Can Listening to Music Really Make Your Baby Smarter?


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Music is great, and babies love when you sing to them. But does that mean your baby will grow up smarter or hit their milestones faster if you play Mozart for them as they’re growing up? Not really.

Does classical music make babies and kids smarter?

The idea that music makes kids smarter comes, ultimately, from a 1993 study that had college-age students listen to either a Mozart sonata, a meditation tape, or nothing before doing a task that required them to envision cutting a piece of folded paper, and those who listened to Mozart did very slightly better than the others. The authors said that they expect the effect wears off after 10 to 15 minutes.

The study took off in popular media, gradually morphing into the idea that classical music makes people, especially kids, smarter. A 2005 study of newspaper citations found that the 1993 study was cited ten times as often as comparable scientific studies of the time, and that its fame grew rather than faded over the years as legislators and popular books kept bringing it up.

Is the “Mozart effect” real?

This so-called “Mozart effect” wasn’t even studied in children. Researchers studied every variation of the effect, looking at effects of other types of music, and even playing Mozart for rats in utero. They found no robust intelligence-enhancing effect of listening to classical music, and several groups of scientists tried to replicate the original study and couldn’t always get the same results. There have been studies on young children taking music lessons and later doing better on tests, but this is different than the original idea of listening to music increasing intelligence.

The authors of that 2005 analysis report that the idea of the Mozart effect only really took off in popularity after people started talking about it in babies and young children (even though it had not been studied in those populations) and that it was most popular in states with the lowest spending on education and the lowest test scores. In other words, it may have been attractive to think of classical music CDs as a shortcut to children’s academic success in the face of systemic problems with education. Never mind that it wasn’t actually true.

Does music have social and emotional benefits for babies?

Music can be a fun and useful part of the way babies interact with caregivers, but the caregiver is the important part here, not the music. Babies can recognize familiar tunes and family members’ voices from an early age.

Music also gives you an opportunity to experience emotions with your baby, like smiling or dancing with them when you play a happy song, or using a soothing song like a lullaby during a quiet time.

Does music have physical and sensory benefits for babies?

Babies and toddlers may be too young to play music in the sense of taking instrument lessons, but they can definitely move their bodies and use simple instruments to make noise. Shaking a maraca or following along to a song or nursery rhyme (think “Itsy Bitsy Spider”) lets them practice different kinds of movement and see how their actions have effects in the real world—“I shake this thing, and it makes noise.” These movement skills are an important part of babies’ development.

There are studies suggesting that infant music classes can help babies learn some of the same skills that help them process language, but don’t forget that a music class is busy, fun, and interactive. The kid is being bounced to the music, plays with toys, and gets to watch and react to their teacher or caregiver doing things. There’s a lot more going on than just musical notes reaching their ears.

How to add music to your baby’s life

Even though the buzz around the Mozart Effect had quieted down by the time I had kids, I remember constantly running into “Baby Einstein” branded toys and videos. The company leaned hard into the idea that classical music would make your kid smarter, and eventually ended up taking down some of their educational claims and giving refunds to parents.

While it seems silly now, in the 1990s and early 2000s the idea that music would make your kid smarter was so pervasive as to be inescapable. Besides assuaging fears about children and education in general (my kid will be okay if I play enough classical music), I’m convinced that one of the things fueling the myth is that playing classical music for babies is easy and cheap. Mozart has been dead for 200 years, so his music is public domain. Slap a ditty of his onto a video of random toys and objects, and boom, you have a sellable product. (I’m not kidding: check out some actual Baby Einstein videos. They’re bad.)

So if you want to introduce your kid to music, forget finding the “best” genre or composers. Sing to them, dance with them, play your own favorite music (pro tip: they don’t understand the words yet, so you can really play anything), and let them make some noise of their own.

 



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