Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Mozart’s “effect” on us: A review of an aspect of music and cognition

Vincent de Luise
New Haven, Connecticut, United States

Portrait of Wolfgang Mozart

For decades, neuroscientists have explored whether there exists a causal relationship between listening to music and enhancement of cognitive ability. Does music make one smarter? Can listening to music lead to more memory and greater intellect? Does listening specifically to the music of Wolfgang Mozart improve cognitive ability? Is music hard-wired in the human brain, or is this “music-mind” stuff just hype, a persistent neuro-myth, nothing more than anecdotal pseudoscience?

I . Overture

Cognitive neuroscientists have researched the existence of a neural network “music box,” analogous to the “language box” of linguist Noam Chomsky, that music might be subserved by a similar neural network as language, and that entraining these networks could lead to improved cognition.

Mountcastle first posited that the cerebral cortex has a columnar organization with the trion: a mini-column of neurons with three levels of firing activity as the structural unit.1 Vertical stacking of auditory neurons predisposes these neurons to fire in quasi-stable patterns that represent “an exchange of mental activity.”2 Computer modelling shows that the output, rather than being random noise, actually sounds like music, organized sound with a style and rhythm resembling new age music, Baroque, or “Eastern” music.3 If brain activity sounds like music, could examining the reverse reveal the brain’s response to music? Could patterns in music activate cortical networks?

The otolaryngologist Alfred Tomatis founded the specialty of “audiopsychophonology.” His thesis was that “the voice cannot produce what the ear cannot hear.”4 Using Gregorian plainchant and Mozart’s violin concerti, Tomatis treated patients who could not properly vocalize, declaim on theatrical stages, or sing in concert halls. Using “auditory processing integration,” Tomatis retrained the voices of Gordon Sumner (Sting), Gerard Depardieu, and Benjamin Luxon, resuscitating their careers. Tomatis argued for a Mozart “effect” to explain the improvement in these patients.4 This was the first time the term “Mozart effect” had been used, though Tomatis did not copyright the term.

II. Prelude

In a 1993 paper published in Nature, entitled “Music and Spatial Task Performance,: Frances Rauscher and colleagues demonstrated that short-term listening to the Sonata for two pianos in D-major KV 448 of Wolfgang Mozart resulted in short-term improvement (~9 points for about 15 minutes) in spatial-temporal tasks over the same group tested after sitting in silence, and after listening to “relaxation music.”5

III. Sonata

Why was the Mozart two-piano sonata chosen for the study? It has the advantages of repetition and is melodically straightforward, with only a few musical motifs that interweave in various forms throughout the movement, helping to reinforce the symmetry in the music. The first movement of the sonata is largely comprised of tonic and dominant chords and has six distinct repetitive motifs. The two pianos echo each other and often play the same melody in octaves. The team also used part of the Andante second movement of the sonata, because they wanted music both fast and repetitive as well as slow for what they called a “cool-down period.”

IV. Development

The musician Don Campbell obtained a copyright for the term “The Mozart Effect” in his 1997 book entitled The Mozart Effect: Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the Spirit and Unlock the Creative Spirit.6 He described “The Mozart Effect” as signifying “the transformational powers of music in health, education, and well-being, using music to reduce stress, depression, or anxiety; induce relaxation or sleep; activate the body; and improve memory or awareness.”6 Campbell claimed that “innovative and experimental uses of music and sound can improve listening disorders, dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, autism and other mental and physical disorders and other diseases.”6 The response to the Campbell books was overwhelming. The Mozart Effect was so popular that it became a call-to-arms for the arts, reaching, among other places, the Georgia state legislature, which apportioned funds to give every child born in Georgia either a tape cassette or CD of classical music.7 At the same time that Campbell was reaping profits from the cottage industry he spawned popularizing the notion of The Mozart Effect, the original Rauscher study was being subjected to a significant amount of scrutiny and testing, most of it negative.

