Monday, June 23, 2014

"Mozart's Effect on Us" : A Twenty-Five Year Meta-Analysis of the Mozart effect

(I wrote this as a term paper for the course, The Psychology Of Music, taught at Harvard University in the spring of 2013 by Professor Peter Cariani. The paper has been updated to reflect new research up to 12/2016).
W. Mozart, by Joseph Lange
 Stiftung Mozarteum Salzburg

I. Introduction

For over half a century, cognitive neuroscientists have explored whether there is a causal relationship between listening to music and enhancement of cognitive ability. Reducing this reasoned inquiry to its more simplistic “sound bite” form, does music make one “smarter?”  Can listening to music, especially certain types of music, or perhaps the music of certain composers, lead to greater mental capacities of memory and intellect?  Is music hard-wired in the human brain, and in turn, does music hard-wire the brain?  Or, is this “music-mind- stuff” just hype, a persistent neuromyth, nothing more than anecdotal and uncontrolled pseudoscience, marketing ploy rather than hard science. This paper reviews the context surrounding one aspect of the inquiry: does listening specifically to the music of Wolfgang Mozart improve cognitive ability over listening to other types of music or silence, evaluates the published research, and draws conclusions on the validity and utility of the findings. 

II .  Overture 

Researchers have long thought that there might exist in the brain a neural network“music box”, analogous to the so-called  “language box” of Noam Chomsky, that music might be subserved by a similar neural network as language, and that entraining these networks could lead to improved cognition.

The field of music psychology has arisen out of findings in structural neurology. Mountcastle, in 1957, was the first to posit that the cerebral cortex has a columnar organization, with the trion as the basic structural unit (1).  A trion is an idealized mini- column of neurons with three levels of firing activity. (1)  In 1990, Leng et al examined histological sections of temporal lobe auditory cortex with Cajal staining techniques, and discovered that the neuroanatomy of the auditory system has a columnar architecture similar to the trionic neural architecture hypothesized by Mountcastle (akin to that of the visual system as first described by Hubel and Wiesel). (2)   Leng hypothesized that this vertical stacking of auditory neurons predisposes them to fire in certain patterns, that these patterns of firing were quasi-stable, and that this was a logical and mathematical outcome of its columnar cortical architecture, representing a form of “basic exchange of mental activity.” (2)  Utilizing computer modeling and computational symmetries to create a one-to-one correspondence between neuronal firing patterns and discrete musical pitches, they found that the output, rather than being random noise or unorganized sound (which is what one might intuitively expect), actually sounded more like actual music, organized sound with the  "flavor,” to use their term,  of new age music, “Eastern” music, or music of the early Baroque (2).

Leng hypothesized that if brain activity can sound like music, could working in reverse and observing how the brain responds to music? (2, 3)  Might patterns in music stimulate the brain by activating similar firing patterns of nerve clusters? (2, 3)

At the same time, a different line of research was ongoing in Paris which would eventually align with the research of the Leng team. Alfred Tomatis M.D. was a French-born otolaryngologist who in the late 1980s founded the specialty of “audiopsychophonology.” His thesis was that “the voice cannot produce what the ear cannot hear.” (4)  Using Gregorian plainchant and several of Mozart’s five violin concerti, Tomatis used his techniques to treat patients who could not properly vocalize, declaim on theatrical stages, or sing in concert halls. Thomatis’ concept of “auditory processing integration” retrained the voices of, inter alii, Maria Callas, Gordon Sumner (Sting), Gerard Depardieu and Benjamin Luxon, resuscitating their careers. Tomatis reported on his findings in 1991, arguing 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.

