Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


mozart-statue

Mozart statue in Salzburg, Austria. (PHOTO: EVGENY EREMEEV/SHUTTERSTOCK)

To Stay Focused, Listen to Mozart

• June 24, 2013 • 12:00 PM

Mozart statue in Salzburg, Austria. (PHOTO: EVGENY EREMEEV/SHUTTERSTOCK)

New research from Japan finds listening to a Mozart minuet helps people ignore extraneous information.

Score another one for Wolfgang Amadeus. Researchers report the soothing sounds of a Mozart minuet boosts the ability of children and seniors to focus on a task and ignore extraneous information.

Dissonant music has the opposite effect, according to Nobuo Masataka of Japan’s Kyoto University and Leonard Perlovsky of Harvard University. Their findings help make the case that music, sometimes thought of as a pleasant byproduct of evolution, has in fact played an active role in human development.

Unsettling music also has value, perhaps helping us come to terms with difficult situations such as the death of someone close to us.

In the journal Scientific Reports, the researchers describe an experiment featuring 25 boys (ages eight and nine), and 25 seniors (ages 65 to 75). All completed a modified version of the well-known Stroop task, in which a word spelling out a color is presented in a different color (such as “red” written with green letters). As a series of such words flashed across a computer screen, participants were asked to name, as quickly as possible, the color of the letters themselves, ignoring the color they spelled out.

Participants performed the test three times: Once while a simple Mozart minuet played in the background, once while listening to a modified version of the piece featuring many “dissonant intervals,” and once in silence.

The results were consistent for the seniors and youngsters. Compared to working in silence, their reaction times were significantly quicker, and their error rates were lower, when the original Mozart piece was played. In contrast, when the dissonant music was playing, reaction times were significantly slower, and error rates significantly higher.

To Masataka and Perlovsky, this suggests consonant music—that is, music that has a pleasing sense of stability and completeness—may have “an important cognitive function: help overcoming cognitive interference.”

They argue that this practical value helps explain why humans gradually evolved to prefer consonant over dissonant music. However, they are quick to add that unsettling music also has value, perhaps helping us come to terms with difficult situations such as the death of someone close to us.

This new research augments a study released last year by the same team, which found listening to Mozart helps us cope with cognitive dissonance—the deep discomfort we feel when we realize two of our beliefs are at odds. Together, the results suggest music can help us see a complex, confusing situation more clearly, and cope with it more efficiently—an ability that “facilitates human evolution,” Masataka and Perlovsky write.

“Music evolved for helping to overcome the predicament of stress that arises from holding contradictory cognitions,” they conclude, “so that knowledge is not discarded, but rather can be accumulated, and human culture can evolve.”

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

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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