipated’. As for music, ‘They’re not going to hear the violins, but they will hear the drums,’ said Gerhardt.

This research is important because it has implications for babies born prematurely and placed in noisy baby units where there tend to be lots of high-pitched sounds to which a baby of that developmental age would not normally be exposed.