III. Prelude 

Frances Rauscher, Gordon Shaw and Ky, of the department of psychology at the University of California, Irvine, published a one-page paper in the October 14, 1993 issue of the journal Nature, entitled, "Music and Spatial Task Performance." (5)  They found that short-term listening to the complete first movement and the first three minutes of the second movement (10 total minutes) of the Mozart two- piano sonata in D (K.V. 448/375a) led to a short-term improvement (~ 9 points, for about 15 minutes) in spatial-temporal tasks on a Stanford-Binet Test (paper folding/ cutting), over the same group tested after sitting in silence, and then after listening to “relaxation music.” (5)  The Rauscher team did not give this finding a name, nor did they extrapolate their findings to state that Mozart’s music improved any other aspect of cognition.  

Mozart Sonata for two pianos in D,  KV 448
Frontispiece of the Breitkopf Edition

IV. Sonata 

What is so special about the two-piano sonata in D (K.V. 448) of Wolfgang Mozart that it was chosen for the Rauscher study? In September 2012, in preparation for some remarks on the Mozart effect that I presented at an October 2012 Music and Medicine Symposium at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, I interviewed Professor Frances Rauscher about this topic. Professor Rauscher, who is now at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as an emeritus professor of psychology, told me that when she and her team were organizing the Nature study at UCI in 1993, she had asked a musicologist at her institution for a composition that was relatively upbeat, had some repetition and was melodically relatively straightforward, and that this was the piece chosen. Rauscher stated that. “we used the first movement of the Mozart two-piano sonata because it has very few musical motives that interweave in various forms throughout the movement; that it was a two-piano sonata helped reinforce the symmetry in the music.”

I asked Dr Rauscher why her team used both the first movement of KV 448, marked Allegro con spirito (lively and with spirit), but also part of the Andante (a slow talking tempo) second movement. Her response was that “we included a portion of the second movement as a sort of "cool down" period.” (Frances Rauscher, personal communications, 9/12/2012) The Mozart selection the researchers chose was purposely not of one tempo, because they wanted music that was both fast and slow. The first movement of the two-piano sonata, in D major (two sharps), is largely comprised of tonic and dominant chords, and has six distinct repetitive motifs. The two pianos not only echo each other, but often play the same melody in octaves. I asked Professor Rauscher about this seeming overkill, and she said they purposely wanted some chordal redundancy to emphasize certain melodic themes as that would potentially entrain better.  

V. Development

In 1996, Don Campbell, a professional musician, successfully petitioned the United states Copyright and Trademark Office to obtain a copyright for the term “The Mozart Effect” (note the capitalization of both “Mozart” and “Effect”), and subsequently published a 1997 book entitled, The Mozart Effect: Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the Spirit and Unlock the Creative Spirit. (6)

Campbell followed that up with another book, The Mozart Effect for Children, along with dozens of related cassettes, CDs and related workbooks. In his 1996 book, Campbell defined "The Mozart Effect" as "an inclusive term signifying the transformational powers of music in health, education, and well-being. It represents the general use of music to reduce stress, depression, or anxiety; induce relaxation or sleep; activate the body; and improve memory or awareness.”  (6)   Campbell went on to claim 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 overwhelmingly positive. If YouTube had existed then, it could hve been said that the books and the term The Mozart Effect had gone "viral".  The Mozart Effect was so popular as a concept that it became a political call- to-arms for the arts, reaching, among other places, the Georgia state legislature, when in 1998 then governor Zell Miller apportioned funds to buy 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 some kind of Mozart Effect, the Rauscher study was being subjected to an enormous amount of scrutiny, most of it negative.         

VI. Theme and Variations 

On 3/1/13, I performed a Medline search of all titles containing the terms “Mozart effect,” "The Mozart Effect,"  “Mozart + spatial,” or “Mozart + cognition.”  A total of 107 distinct articles were retrieved and analyzed as to:  peer-review, accepted methodology, controlled trial, and rigor of data analysis. Most of the articles were reviews of other works, hypotheses, single case studies, anecdotal opinion, or did not meet all of the four critera; of the 107 articles, only six qualified for the meta-analysis

A 1994 study by Stough et al from Auckland, New Zealand, failed to find any relationship between the Mozart sonata and spatial reasoning. The researchers employed Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices, an accepted tool for analyzing spatial reasoning, whereas the Rauscher group used Stanford-Binet testing. This study, while meeting the four inclusion criteria, could not be definitely analyzed given the different testing methodologies. (8)

