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The Mozart Effect Isn’t Limited to the Young

New research from Italy finds the brains of healthy elderly patients respond to hearing a Mozart piano sonata.
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Mozart statue in Vienna, Austria. (Photo: Terence Faircloth/Flickr)

Mozart statue in Vienna, Austria. (Photo: Terence Faircloth/Flickr)

More than two decades after it was first proposed, the “Mozart effect”—the contention that listening to the composer’s music uniquely boosts brain function in some way—remains controversial. Various studies have found exposure to his work enhances certain abilities in some people, but how widespread this impact is, and whether it is truly limited to Mozart, is still quite uncertain.

A newly published, small-scale study provides some interesting evidence of its efficacy. It finds Mozart’s D major Sonata for Two Pianos—the work that produced the striking original results back in 1993—has a measurable effect on “a pattern of brain wave activity” linked to memory, cognition, and problem solving.

The increase in such activity was found among both young adults and healthy elderly people. Listening to one of Beethoven’s most popular piano pieces, Für Elise, did not have the same effect, suggesting the brain is responding to specific features of the Mozart work.

“The preliminary results allow us to hypothesize that Mozart’s music is able to ‘activate’ neuronal cortical circuits related to attentive and cognitive functions,” writes an Italian research team led by Walter Verrusio of Sapienza University of Rome. Its work is published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition.

The study used scalp electrodes and EEG technology to trace the brain-wave patterns of 30 participants. The first group consisted of “10 young, healthy people” (with an average age of 33); the second, 10 elderly individuals with no known cognitive defects (with an average age of 82); the third, 10 people who had been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (with an average age of 77).

All of them visited the lab twice. On their first visit, after 10 minutes of quiet, they listened to the first movement of Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos, K. 448, or Beethoven’s Für Elise, as their brain waves were monitored. They listened to the other piece under the same conditions one week later.

The researchers found “an increase of the alpha power and MF frequency index of background activity in both adults and in the healthy elderly” after listening to the Mozart. This pattern is “linked to IQ, memory, cognition, and (having an) open mind to problem solving,” they add.

In contrast, they found no changes in brain activity after the subjects listened to Beethoven. This suggests the results were “not just a consequence of listening to music in general,” they write.

These changes were not found in people suffering from mild cognitive impairment. But in an earlier study of people with this condition, the researchers found listening to this piece produced “an improvement in the performance of spatial tasks.” They speculate that this reflects “compensatory brain plasticity” on the part of such people.

So why Mozart? The researchers write that much of his music, including the sonata tested here, “each element of harmonic (and melodic) tension finds a resolution that confirms listeners’ expectations.” In other words, his music tends to be highly rational and meticulously organized, “presumably echoing the organization of the cerebral cortex.”

So don’t look for a brain boost from Bartok, or Jimi Hendrix for that matter: If this theory is correct, dissonant music won’t have the same effect. On the other hand, Vivaldi’s music contains many of the aforementioned attributes, and it too has been linked to enhanced mental functions.

Perhaps the brain recognizes, and responds to, a soulmate in sound.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.