The Musical Brain

Classical - Pop - Rap - New Age - Folk - Blues - Rock - Country - Jazz

You might like all of these types of music, you might like a few of these, or you might not like any of them at all. Your brain somehow makes sense of music and allows you to make the decisions about your musical taste.

At its most basic level, music is just sound. Sound produced by vibration. These vibrations can be caused by voices, musical instruments or by objects hitting each other. Sounds are carried to the ear by changes in air pressure. Music itself has several important characteristics such as rhythm, pitch, timbre and melody.

Contents of this Page

Musical Instruments
The Ear
The Lobes for Music
Music and the EEG
Music and Memory
Learn More

Musical instruments create sound by vibrating in different ways
Reed Instruments - the reed is vibrated and a player's lips are used to create changes in air pressure.
Brass Instruments - a player's lips are vibrated as he or she puffs on the instrument.
String Instuments - strings on the instrument are vibrated by plucking or bowing.
Percussion Instruments - objects are vibrated by banging them together.

The inner ear
The ear converts sound waves into movement by vibrating specific parts of the middle and inner ear. This movement is then converted into electrical signals that travel in the eighth cranial nerve to the brain. The figure on the right shows the location of the eighth cranial nerve (vestibulocochlear nerve). From the ear, auditory information travels first to the brain stem, then to the thalamus, and then to the auditory cortex in the temporal lobe on both sides of the brain.
Temporal Lobe

The Lobes for Music

Damage to the temporal lobe of the brain may cause a person to have problems with singing a song, playing an instrument or keeping rhythm. Sometimes this damage causes problems related to recognizing music, but no problem with hearing speech and other sounds. This type of condition is called amusia. People with amusia have trouble recognizing melodies.

Some research has suggested that music is processed by the right cerebral hemisphere. Other research has shown that the left hemisphere is also important. Listening to music and appreciating music is a complex process that involves memory, learning and emotions. It is likely that there are multiple areas of the brain that are important for the musical experience.

Music and the EEG

There have not been many experiments that have looked to see how the brain processes music. Measurements of brain activity using the electroencephalogram (EEG) have shown that both the right and left hemispheres are responsive to music.

Other researchers have recorded neuronal activity from the temporal lobe of patients undergoing brain surgery for epilepsy. During this study, awake patients heard either a song by Mozart, a folk song or the theme from "Miami Vice". These different kinds of music had different effects on the neurons in the temporal lobe. The Mozart song and folk song reduced the activity in 48% of the neurons while the theme from Miami Vice reduced the activity in only 26% of the neurons. Also the Miami Vice music increased the activity in 74% of the neurons while Mozart and folk music increase the activity in only about 20% of the neurons. Some of the neurons had action potentials that kept time with the rhythm of the music. Although these results do show that the temporal lobe is probably involved with some aspect of music, it is unclear exactly how this area of the brain is used in the appreciation of music.

The Polygraph -
used to record the EEG

The Action Potential

Music and Memory and Intelligence

In the early 1990s, an experiment was done which seemed to show that listening to classical music could improve memory! This effect has come to be known as "The Mozart Effect" because the musical selection that seemed to improve memory was a song by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Many people read about this experiment in popular magazines and newspapers and thought that listening to classical music would be a good way to improve memory and increase intelligence. Let's look a bit closer at the original experiment and other experiments.

The original experiment was published in the journal Nature by scientists at the University of California at Irvine in 1993. These scientists had college students listen for 10 minutes to either:

  1. Mozart's sonata for two pianos in D major
  2. a relaxation tape OR
  3. silence
Immediately after listening to these selections, students took a spatial reasoning test (from the Stanford-Binet intelligence scale). The results showed that the students' scores improved after listening to the Mozart tape compared to either the relaxation tape or silence. Unfortunately, the researchers found that the effects of the music lasted only 10 to 15 minutes. Nevertheless, these researchers believed that memory was improved because music and spatial abilities shared the same pathways in the brain. Therefore, they thought, the music "warms up" (these are my words) the brain for the spatial reasoning test.

Other laboratories have tried to use the music of Mozart to improve memory, but have failed. For example, one group of scientists used a test where students had to listen to a list of numbers, and then repeat them backwards (this is called a backwards digit span test). Listening to Mozart before this test had NO EFFECT on the students. Apparently the Mozart Effect depends on what kind of test is used. Other researchers have said that the original work on the Mozart Effect was flawed because:

  1. only a few students were tested
  2. it was possible that listening to Mozart really did not improve memory. Rather, it was possible that the relaxation test and silence IMPAIRED memory.

In another attempt to demonstrate the Mozart Effect, researchers at Appalachian State University went to great lengths to follow the exact procedures of previous studies. In the July 10, 1999 issue of Psychological Science (vol. 10, pages 366-369), Dr. Kenneth Steele and coworkers reported that they were unable to show that listening to the music of Mozart had any effect on spatial-reasoning performance. They conclude by stating:

"...there is little evidence to support basing intellectual intervention on the existence of the Mozart effect."

