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

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.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


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.