Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Vivaldi

Music of Vivaldi Boosts Mental Vitality

• March 13, 2013 • 5:00 AM

Have a challenging mental task ahead of you? Try using Spring from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons as background music.

The Mozart Effect—the notion that listening to certain pieces of classical music can boost one’s brainpower—was initially embraced, widely popularized, and then largely debunked. But like an operatic character who keeps singing robustly on her deathbed, it refuses to go quietly.

Now, new research from the U.K. has found cognitive benefits from listening to one of the most popular pieces in the repertoire: Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.

In an experiment, the work’s evocative Spring section, “particularly the well-recognized, vibrant, emotive and uplifting first movement, had the ability to enhance mental alertness and brain measures of attention and memory,” reports Northumbria University psychologist Leigh Riby. He describes his study in the journal Experimental Psychology.

Riby’s research featured 14 young adults (mean age 21), all of whom performed a mental-concentration task while their brain’s electrical activity was monitored using an electroencephalogram. They were instructed to press the space bar of a keyboard when a specific stimulus (a green square) flashed on a monitor, ignoring both the red circle that came up most of the time, and the blue square that occasionally appeared.

They performed this task while listening to the four concertos that make up Vivaldi’s piece (each of which depicts a different season), as well as in silence. The EEG measured activity in specific parts of the brain as they did so.

The results: Participants responded correctly at a significantly faster rate during the Spring concerto than during the other three sections of the work, or while performing the task in silence. While the particularly potent first movement was playing, the average response time was 393.8 milliseconds, compared to 408.1 while working in silence, or 413.3 while listening to the more somber Autumn concerto.

Participants reported feeling more alert while the Spring concerto was playing, and the EEGs suggest the music impacted “two distinct cognitive processes,” according to Riby. He reports the piece appeared to produce “exaggerated effects” on one component of mental activity that is tied with the “emotion-reward systems within the brain.”

Riby found that “musical mode (major vs. minor) did not consistently impact on performance or brain measures of attention and memory.” If the equation was that simple, the Autumn concerto—which, like Spring, is in a major key—would have similarly enhanced cognitive function. At least in this experiment, it did not.

This leads him to “other programmatic qualities of music” as the benefactor. Perhaps Spring really does evoke a feeling of springtime deep in our brains, lifting our moods and, at least momentarily, stimulating higher levels of cognitive functioning.

His findings may shed light on another recent study, which found people can improve their moods if they make a conscious effort to do so while listening to a different classical selection: Aaron Copland’s Rodeo. That piece, too, evokes pleasant imagery–cowboys, horses, a whirlwind of motion. It’d be interesting to see what impact it has on cognitive quickness.

While its scale is small, the British study “provides evidence that there is an indirect effect of music on cognition that is created by mood, alertness and emotion,” Riby concludes. It may even stimulate the sale of some CDs. Wonder if the Vivaldi Effect has been trademarked.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.