The Mozart effect is a well known term for the concept that listening to music – and in particular Mozart music – can help to improve concentration and focus and generally improve your productivity. While the idea is very popular and widely known however, evidence is not in fact conclusive that such an effect really works. Here we will look at the idea behind the Mozart effect and the mechanism through which it is proposed to operate.
Left Brain and Right Brain
The idea behind listening to music and particularly Mozart comes from the idea of the ‘left brain’ and ‘right brain’. The idea is that each hemisphere of the brain specializes in different abilities – while the left brain is the part associated with language and logic for instance, it is believed that the right side of the brain is more involved in creativity and emotion.
When we work on something and attempt to focus our productivity it is our intention to utilize the left brain as much as possible – to formulate arguments, to come up with stories and pros, and to analyze concepts and ideas and work out mathematical problems.
However, in order to utilize the left brain as well as we would want, we have to make sure that we can ‘isolate’ it and stop using the right brain as much lest it interfere with our left brain activities. Consciously we see this as our brain getting distracted by things when we should be working. If what we are doing is too ‘dry’ as in entirely left brain oriented then we will start to find that we get bored and easily distracted and that we end up browsing the web, drawing or reading about random celebrities on the web.
By listening to music or Mozart specifically then, the idea is that we stimulate the creative part of our brain. Now, instead of just ‘crunching numbers’ we are also enjoying a tune which means we get much less bored.
So that’s the theory, but the question is, does it work? According to a set of research the answer is that yes, listening to Mozart can have short term effects on our ‘spatial-temporal reasoning’. This then though is a very specific type of cognitive task, and that finding doesn’t necessarily also relate to other mental tasks such as comprehension or maths. The reason for this may be that in many cases the brain works using both the left and right hemisphere’s of the brain. For instance if you are writing a story or an article then this is obviously also a creative task and so it uses both hemispheres of the brain. In such a case, listening to Mozart may actually distract the parts of the brain you need.
This also then asks the question – why Mozart? And surely if you were to listen to any music, as long as it didn’t have lyrics, it would still have the effect of helping you to concentrate. Many studies have subsequently suggested that this is indeed the case, and that there is in fact no advantage to listening to Mozart over other music.
The reason that the phenomenon is attributed to Mozart principally then is because of the original study published in Nature in 1933 by Shaw and Rauscher. Here Shaw and Rauscher fond that particular neurons fired in response to particular frequencies found in Mozart’s music which did seem to aid in spatial activities. The way this has been subsequently generalized and marketed however is of course a result of cunning marketing ploys rather than any concrete studies. The 1997 book by Don Campbell ‘The Mozart Effect’ for instance claims that Mozart can ‘heal the body’, ‘strengthen the mind’ and ‘unlock the creative spirit’. Of course there is no evidence that Mozart can ‘heal the body’ in any measurable way, other than helping to bring about a relaxed mental state. This did not stop Zell Miller, a Governor of Georgia in 1998, announcing that his state budget would include $105,000 to supply every child born with a CD of classical music.
In recent times however the effect has been viewed with more skepticism, and in 1999 a paper described the effects as being explained simply by ‘enjoyment arousal’ – that listening to the music simply improved mood and so performance. In the study he demonstrated that listening to passages from Stephen King could also help improve paper folding and cutting, and that only those who reported enjoying the Mozart had any positive effect. That said, a study in 2001 found that listening to one particular passage from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 could help to decrease epileptiform activity due to the tempo and structure.
The Take Home Message
Perhaps what we learn most from the ‘Mozart Effect’ is how keen we are to take one small study and blow the results out of all proportion. The Mozart effect won’t have any impact on your IQ and there’s no need to play it to children as they go through development. However if you enjoy the music it never hurts to have it on in the background to help create a calming mood and to give you something to distract your more creative impulses.