Cognitive Daily

One of my best friends in college played music incessantly—whether he was studying, writing papers, completing organic chemistry problem sets, or swilling down cheap beer, whatever he did was accompanied by a nonstop 1980s synth-pop beat. This apparently did him no harm, because after graduating at the top of his class, he went on to get a PhD and a law degree, with full scholarships paying for both.

I could never study with him because the music always broke my concentration. I preferred to study to the gentle background noise of the campus coffee shop. There was one exception to this rule: when I was writing a paper, I would always play Mozart’s Piano Concerto #23. Perhaps it was just superstition, but I really believed it helped me concentrate. Even playing a Mozart symphony did not produce the same effect for me—only the piano music worked.

A few years after I graduated from college, the research of Rauscher et al. appeared to back up my superstition—listening to Mozart’s piano music actually raised spatial IQ scores. But, as I noted a few days ago, the data collected subsequently on the “Mozart effect” has been mixed, and several prominent researchers have pronounced “final curtains” or a “requiem” for the Mozart effect.

But what of my own experiences writing papers (which I still employ sometimes when inspiration founders—though I’ve now expanded my collection to include concertos 9, 21, 22, 25, and 27)? And what of the research that did show an effect? Where is that coming from?

Some recent research has begun to find answers. I’ll discuss two such studies today, and a third next week. First, Vesna Ivanov and John Geake studied three classrooms of 5th and 6th graders. For one class, Mozart’s sonata for two pianos was played both before and during the standard paper folding and cutting task used for nearly all Mozart effect research. In this task, a piece of paper is folded several times, and then holes are punched in it. Students must imagine where the holes will be when the paper is unfolded. The second class listened to Bach’s Toccata in G major while completing the task, and the third class took the test in silence. Here are their results:


While they found no difference between Mozart and Bach, both classes that listened to music performed better on the test than the class that worked in silence. So apparently the Mozart effect isn’t limited to Mozart. Indeed, the effect has also been found with the music of Schubert, and even the new age performer Yanni (apparently no one has yet tested ’80s synth pop). Ivanov and Geake offer some interesting guesses as to why the music improves performance. They point to Rausher’s argument that cognitive processing levels remain essentially the same while listening to Mozart’s music. They also suspect that music may help to mask the otherwise distracting background noise that is present in nearly all “silent” classrooms.

Trying to sort through the varied results on the Mozart effect, Catherine Jackson and Michael Tlauka conducted a study in which they used a different task: instead of a paper folding task, participants negotiated through a virtual maze on a computer screen. They noted that other researchers had found the effect with paper-and-pencil mazes, so it seemed likely that Mozart might also improve performance on virtual mazes.

Jackson and Tlauka’s participants did the task twice: once after listening to Mozart’s piano sonata, and once while listening to Philip Glass’s Music with Changing Parts. None of the participants did the task following a period of silence. While the participants were able to learn the maze, the Mozart music did not lead to an improvement compared to the Philip Glass. Jackson and Tlauka argue that this means the Mozart effect is not generalizable—if it’s only valuable for pencil and paper tasks, then what real-world application could it possibly have.

But one interesting thing to note about these two studies is that they’re not really finding anything different. Both studies found that different music can lead to improvements in special reasoning. Since Jackson and Tlauka did not include a “silent” condition in their study, we don’t know if their results are any different from Ivanov and Geake.

What these two studies do reveal is that Mozart’s music isn’t unique—that other music can have a similar effect. But the studies can only offer guesses as to why there does seem to be some effect of listening to music on spatial reasoning. I’ll continue to explore this issue next week.

Ivanov, V.K., & Geake, J.G. (2003). The Mozart effect and primary school children. Psychology of Music, 31(4), 405-413.

Jackson, C.S., & Tlauka, M. (2004). Route-learning and the Mozart effect. Psychology of Music, 32(2), 213-220.


  1. #1 Craig
    September 2, 2005

    My roomate always listened to music as well, but he had a very strange habit: he would listen to the music at unusually fast speeds. Some 30-50% faster than normal. Usually, he would ramp the speed up over time. He said it helped him type and code faster.

