Ever since a landmark 1993 paper1 in the journal Nature, popular belief has been that listening to classical music increases your intelligence – the so-called ‘Mozart effect’. The researchers reported that people enjoyed brief improvements in their visual-spatial skills immediately after listening to a sonata by the great composer.
However, further studies paint a complex picture of interaction between music and the human brain. They indicate that the effect of listening to music is at best temporary – lasting no longer than 10-15 minutes – and that it may be as much to do with mood changes and a heightened state of arousal. Furthermore, researchers have found that the music does not have to be Mozart, nor even classical, to create the effect: positive results have tended to be associated with any form of music that has energetic and positive emotional qualities.
One 1996 study of 10-11-year-olds in the UK investigated whether or not the Mozart effect depends on a listener’s preferences. Children were played either Mozart or music by Brit-pop band Blur (hugely successful at the time). The study group performed better in the tests after listening to the pop music. A further study found the same effect amongst children who listened to a story: the positive correlation with success in the tests depended on whether or not the kids had enjoyed the tale, so the effect may be the result of encountering a pleasurable experience rather than simply music per se.
Now audio experts are claiming that listening to bird song may also have a beneficial effect on our lives, not only in terms of our ability to learn but also by creating a conducive environment. For instance, noise such as a blaring television or loud traffic noise can make it hard to concentrate, but certain sounds such as birds singing can make it easier to focus. Interviewed by the BBC, Julian Treasure, author of Sound Business and chairman of noise consultancy The Sound Agency, suggests that what makes birdsong so special is its ability to relax people physically as well as to stimulate them cognitively. Bird song creates a state he calls ‘body relaxed, mind alert’.
Bird song applications are starting to become big business because sounds have a major impact on our emotions. Banks and gas stations are just two examples of organisations which have used bird song to influence their customer environment.
There may also be applications in schools, according to a study by ‘sonic branding’ company Condiment Junkie, Glyndwr University and the appropriately named architects Nightingale Associates. An experiment at a Liverpool primary school found that playing pupils a natural soundscape including bird song made them more alert and better able to concentrate after lunch – a traditional time for what’s called ‘postprandial somnolence’ or the period after a meal when blood sugar levels drop. The key to the most effective audio was found to be lack of repetition: the researchers claim bird song works because it frequently has no obvious repeating rhythm.
Other applications have included prescribing woodland walks to combat depression, reduce stress and treat heart problems. Bird song piped from real trees in a quiet lounge at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport aims to help people relax before their flight. Meanwhile, bird song recordings have been used to calm young patients at Liverpool’s Alder Hey Children's Hospital when they receive injections or before surgery.
But let’s get back to music created by humans: can it really boost our IQ? The jury’s still out on that one but some scientists suggest that the process of actually creating the music does have a profound influence on our brains and our ability to process and recall information. Brain scans have enabled neuroscientists to test the link between music and intelligence. Additionally, musical training may actually make our brain larger: musicians tend to have significantly more grey matter in several regions of the brain, while the effects of music lessons appear to increase with the intensity of musical training.
This all translates into higher scores in vocabulary, maths, reading, cognitive tasks and memory, according to a range of studies. Furthermore, the improvements are not just relevant to children. A study of retirement age adults found that the more years a person had spent playing an instrument, the better their performance on tests of word recall, visual (non-verbal) memory, and cognitive flexibility.
It must be time to make some music!
1Rauscher, Frances H; Shaw, Gordon L; Ky, Catherine N (1993). ‘Music and spatial task performance’, Nature.