Charlotte Lapham - Music

Does listening to classical music make you cleverer?

The hotly disputed ‘Mozart Effect’ has led many to question the effects of background music on cognitive processing ability. In the original experiment, cognitive processes were enhanced in participants following exposure to Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D major (K.448). However, numerous attempts to replicate the results led to mixed conclusions. For example, some researchers found improvement in one cognitive experiment after listening to Mozart, but found a decline in performance in another. Thus, in the case of Mozart, it is currently unclear as to whether listening to it as background music has any significant effect on cognitive processing ability.

But other aspects must be considered e.g. the effects of the loudness of background music. Researchers have shown that reading material whilst listening to background music results in significantly worse reading performance when that background music was fast and/or loud compared to slower softer music. Other studies have investigated aspects such as the difference between musicians and non-musicians, and the influence of gender on episodic (long-term) memory: in the presence of background music, musicians significantly outperformed non-musicians on both language comprehension and visuospatial tasks (awareness of objects around you), and women perform at a higher level than men on most episodic memory tasks.

Your brain and music.

But why? A plausible hypothesis is that musicians have an enhanced synaptic plasticity. In short, enhanced synaptic plasticity is an increase in the formation of new neural pathways, and a greater capacity for synapses to strengthen or weaken in response to specific stimuli. This neural plasticity usually decreases dramatically with age, yet playing music, and to a lesser extent listening to music, may combat this to a certain extent in areas such as verbal memory.

It is suggested that the presence of music interferes with the efficiency of language processing, supporting the idea that music and language are not functionally independent. In short, background music places demands on attention. The same area in the brain that deals with linguistic syntax is involved with the processing of music (fig. 1). Music, like language, has syntax: a structure based on complex rules. But even with this information, why does music influence cognitive processing ability? The key point is that we have the ability to utilize music to influence how we feel and act. Nearly all of us have probably experienced either an enhanced or diminished ability to ‘work’ due to an emotional state. Thus it seems obvious that something that can alter our emotional state (i.e. music) has an effect on cognitive processing ability. Indeed, Thompson, Schellenberg and Letnic (2011) came up with the ‘arousal-mood hypothesis’: Music listening affects task performance by influencing arousal and mood. Cognitive-motor benefits are associated reliably with enhanced mood and heightened arousal.  

To investigate the area further, an experiment was conducted. 45 participants each completed a questionnaire and then carried out a computer-based memory task whilst listening to music. Participants either listened to classical (Mozart), rock (Amon Amarth), or silence. Participants were shown a random series of eight familiar objects on a white background. They were required to click when the picture they saw was the same as the one that occurred two previously (see fig.2 below). Volume, tempo, modality, and participant demographic were all controlled for.



Statistical tests revealed a significant difference in the performance between classical and rock conditions: working memory is enhanced more when background music is classical compared to rock (fig. 3).

From the questionnaire, the most preferred musical genre to listen to whilst working is classical, with 64.4% of participants reporting that it was their most preferred musical genre to listen to whilst completing academic work. This figure is over four times greater than the second most preferred musical genre to listen to whilst completing academic work, pop music, only finding favour with 13.3%. It is likely that such a high proportion of participants reported a preference for classical music when working because it enhances mood and increases arousal, therefore providing cognitive performance benefits.

However, what is interesting is the difference between musicians and non-musicians. 61% of musicians said that they found that listening to music improved their work productivity, whilst this figure was only 25% in non-musicians. Yet this did not seem to be reflected in performance scores in the n-back test. The mean score for musicians was 76.7% and 77.5% for non-musicians.

However, when the data were split into different genres, the results are more interesting (fig. 4). Both musicians and non-musicians performed similarly in the silence condition, as might be expected. However, overall non-musicians performed better with background music, with little difference between genres. This, however, is not the case with musicians, who performed significantly better in the classical music than any other condition, and better than their non-musician counterparts with classical music. In contrast, musicians performed worst in the rock condition, and far worse than their non-musician counterparts.

Why research?

The results of this study support the idea that listening to classical music enhances cognitive processing ability, in particular tasks involving short-term memory. Multiple applications of these findings include: students listening to classical music when performing work tasks that involve short-term fact retention, or using classical music to enhance concentration or work speed. Likewise, these findings could be applied to company work environments, by playing classical music to enhance various elements of productivity.

Yet is this positive effect of listening to classical music present for all cognitive processes? And is any effect long lasting, improving the performance of short-term memory in the future after the music has stopped, or just momentary? Inevitably the effects will most likely be different for different tasks as they require different areas of brain activation and place different demands on resource pools. Future research into the area is needed to determine this.

So is there actually a ‘Mozart effect’?

In short, we currently have insufficient evidence and understanding to either prove or disprove this theory. Nonetheless, we can theorize. Cognition is dependent on arousal and mood. Therefore, any effect is likely due to how the stimulus, in this case music, affects arousal and mood in the listener. Thus there seems no reason to say that a comparable effect may not be present when listening to another composer, say Vivaldi or Bach, or even a person’s favourite piece of pop music. Does the stimulus even need to be music at all? Surely if it increases positive arousal and mood, then will not cognitive performance also increase?

The key to understanding the effect of background on cognitive processing ability is simply that music elicits emotion. In light of all that has been discussed, rather than a ‘Mozart Effect’, I propose the potential existence of a musically induced arousal and valence effect on cognition as a more likely explanation for the phenomena debated. Indeed, something akin to a musically stimulated mood effect.

Further Exploration

BBC Future Article on the Mozart Effect

r/askscience How Does Music Affect the Brain?