    I was skeptical (and irritated), but when I tried it, it seemed to have the same effect on me. I don’t know if it made us any SMARTER, but it made it easier for us to program complex programs more efficiently for longer periods of time.

    Frankly, the technique saved my grade in some of the more difficult programming classes.

    I wonder if the effects are related?

  2. #2 Teresa
    September 7, 2005

    One of my nursing clinical professors told us about the “Mozart Effect.” I faithfully listen to Mozart as I do homeowrk and study. It’s not hurting; can’t prove that it is helping. I am carrying a 3.90 GPA, so I must be doing something right.

  3. #3 H. Bernard Wechsler
    September 23, 2005

    We tested ‘silence’ in test-taking – and it works.
    It was not silence vs Mozart, but ordinary voiceless
    silence compared to ‘ear-plugs’. Some call it ‘white-
    noise’, but the added ‘wooshing’ caused by ear-plugs
    seems to silence ‘subvocalization’ and stream-of-
    consciousness. The practical result is significantly
    improved recall, concentration and comprehension.

    This is a simple experiment to track – ear-plugs in
    one group vs unimpeded auditory signal in the other.
    Does it change mood to a positive or cause arousal
    of hardwired brain circuits? No idea – but if you
    wish to be pleasantly surprised by higher test results of up to 25% – you be the scientist.

  4. #4 jfisher
    June 12, 2006

    The Mozart Effect

    Does it really play an effect in performing better in tasks and learning activities? I think it does. Thanks for the information provided on your article (above).

    I know of people that love Mozart’s music and how it affects them positively in their lives. There is a good source of information on the Mozart Effect site, if you want to learn more.

  5. #5 Hugh Richards
    March 3, 2009

    Interesting observations.

    I have found through trial and error that classical guitar or blues is the key for taming my errant thoughts. I’d like to believe that the music keeps my right side of the brain engaged, while the left can focus on the task at hand. The music has to be structured/methodical and mostly non-vocal, as words tend to lead me off to errant thoughts.

    Furthermore, putting in in-ear earphones, and not actually listening to music, cuts the din of colleague’s chatter and helps me enormously to focus.

    I work in a pretty stressful environment and have had to resort to these tactics, while others in my peer group seem to get along just fine without the need.

    Perhaps this is all linked to today’s article on memory and distraction. Can’t quite remember the specifics 🙂

  6. #6 Roberto Berlinck
    March 4, 2009

    Interesting. I have learned to listen to classical music while studying and working. It really slows down my thoughts, making me felling more relaxed and calm. Thing is a good thing to do.

    Another suggestion to improve concentration and the net output (better to work better than to work hard): do yoga and/or tai chi chuan practices. Recent studies demonstrated that both ancient far eastern exercices improves concentration and memory very much. Add to this some Chi Kung exercices (I suggest Lam kam Chuen books: easy to learn). The results are amazing. I have been practicing yoga for almost 26 years and Chi Kung for over 7 years. Just try, and you will perceive the results in less than 6 months of regular practices.

  7. #7 Gary B
    March 4, 2009

    I have ADD. In testing it has been shown that I have trouble dealing with simultaneous visual and auditory stimuli. In practice this means that the normal background noises in an office break my concentration. To resolve this, I wear headphones. The type of music I listen to varies, but the consistent-but-varying sounds of music successfully suppresses my perception of the background. I think the predictability of nearly all music (one reason why we enjoy it?) with the beat and the progression, helps me maintain concentration.

  8. #8 WuffenCuckoo
    March 4, 2009

    I don’t know if this is normal or not,but listening to (classical) music seems to go on in parallel with my train of thought in my brain. The music does not seem to interfere with my thoughts the way having somebody talk, while I am working, would — whether they are talking to me or somebody else. Music is totally non-distracting even while I follow the thematic content simultaneously. Mahler and Sibelius are my favorites.

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