The researchers tested the idea of "the Mozart effect," based on a 1993 study done by Frances Rauscher at the University of California, Irvine. She found that adolescents listening to Wolfgang Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D major performed better in reasoning tests than those listening to something else or sitting in a silent room.
The concept of the Mozart effect had a strong cultural impact when it was first posited, resulting in the sales of a lot of "Baby Mozart" CDs. In 1998, Georgia Gov. Zell Miller proposed spending $105,000 to buy a Mozart CD for every baby born in the state. Florida mandated state-funded day care centers to play an hour of classical music a day.
The study only examined 40 students, however. Skeptical researchers subsequently ran their own tests to try to reproduce the results. After analyzing 3,000 cases from 40 international studies, the team at the University of Vienna concluded that there is no proof for the existence of the Mozart effect.
"Those who listened to music -- Mozart or something else, Bach, Pearl Jam -- had better results than the silent group. But we already knew people perform better if they have a stimulus," head researcher Jakob Pietschnig told Agence France-Presse.
The research does not to say that music has no impact on brain development, however, merely that passive listening does not provide instant reasoning benefits as previously thought. Other studies suggest that the complicated physical, analytic and creative processes involved in learning an instrument can affect brain plasticity and cognitive function.
One longitudinal study found that children who received musical instruction not only outperformed their peers on activities closely related to musical ability, such as fine motor skills and tone discrimination, but also more distant skills, such as vocabulary or nonverbal reasoning. Other researchers have suggested relationships with mathematical reasoning and spatial relationships.
These studies examine musical training, though, and the new analysis suggests that to get the cognitive benefits the music world has to offer, you may need to do more than put on a CD in during playtime.