In 1995, a group from SUNY Albany replicated the Rauscher study and increased the study group to 114 subjects, with a slight older mean age than the college students in the Rauscher study (SUNY mean age 27.3 vs Rauscher mean age 20.8). The SUNY group found no increase in spatial-temporal reasoning, and no correlation to higher scores and any type of classical music preference. (9)

A study by Steele et al, the so-called Appalachian Study, also found no correlation between the music of Mozart and increased spatial-task performance. Steele’s conclusions were that “any cognitive improvement was transient” and more likely represented a “practicing’ effect and a familiarity with the paper-cutting test on multiple trials to different pre-treatment stimuli (10).

However, two separate studies by Rideout et al, one employing 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. (13, 14)

Rauscher and Shaw responded to the spate of studies, some of which confirmed, but most of which refuted their 1993 findings, by repeating a Mozart effect  study on laboratory rats, confirming that rats pre-treated with Mozart, learned to navigate a T- maze significantly better than rats exposed to minimalist music (Philip Glass), white noise, or silence, and that 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 utilizing diverse subjects and different methodological designs, such as musically disparate compositions, listening conditions, and measures. Rauscher also reiterated that her team's 1993 Nature study specifically identified its limitations: that the effect was transient, and limited to spatial cognition. (12) 

VII. Coda

By 1999, six years after the Rauscher study, the scientific community had pronounced the Mozart effect anecdotal and non-reproducible. Two articles in Nature, both entitled “Prelude or Requiem for the Mozart effect?,” one by Kevin Steele and coworkers (15), and the other by Christopher Chabris (16), came to the same conclusion: that the results of the Mozart effect were transient, and that there was no difference in spatial-temporal skills after being pretreated, in their studies, with Mozart’s two-piano sonata, the minimalist music of Philip Glass or silence. (15, 16)  Chabris maintained that “this (Mozart) effect, if indeed there is one, is much more readily explained by established principles of neuropsychology, in this case, an effect on mood or arousal, than by some new model about columnar organization of neurons and neuron firing patterns" (16)

This could have been the coda and the end of the interesting saga of the Mozart effect. However, further rigorous lines of inquiry have followed, examining specific circumstances in using Mozart’s music, and music similar to the music of Mozart: in epilepsy in some studies, and in cardiovascular health in others. These new avenues of research have reopened the related inquiry of whether there is a biological underpinning to the Mozart effect.

Epileptic patients who listened to the music of Mozart, and the music of two other composers whose style resembles that of Mozart (Johann Christian Bach and Johann Sebastian Bach), had a statistically significant reduction in the frequency of epileptiform activity, in comparison to the same patients when they listened to the music of 58 other composers, including the works of Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms and Stravinsky. (17) The authors, John Hughes and John Fino of the University of Illinois, examined 81 musical selections of Mozart, 67 selections of Johann Christian Bach, 67 of Johann Sebastian Bach, 39 of Chopin, as well as 148 selections from 55 other composers. The compositions were computer analyzed to search for any distinctive aspect and to determine if there was a dominant periodicity.  Long-term periodicity (mean = 10-60 sec, median = 30 sec) was found most often in the music of Mozart and the two Bachs, which was significantly more often than 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. Short-term periodicities were not significantly different between the music of Mozart and the two Bachs, versus the music of the other composers. However, at least one distinctive aspect of the music of Mozart and the two Bachs, specifically their long-term melodic periodicity, may resonate within the cerebral cortex and also may relate to brain coding.” (17)  Thus, the Mozart effect could also be termed the “J.S. Bach effect” or the “J.C. Bach effect."

