Smart Music

An investigation into the cognitive effects of exposure to fine violin music.

by Brian Dade and Noem Ort



The positive effects of fine music on IQ and other cognitive measures have received much Rosenberg-Archive attention in recent years, although scientific proof of the sometimes extravagant claims has not been clear cut. Previous studies by Jackson and Rosenheim [1] found that the arithmetic performance of Primary School students was improved against a background of modern serialist music. Filibert and Johnson [2] reported a statistically significant increase in the IQ test results of Junior College students while listening to selections from popular musicals. Freeharm and Butcher [3] exposed their subjects to four types of music - classical, semi-classical, popular and jazz - as well as a control condition of silence. They found that the subjects who heard jazz read significantly faster than the other groups, although with slightly lower comprehension scores.

However, differences in music do not always produce corresponding changes in cognitive performance. With ratings of pastel drawings as a criterion, Offal and Strine [4] noted that both depressed and schizophrenic patients responded equally to stimulating music, relaxed music, and fine music . A study by Henker [5] found that background music produced no significant difference in the quality of simple `either/or' decisions made by a group of senior management officials and a control group of monkeys. (A later review by O'Neil et. al. [6] questioned these findings, concluding that the use of bananas instead of preferential share options would have yielded higher scores for the control group. This indicates that the experimental method itself may often have a bearing on expected outcomes).

Two instruments used in previous tests to determine listeners' responses to fine violin music. Left: Automatic string quartet Right: Radio violin

Of more interest to the present study, the observation that auxiliary factors can influence intelligent behaviour appears to be borne out in a recent study of Australian opera subscribers by Herschel and Weeney. [7] Using only excerpts from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, a control group of subscribers was exposed to standard promotional material declaring the production a "...bold modern work", "all Australian production..." and a "Masterpiece of the Twentieth Century". The experimental group saw the same production but received brochures proclaiming "...yet another titillating piece of decadent nonsense", "...A bagatelle not even Europe's finest houses would dare to program!" and "Yes! Another museum piece!". To the experimenters' surprise, the latter group recorded a rapturous response, while most members of the control group had left the auditorium well before the overture had even finished, muttering "appalling", "never heard so much modernist crap in all my life" and like pejoratives.

The issues raised in this overview clearly warrant further investigation. It is interesting to speculate what would have happened in the study if a "bold modern work" had indeed been used for the experiment. Likewise, a study of the effects of local cultural conditions on the results of this study could prove enlightening. As such, the present study is designed to address the following questions:

  1. To what extent are the cognitive abilities of an `informed' audience improved by exposure to fine music ?
  2. What auxiliary factors determine their qualitative responses to music?
  3. What are the implications for fine music programming in Australian concert halls?



An experimental outline was devised using the Spiers - Rotluff test to qualitatively evaluate the `before/after' responses to musical stimuli. Subjects were exposed to a range of literature before the experimental sessions began, including Jamieson's History of Music in the Twentieth Century , Rosenberg's Yehudi Menuhin Serves Capitalism , and a variety of promotional material for local concert events. They were questioned about their general music knowledge and ranked according to Thysen's retentive indicator model. It was intended that subjects be divided into a control group of professional practitioners, and an experimental group of interested amateurs as described below.

However, certain difficulties in formulating the control group soon became apparent, and indeed aspects of the study's design needed attention in order to accommodate the experimental group. Firstly, it was impossible to find a conductor who would consent to take part in the study, most maintaining they `wouldn't be seen dead' in the company of the other subjects ( see below - Ed) . We therefore decided to replace the conductor with an old poodle named Von K . On the surface this may seem, to the uninformed reader, a curious step to take. However, we point out that the dog performed well in a simple verbal test in which he consistently identified the music of Bach, although he was less successful with other composers. (In this respect he was ranked equally with the music critic, who professed to being partial to fine music and "...may not know much about Hollywood musicals, but I know what I like.")

Secondly, despite the best of our efforts it was impossible to find a professional composer to take part in this study. Most of the potential subjects we contacted who professed some understanding of music composition were either university lecturers or employed by a "secret government agency". [8] The criterion of professionalism could not be met, and it was decided after much deliberation (and certain cost considerations) to replace the composer with a standard laboratory rat.