V. Theme and Variations

Several studies were developed to test the validity of the Rauscher findings. The Appalachian Study found no correlation between the music of Mozart and increased spatial-task performance, concluding that “any cognitive improvement was transient” and more likely represented a “practicing” effect and a familiarity with the paper cutting test that was used.10 However two separate studies, one using EEG data and both reproducing the methodology of the 1993 Rauscher study, confirmed the findings of a temporary increase in spatial-task performance scores in the groups “pre-treated” with Mozart’s music.11,12 Rauscher’s group responded to these studies by examining the responses of laboratory rats to various types of music. Rats pre-treated with Mozart’s sonata learned to navigate a T- maze significantly better than rats exposed to the minimalist music of Philip Glass or silence. This increase was retained for several months. Rauscher stated that the inconsistent results of the Mozart effect in other studies was a result of those studies using diverse subjects and different methodological designs. Rauscher also reiterated that her team’s 1993 Nature study specifically identified its limitations: that the effect was transient, and limited to spatial cognition.13,14

VI. Coda

By 1999 the scientific community had pronounced the Mozart effect anecdotal and non-reproducible, that there was no difference in spatial-temporal skills after being pretreated, that “this ‘Mozart effect’ if indeed there was one, is much more readily explained by established principles of neuropsychology, an effect on mood or arousal, than by some new model about the columnar organization of neurons and neuron firing patterns.”15, 16 These criticisms could have been the finale of the Mozart effect.

However, new lines of inquiry reopened the question of whether there is a biological underpinning to the Mozart effect. Epileptic patients who listened to the music of Mozart and to the music of two other composers, Johann Sebastian Bach and Johann Christian Bach (a mentor of Mozart whose style Mozart’s resembled), had a reduction in the frequency of epileptiform activity compared to the same patients when they listened to the music of fifty-eight other composers. The compositions were analyzed for any distinctive aspect and to determine if there was a dominant periodicity.

Long-term periodicity was found most often in the music of Mozart and the two Bachs, significantly more often than in the works of the other composers. Long-term periodicity was found to be absent in the control music that had no effect on epileptic activity in previous studies. This distinctive aspect of the music of Mozart and the two Bachs, their long-term melodic periodicity, appears to resonate within the cerebral cortex and may relate to brain coding.”17 The Mozart effect could also accurately be termed the “J.S. Bach effect” or the “J.C. Bach effect.”

Researchers who examined long-term listening of Mozart’s two-piano sonata KV 448 on epileptiform activity in children found that there was a significant reduction in activity in the group pre-treated with Mozart’s music.18,19 A study on the effect of the music of Mozart, Beethoven, and Verdi, as well as heavy metal music played by several groups, found that the music of the three composers, but not heavy metal music, lowered heart rate and reduced the variability of cardiac rhythm.20 In a study of tinnitus patients, Mozart’s two-piano sonata was also found to be salutary.21

Is there is a link between music-generated emotion and higher level cognition?22 Positron emission tomography and functional magnetic resonance imaging show that listening to pleasurable music activates cortical and midbrain loci where emotions are processed.23,24 These neurobiological effects of music suggest that auditory stimulation evokes emotions linked to heightened arousal, and result in temporarily enhanced performance in many cognitive domains.

An electroencephalographic study of the effect of listening to Mozart’s two-piano sonata or Beethoven’s bagatelle, “Für Elise,” in separate groups of healthy adults and elderly, and elderly with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), demonstrated an increase in alpha rhythm activity (a pattern of brain wave activity linked to memory and problem-solving) with the Mozart sonata in both the adult group and in the group of the elderly; no changes were observed in those with cognitive impairment.25 After listening to Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” no changes in EEG activity were detected in any of the groups. The researchers concluded that Mozart’s music was able to “activate” neuronal cortical circuits related to attention and cognitive functions.25 Studies demonstrating the effect of Mozart’s music in autistic children have demonstrated improved language skills; augmented abilities to communicate, participate and express non-verbally; and appropriate expression of their emotions.26 There appears to be a salutary effect of the music of Mozart in various clinical settings. In a world increasingly fraught with stress, anger and anxiety, the promising and beneficial aspects of Mozart’s music, for pleasure and as therapy, can serve to center patients and their caregivers in a sonic world of consummate, felicitous harmony.


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VINCENT P. DE LUISE, MD, FACS, is an assistant professor of ophthalmology at Yale University School of Medicine, and adjunct assistant professor of ophthalmology at Weill Cornell Medical College, where he serves on the Music and Medicine Initiative Advisory Board. A clarinetist, he performs chamber music, was the director of the Connecticut Mozart Festival in the bicentenary year of the composer’s death, co-founded the annual classical music recital of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, is president of the Connecticut Summer Opera Foundation, and writes and blogs about music and the arts at A Musical Vision: amusicalvision.blogspot.com.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 10, Issue 1 – Winter 2018

Spring 2017



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