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Pauline Lerner

The rhythms of the universe

April 22, 2006 at 6:28 AM

Can listening to Mozart’s music enhance mental functioning? Since this year is the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, it is a good time to review the evidence.

The concept of the Mozart effect comes from some ground-breaking research performed by neurobiologists at the University of California at Irvine in the 1990s. They focused on the spatial IQ test, which they described as mentally unfolding a piece of paper that has been folded over several times and then cut. The object is to correctly select the final unfolded paper shape from five examples. These scientists found that students who listened to a recording of Mozart’s Sonata in D major for Two Pianos, K488, acquired this skill more readily than other students. The researchers concluded that listening to Mozart caused an increase in spatial IQ. Other scientists have repeated this experiment or performed related experiments on other groups of students and, in most cases, did not get the same results.

Other studies have suggested that newborn babies who listen to Mozart grow up to have measurably higher IQs than babies who don’t listen to Mozart. This effect is very hard to study because years of follow-up would be required, and, during that time, the infants and children could be subjected to many other kinds of environmental enrichment. Some people considered the scientific evidence for the Mozart effect strong enough to warrant action, and, in some areas in the US, newborns were sent home from the hospital with a free CD of Mozart’s music. Many Mozart CDs have been promoted and sold as tools to make babies smarter, making CDs a kind of medical device not regulated by the FDA.

Intelligence is very complex and difficult to assess objectively. The neuroscientist J. R. Hughes decided to investigate the effect of Mozart’s music on something that can be measured objectively: a pattern of brain waves called epileptiform waves because they are associated with epileptic seizures. In a small scale study, he had 29 epileptic patients listen to Mozart’s Piano Sonata in D Major (K.448). The results were dramatic. In 23 of the 29 patients, there was a significant decrease in epileptiform waves, even when the patients were in coma.

If Mozart’s music really produces these effects, why does it work? Would any music have a similar effect? Hughes used an objective, computerized, mathematical test to compare 81 musical selections of Mozart, 67 of J.C. Bach, 67 of J.S. Bach, 39 of Chopin, and 148 from 55 other composers. He found that Mozart repeated the melodic line much more frequently than the other composers did. Hughes has suggested that the symmetries and patterns in Mozart’s music may be fundamentally connected to the symmetries and patterns of brain waves. Mozart’s music may resonate with the brain.

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