Another set of difficulties was encountered with the experimental group. Not one opera subscriber would consent to participate unless we included Gilbert and Sullivan selections in the experiment. Likewise, the critic refused to join unless we could promise the music was of the highest calibre, played by a world-class orchestra. Perhaps only our European readers will understand the impossibility of reconciling these two demands. [9] In contrast the arts bureaucrat seemed to have no personal views whatever, and in fact would only respond after being extensively lobbied by the laboratory staff.

After filling out a sample questionnaire, subjects were isolated in an anechoic chamber to avoid distraction from extraneous sound. (Even so, the orchestral musician maintained that he could still hear two distinct sounds - one high and one low - which we later traced to a fault in the wiring). Consistent with current fine music programming, the control group was exposed to a continuous loop tape of Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance for periods of up to 16 hours a day, while the experimental group was played a selection of modern violin works interspersed by the G & S selections referred to above.

Subjects' physiological responses were monitored through a one-way mirror and at the end of each session they were required to complete a questionnaire of the Spiers - Rotluff type, and undergo a short IQ test.


Based on the findings of previous research, we had expected to find a marked, if short term improvement in the Intelligence Quotient of the experimental subjects, coupled with a `levelling off' in mental activity of the control group. In fact, the responses were far more complex than we had imagined and were submitted to extensive analysis.

Control Group
The Orchestral Musician . Of all the subjects taking part in this study, the musician was ranked highest in terms of his general musical knowledge. We expected some levelling off in mental activity but were unprepared for what happened during the course of the experiment. Observation through the one-way mirror confirmed that the subject began looking vacantly into the middle distance after about two hours into the test. His eyes soon took on a glassy appearance, and after six hours he showed signs of foaming at the mouth. It was not until nearly 12 hours of exposure to the music that he began to exhibit involuntary muscular spasms, and it became clear that medical intervention would be required. [10] As a result, we were unable to correlate his results with those of the other subjects.

The Dog. As mentioned above, the dog was ranked equally with the music critic in terms of his general musical appreciation. The behaviour exhibited over the course of the test was consistent with a slight improvement in IQ. Within the first hour of exposure to the tape, he would attempt to `sing along' with the recorded music and even `tap out the beat' by means of a scratching motion at the chamber door. This behaviour correlated directly with the musical stimulus and would cease immediately the tape was stopped. It confirmed previous findings that any increase in intelligence attributable to music was only of a short term nature.

The Rat . Of all the results obtained from the control group, the rat's responses were perhaps the most intriguing. Within five minutes of the onset of the music it had worked it's way through a maze and begun to gnaw at the wooden panels on the other side. At the end of the fourth session it was found to have not only escaped from the maze but also produced a sizeable hole in the metal sheeting inside the chamber's walls. It therefore became necessary to restrain the rat in later sessions.

It was in these sessions that the most interesting behaviour was observed. We began to notice that rat droppings had been carefully positioned on some of the advertising material placed around the chamber, in particular that many of the adjectives in the brochures had been obscured. Thus the words brilliant, stunning and magnificent - used to describe a local Gilbert and Sullivan production - appeared to have been overscribed 'with ratshit. While this behaviour would outwardly indicate some change in IQ, our conclusions must remain tentative at this time, and will form the basis of future study.

Experimental Group
The Music Critic . As mentioned, the musical intelligence of the critic was placed on a par with that of the dog, but slightly higher than the rat. In fact, observed behaviour throughout the experiment did nothing to indicate our assessment should be revised, except to say that we had probably underestimated the rat.

Responses to the Spiers - Rotluff questionnaire changed only slightly as the experiment progressed. Thus "How would you describe the standard of playing" received the response "the wals are a nise kolar but tho chare is too hard". Assessment of physiological responses proved impossible due to his habit of leaving the room after only five minutes, only to return at the close of the session with a bottle of whiskey, shouting "what poor intonation", "lousy programming", "modernist merde " and the like.