More recent evidence for the efficacy of Mozart’s music on epileptiform frequency has confirmed the Hughes and Fino data. In a 2011 series of experiments by Lin et al, the researchers looked at long-term listening of Mozart’s two-piano sonata KV 448 and epileptiform activity in children, and found that there was a significant reduction in activity in the group “treated” with Mozart’s music. (18) The Lin group re-confirmed their findings in 2015. (19)

Trappe et al looked at the effect of the music of Mozart, Beethoven, and Verdi, as well as heavy metal music played by several groups, on their effect on heart rate variability. They found that the music of these composers, but not heavy metal music, lowered heart rate and reduced the variability of heart rhythm. (20)

There have also been peer-reviewed articles on the use of Kv 448 in tinnitus (21), cognitive rehabilitation in the aged (22), and on the central nervous system. (23)

Pauwels et al looked into whether there is a link between music-generated emotion and higher level cognition. Positron emission tomography and functional magnetic resonance imaging show that listening to pleasurable music activates cortical and subcortical cerebral areas where emotions are processed. (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. Music therapy applies this arousal, offering benefits to patients by diverting their attention from unpleasant experiences and future interventions. Music therapy has been applied to cardiovascular disorders, cancer pain, epilepsy, depression and dementia. Music may modulate the immune response evidenced by increasing the activity of natural killer(NK) cells, lymphocytes and interferon-γ, as many diseases are related to a misbalanced immune system. There is moderate level of evidence that listening to known and preferred music decreases burden of disease and stress by  enhancing the immune system .(24)

Verrusio and colleagues evaluated, by electroencephalography (EEG), the effect of listening to Mozart's KV 448 2-piano sonata or Beethoven's Für Elise piano bagatelle, in separate groups of healthy adults, healthy elderly, and elderly with mild cognitive impairment (MCI).(24) EEG recordings were performed at basal rest conditions and after listening to Mozart's music or Beethoven's music. There was an increase in the alpha band and median frequency index of background alpha rhythm activity, (a pattern of brain wave activity linked to memory, cognition and open mind to problem solving), with the Mozart KV 448 in the adult group and in the group of the elderly. No changes were observed in MCI. After listening to Beethoven’s Für Elise, no changes in EEG activity were detected in any of the groups. They concluded that Mozart's music is able to "activate" neuronal cortical circuits related to attentive and cognitive functions. (25)

Studies demonstrating the effect on Mozart's music in autistic children have demonstrated improved language skills, augmenting their ability to communicate, participate and express non-verbally, and develop appropriate expression of their emotions. (26)

VII. Summary

What conclusions can be drawn from analyzing the data on the Mozart effect?

1. If there is anything that could be called a Mozart effect, it is transient and it is specific to spatial-temporal reasoning.

2. The Mozart effect cannot be extrapolated to other cognitive abilities nor cognitive enhancement over longer periods of time.

3. There is not just a Mozart effect; there is also a  "J.C. Bach effect”, a “J.S. Bach effect," and likely, an "effect" by other composers in classical and popular genres, whose melodic themes happen to “align” with the periodicities of  neuronal network activity.

4.   Certain types of music with  specific rhythms and periodicity, create an arousal effect, and it is this arousal that creates  temporary enhancement in cognitive capacity. Whether or not this effect is a consequence of  the “aligning of neurons" is unknown. This hypothesis needs further research.

5. Studies examining Mozart’s music and epileptiform discharge, Mozart's music and tinnitus, and Mozart's music and heart rate and rhythm regularity, have found a salutary and direct correlation with Mozart's music more than silence, random noise, and the music of other composers.

6. Despite the varied interpretation of  the findings, the data underpinning the Mozart effect has been positive, calling attention to the ability of certain genres of music, to lower disorganized brain activity (decrease epileptiform discharge), decrease stress, blood pressure and heart rate.

In a world increasingly fraught with stress, anger and anxiety, the use of music, especially Mozart's music, as both therapy and for pleasure, has been one of calmness and healing, centering us in a sonic world of consummate and felicitous harmony.


