Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


‘Mozart Effect’ Real — For Some

• July 30, 2009 • 12:03 PM

A new study finds listening to Mozart can indeed provide a boost for the brain — but only in non-musicians.

Since it entered the public consciousness in 1993, the “Mozart effect” — the notion that listening to the Austrian composer’s sublime music can boost brainpower, particularly in children — has spawned a small industry of books and CDs. But its reception among researchers has been anything but harmonious, with many expressing skepticism that a sonata could supply significant cerebral stimulation.

Researchers from Royal Holloway (University of London) have tested a thesis that may explain why studies of this phenomenon have produced such inconsistent results. In a study just published in the journal Psychology of Music, they conclude that listening to Mozart can indeed spark a certain type of intelligence, but the effect is limited to non-musicians. The reason, it appears, has to do with the different ways musicians and non-musicians process music in the brain.

The term “Mozart effect” can be traced back to a 1993 study, in which a research team led by Frances Rauscher reported that a group of college students outperformed their peers on a test measuring a specific kind of spatial intelligence after listening to one of the Austrian composer’s works: The Sonata for Two Pianos, K. 448.

The test subjects were asked to mentally unfold a piece of paper that had been folded over several times and then cut. Those who listened to Mozart were able to identify the correct shape of the unfolded paper more quickly than those who had sat in silence for 10 minutes, or those who had listened to a tape of relaxing sounds.

In the years since, “several studies have found evidence for an enhancement in spatial cognitive abilities after listening to Mozart, but several other studies have failed to replicate the results,” reports the researchers, led by psychologist Afshin Aheadi. They gathered a group of 100 university students — 50 musicians and 50 non-musicians — and had them listen to the same sonata used in the seminal 1993 study. The participants then performed a “mental rotation task,” in which they looked at drawings and were asked questions that required them to rotate the images in their minds.

The results: “Listening to Mozart benefited the non-musicians, but not the musicians,” the researchers report. In part, this is due to the fact that “musicians were more proficient than non-musicians at the mental rotation task” in practice trials before they began listening to the sonata.

“This result is wholly consistent with past literature showing that early musical training leads to gains in intellectual abilities,” they said.

But if the spatial processing skills of non-musicians were boosted by listening to the music, why didn’t that hold true for the musicians as well? Even if they had a head start over the non-musicians, why didn’t they leap even further ahead?

The researchers note that trained musicians “tend to process music in both hemispheres,” while non-musicians tend to process it in exclusively in the right hemisphere — the same part of the brain where spatial processing takes part. So the non-musicians got a particularly large jolt of stimulation in the precise part of the brain they needed for the test.

The researchers caution that “only one type of cognitive task was used in the present study, and we cannot conclude from this that all spatial cognitive skills would improve in non-musicians after listening to Mozart. Indeed, another reason for the disparate results found with the Mozart effect in the past may have to do with the number of different tests used.”

Also on that topic, the scholars reason “it may be that musicians are more likely to be interested in the Mozart effect and thus more likely to volunteer for experiments to examine it.” Their results suggest that if the pool of test subjects for some prior experiments were dominated by musicians, it is not surprising that the Mozart effect failed to register.

They add one other caveat regarding the new study: The participants were all right-handed. The scholars note that left-handed people “tend towards much more bilateral processing” in the brain, meaning the Mozart effect may have less of an impact on them.

So for at least one sizable segment of society — right-handed non-musicians — the Mozart effect appears to be real. Ironically, the composer was not only a musician, but also, by most reports, left-handed. So Mozart would have been immune to his own effect.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

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 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


Follow us


That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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