The researchers who were successful at finding the Mozart Effect have also looked at the effects of music lessons on spatial reasoning. They gave preschool children (ages 3-4 yr. old) training for 8 months. Children were divided into 4 groups:

Experimental Groups
Group 1 Group 2 Group 3 Group 4
Keyboard lessons
Singing lessons
Computer lessons
No lessons

After 8 months of this treatment, the children were tested on their ability to put puzzles together (spatial-temporal reasoning) and to recognize shapes (spatial-recognition reasoning). The results were fascinating! They found that only those children who received the keyboard lessons had improvement in the spatial-temporal test. Even when the children were tested one day after their last keyboard lesson, they still showed this improvement. So, the effects of the keyboard lesson lasted at least one day. Test scores on the spatial-recognition test did NOT improve in any of the groups, even the keyboard group.

In 2020, researchers pointed out that the results linking music training and better performance in school have been inconsistent. These researchers examined 54 experiments conducted between 1986 and 2019 with a 6,984 children. The results of this analysis found that music training did not benefit cognitive skills or academic performance.

Some researchers have even tried to see if the Mozart Effect exists in monkeys! In these studies, monkeys listened to Mozart piano music for 15 minutes before they had to do a memory test. The researchers found that listening to Mozart music did NOT improve the monkeys' performance compared to when the monkeys listened to rhythms or white noise. They also found that listening to Mozart during the test impaired memory and white noise during the test improved memory slightly.

Politicians have even jumped on the Mozart Effect bandwagon. On June 22, 1998, the governor of the state of Georgia (Zell Miller) started distributing free CDs with classical music to the parents of every newborn baby in his state. I have a feeling that the governor has not read all the literature on the subject. The only study that has shown the Mozart Effect was done with college students. There have been no studies that have looked at the effects of music on the intelligence of babies. Some people say that that Governor Miller's plan is good, others think the money could be better spent on other projects.

So, if people want to improve their intelligence should they run out and buy some classical music? Should children start piano lessons when they are young? You are sure to get some beautiful music, but there is no conclusive evidence that it will improve your intelligence. Also, there is no evidence that music enhances memory permanently. More research and testing needs to be done to see if and how music and memory interact.

Mozart Biography

Listen to the music of Mozart

Learn more:

Since we are on the topic of music, why don't you relax and sing some Brain Songs and test your sense of hearing with these experiments and activities.

Music Education Beyond the Mozart Effect - a special article about new ways to teach music. Also read:

Bringing the Classics Into the Classroom: how to enhance authentic listening and extended literature response in middle school through music.

Anxiety and Memory: Their Effects on Cognition and Musical Performance

For more information about music and the brain, see:

  1. Listen to an interview with Dr. Frances Rauscher - the main researcher involved with the Mozart Effect. This is a "real audio" file.
  2. Music and the Brain radio program from Science Friday (May 9, 2003)

References: (click on the names of the authors to get a summary of the research paper)

  1. Mehr et al., Two Randomized Trials Provide No Consistent Evidence for Nonmusical Cognitive Benefits of Brief Preschool Music Enrichment (2013)
  2. Bridgett, D.J. and Cuevas, J. Effects of listening to Mozart and Bach on the performance of a mathematical test. Percept Mot Skills, 90:1171-1175, 2000
  3. Carlson, S., Rama, P., Artchakov, D. and Linnankoski, I. Effects of music and white noise on working memory performance in monkeys. Neuroreport, 8:2853-2856, 1997.
  4. Creutzfeldt, O. and Ojemann, G. Neuronal activity in the human lateral temporal lobe. III. Activity changes during music. Exp. Brain Res., 77:490-498, 1989.
  5. McCutcheon, L.E. Another failure to generalize the Mozart effect. Psychol. Rep., 87:325-30, 2000.
  6. Ramos, J. and Corsi-Cabrera, M. Does brain electrical activity react to music? Intern. J. Neurosci., 47:351-357, 1989.
  7. Sala, G., Gobet, F. Cognitive and academic benefits of music training with children: A multilevel meta-analysis, Mem Cogn (2020).
  8. Rauscher, F.H., Shaw, G.L. and Ky, K.N. Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365:611, 1993.
  9. Rauscher, F.H., Shaw, G.L. and Ky, K.N. Listening to Mozart enhances spatial-temporal reasoning: Towards a neurophysiological basis. Neurosci. Lett., 185:44-47, 1995.
  10. Rauscher, F.H., Shaw, G.L., Levine, L.J., Wright, E.L., Dennis, W.R. and Newcomb, R.L. Music training causes long-term enhancement of preschool children's spatial-temporal reasoning. Neurol. Res., 19:2-8, 1997.
  11. Steele, K.M., Ball, T.N. and Runk, R. Listening to Mozart does not enhance backwards digit span performance. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 84:1179-1184, 1997.
  12. Steele K.M., Brown, J.D. and Stoecker, J.A. Failure to confirm the Rauscher and Shaw description of recovery of the Mozart effect. Percept Mot Skills 88:843-848, 1999.
  13. Steele, K.M., Bass, K.E. and Crook, M.D. The mystery of the Mozart effect: failure to replicate. Psychological Science, 10:366-369, 1999.
  14. Music and the Brain Podcasts
  15. 'Mozart Effect' Dispelled: Music Study Does Not Make Children Smarter (2013)
  16. Pietschnig, J., Voracek, M., and Formann, A.K., Mozart effect-Shmozart effect: A meta-analysis, Intelligence, 2010; 38 (3): 314 DOI: 10.1016/j.intell.2010.03.001

Page last updated: December 31, 2014

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