1. Edelman G. and Mountcastle V., The Mindful Brain: Cortical organization and the group selective theory of higher brain function, Cambridge, MIT Press , 1978 

2. Leng, X., Shaw G., and Wright, E., Coding of music and the trion model of cortex. Music Perception (1990) 8: 49

3. Lerch, D., The Mozart effect: A Closer Look
4. Tomatis, A., Pourquois Mozart?  (1991) Paris, Hatchette Diffusion Books

5. Rauscher, F., Shaw G., and Key,K., Music and spatial task performance. Nature . 1993; 365: 611

6. Campbell, D., The Mozart Effect: Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the Mind and Unlock the Creative Spirit, New York, Avon Books, 1996

7. Sack, K, Georgia’s governor seeks musical start for babies, New York Times. Jan. 15, 1998,Sec A, pg. 12

8. Stough C, et al, Music and IQ Tests. The Psychologist . 1994; 7:253                           

9. Newman J et al, An experimental Test of "The Mozart Effect": Does listening to his music improve spatial ability? Perceptual and Motor Skills. 1995; 81: 1379

10. Steele K, et al, The mystery of the Mozart effect: Failure to replicate. Psychol. Sci. 1999; 10: 366

11. Rauscher F., and Shaw G., Key components of the Mozart effect. Perceptual and Motor Skills. 1998; 86, 835

12. Rauscher F, et al, Improved maze learning through early music exposure in rats. Neurol. Research. 1998; 20:427-32.

13. Rideout B, and Laubach M., EEG correlates of enhanced spatial performance following exposure to music. Perceptual and Motor Skills. 1996; 82: 427

14. Rideout B., Taylor J, Enhanced spatial performance following 10 minutes exposure to music. A replication. Perceptual and Motor Skills. 1997; 85: 112

15. Steele, K., et al, Prelude or Requiem for the Mozart effect? Nature 1999; 400: 827

16. Chabris, C., Prelude or Requiem for the Mozart effect? Nature. 1999; 400: 826

17. Hughes, J., and Fino, J. The Mozart effect: Distinctive aspects of the music as a clue to brain coding.  J. Clin. Electroencephal. 2000; 31: 94

18. Lin L., et al, Mozart effect decreases epileptiform discharge in epilepsy, Epilep. Behav. 2011; 4: 420-424

19. Lin, L. et al., Mozart's music in children with epilepsy, Transl Pediatr. 2015; 4:323-6. doi: 10.3978/j.issn.2224-4336.2015.09.02

20. Trappe H, The effects of music on the cardiovascular system and cardiac health, Heart. 2010; 96: 1868

21. Attanasio G, Cartocci G, Covelli E, et al. The Mozart effect in patients suffering from tinnitus. Acta Otolaryngol. 2012; 132: 1172–1177

22. Cacciafesta M, Ettorre E, Amici A, et al. New frontiers of cognitive rehabilitation in geriatric age: the Mozart Effect. Arch Gerontol Geriatr. 2010; 51: e79–e82

23. Lin, L-C., Listening to Mozart K.448 decreases electroencephalography oscillatory power associated with an increase in sympathetic tone in adults: a post-intervention study, J Roy Soc Med. Open. 2014; 8;5(10):2054270414551657. doi: 10.1177/2054270414551657. eCollection 2014

24. Pauwels, E., et al., Mozart, music and medicine. Med Princ Pract. 2014; 23:403-12. doi: 10.1159/000364873

25. Verrusio, W., et al., The Mozart Effect: A quantitative EEG study, Conscious Cogn. 2015; 35:150-5. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2015.05.005

26. (Kathleen Terani:  "Music, movement and the Mozart effect" Omni-Intelligencer, March 2016.

Vincent P. de Luise, M.D. F.A.C.S. is an assistant clinical professor of ophthalmology at Yale University School of Medicine, and adjunct clinical assistant professor of ophthalmology at Weill Cornell Medical College, where he also 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


  1. here are some other recording of the Sonata of Mozart for two pianos in D major KV 448

    1. Thank you for adding these other recordings of KV 448