Early in the 1990s an experiment known as “The Mozart Effect” was conducted that seemed to link listening to classical music to memory improvement. The name of the study was chosen due to the music selected, a song by Wofgang Amadeus Mozart. It became a pop culture phase, written about in popular magazines and newspapers. People started playing classical music to their children to improve memory, increase intelligence and get better grades in school. Pregnant women even put headphones to their protruding bellies so their children would develop to be smarter while still in the womb. Was this just a fad, or was it based on fact?

Listening and appreciating music is a complex brain function that utilizes multiple areas of the brain involving learning, emotions and memory. Somehow your brain sorts out the types of music that you will like, which accounts for different people having a taste for different types of music. At the very core of music, its just sounds, produced by vibrations that are carried to the ear by changes in air pressure. The characteristics of music are rhythm, pitch, timbre and melody.

Many experiments have been conducted to see how the brain processes music. Some have used EEGs (electroencephalogram), and these tests have shown that music is processed by both hemispheres of the brain.

Other studies have looked into neuronal activity from the temporal lobe of patients undergoing brain surgery for epilepsy. In of these studies, patients who were awake listened to different kinds of music, from Mozart to the theme from “Miami Vice”. Different types of music affect the brain in different ways. Mozart reduced the neuron activity by 74%, while the Miami Vice theme reduced the activity in only 20% of the neurons. They also found that some of   the neurons kept time to the music. This would indicate that the temporal lobe is involved somehow in music, but how it is used in the appreciation is unclear. What is known is that damage to the temporal lobe of the brain could cause a condition called “amusia”, where a person would have no problems with hearing speech or other sounds, they would have problems with singing or playing a musical instrument, and sometimes recognizing music.

The original “Mozart Effect” study was conducted at the University of California at Irvine in 1993. It was published later in the journal Nature. Researchers has college students listen to 10 minutes of either: Mozart’s sonata for two pianos in D major; a relaxation tape; or silence. Immediately afterward the students took a spatial reasoning test (from the Stanford-Binet intelligence scale). Those who listened to the Mozart tape showed improved scores, compared to the other students. They also found that the effects of the music were only temporary — lasting only 10-15 minutes.

These results were disappointing, but researchers then theorized that, since the memory had improved from the music that spatial abilities and music share the same brain pathways, so it is entirely possible that the music simply opened up the brain for the spatial reasoning test.   Other studies since then have found no evidence to conclude that listening to Mozart can improve memory function.    

Researchers at Appalachian State University, going to great lengths to duplicate the original Mozart Effect, were unable to find that listening to Mozart had any effect on spatial reasoning: “…there is little evidence to support basing intellectual intervention on the existence of the Mozart effect,” the conclusion stated.

The original researchers of the Mozart Effect also tried to connect music lessons on spatial reasoning — with a little more positive result. They gave preschool children (ages 3-4 yr. old) musical training for 8 months. Children were divided into 4 groups: keyboard lessons; singing lessons; computer lessons; and those given no lessons. At the end of 8 months the children were tested on their spatial-temporal reasoning (ability to put puzzles together) and spatial-recognition reasoning (ability to recognize shapes). Those who received keyboard lessons had improved spatial-temporal results that lasted more than one day. It did not change in any of the other groups. Tests for spatial-recognition did not improve in any of the groups.

Other research has tried the Mozart Effect on monkey, having them listen to Mozart piano music for 15 minutes before they did a memory test, and found no improvement in performance compared to when they listened to rhythms or white noise. Interestingly, they found that listening to Mozart during the memory test impaired their memory, while white noise actually improved memory slightly.

So, although there is no actual evidence that Mozart and classical music actually improves memory permanently, there is more testing to see how it affects other areas of living and how it works within the brain.