The Opera Subscriber. Having managed to lure the opera subscriber into the experiment with a promise to play Gilbert and Sullivan, we quickly found that we needn't have put ourselves to any such trouble. The subject would invariably appear in full evening dress and refer to the laboratory staff (in their dustcoats) as "those barbarians". Observed physiological behaviour included stomping the feet and hooting at any pause in the music, and on hearing that the experiment did not provide for champagne at interval, the practice of bringing a picnic hamper.

Responses to the questionnaire were generally of two types: "a lovely piece by Gilbert and Sullivan" (this apparently regardless of who actually composed the music) and "horrible noise that sounds nothing like Gilbert and Sullivan".

The Arts Bureaucrat. Contrary to our expectations, the difficulties we experienced with the arts bureaucrat had to do with getting any meaningful response whatsoever. The subject consistently refused to commit pen to paper, and even verbal responses to our questions were highly cryptic. 1 1 It soon became clear that we would have to decipher the meaning of certain body gestures such as raised eyebrows, pursed lips, sideways glances or winks and so on, in order to make sense of our data. Obvious gestures such as nodding or shaking the head were entirely absent.

We began to assume the subject had no personal views at all, until after one session the laboratory cleaner handed in a note with a series of jottings - again in cryptic form - which indicated an underlying process was indeed at work. These notes took the form "John says no good", or "Report from Jeremy indicates support may be warranted", or "overall high ranking but F says could attract bad press", etc. By correlating these notes with observed gestures we were able - or thought we were able - to form some conclusions about the subject's responses.


From the foregoing it should be clear that the evaluation of our results was by no means straightforward. Despite this, we feel able to make some reference to the questions posed at the outset of this study, and present our recommendations as follows:

  1. We could find no evidence to support the view that exposure to fine music has any beneficial effect on human intelligence. Based on our observations, it would seem that the opposite is in fact the case.
  2. Regarding the impact of auxiliary factors on musical appreciation, there would appear to be a case for increasing expenditure on concert promotion and decreasing actual production costs. A logical development would be to fill key artistic positions with advertising executives. Apart from rethinking the colour schemes of concert halls, we suggest that attention be directed to the comfort of venue seating as well as to the supply of picnic hampers at operatic events.
  3. Our results indicate that apart from a few minor (i.e. statistically insignificant) aberrations, the current practice of programming exclusively fine music and musicals is not only culturally but also scientifically sound. However, in order to justify such programming into the future, we believe it may well be necessary to improve the socio-economic status of rats.


  1. Jackson, R and J Rosenheim, "Correlations in Music and Mathematics", Science Review Vol 63, Oct 1973. This study suggested that the teaching of mathematics in Primary Schools could well become redundant in future, as students would learn to add and subtract `by osmosis' as it were, just by listening to the music. return
  2. Filibert, J and R Johnson, "Intelligent Music" in American Journal of Psychopathology Aug 1978, p3059. return
  3. Freeharm, J and R Butcher, "Music in the Classroom Rules, OK!" Educational Methodology Vol 3 no 2, 1982. return
  4. Offal, R and J Strine, "Observed Behaviour of Sedated Mental Patients to Varied Conditions of Music", Journal of Clinical Neuropsychophysiology 1985, p3. return
  5. Henker, R. "Who Really Calls the Shots in Today's Business World?", Business Review Aug 24 1988, p42. Indeed, most of the officials would look to the monkeys for some sort of `lead' until this practice was stopped by the experimenters. return
  6. O'Neil, J, J O'Neill and J O'Neale, "Monkey Business", Business Review Aug 31, 1988 p 38. The businessmen would invariably choose `lunch' when given the option. return
  7. Herschell, R and J Weeney, "A Night at the Opera" Entertainment and Promotion Aug 1990, p1. This study appears to have had no impact on the advertising of opera events, however. return
  8. A euphemism for being on the dole. Most of the others on our list had left the country. return
  9. In the end, a hastily-made recording of The Gondoliers by the Rockmarton Regional Brass Band was marked `Performed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra' and successfully used for the experiment. return
  10. The subject was diagnosed to be comatose, accompanied by a general failure of cortical functions. He was immediately taken to hospital where sadly, he was pronounced dead the following day. The coroner's report described the cause of death as "consistent with long term exposure to Gilbert and Sullivan". return
  11. These usually took the form of "hmm?", "emmm..." or "err..." etc. return

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