What Are the Benefits of Classical Music on the Brain?

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Classical music affects anyone who listens to it, so much so that major motion pictures often use it to evoke feelings and moods needed to tell a story. The technique works because classical music is organized and complex, with phrases and varying amounts of intensity that behave like a narrator telling a tale without words. Indeed, musical notation is a language of its own. Because classical music possesses such power, scientists began studying the specific impacts classical music has on the brain, finding it has beneficial and constructive effects.

Increased Reward

According to the Stanford study "The Rewards of Music Listening: Response and Physiological Connectivity of the Mesolimbic System," listening to classical music provides physiological rewards. Blood flow increases to several brain areas, activating autonomic, cognitive, and emotional centers, while another area of the brain releases dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical that, among other things, affects mood and the ability to feel pleasure. This dopamine release, occurring as the other brain areas interact, allows a heightened sense of well-being.

This benefit of listening to classical music has implications for our understanding of disorders such as depression and bipolarity and schizophrenia, says the study's authors.

The Mozart Effect

The so-called Mozart Effect occurs, according to the original 1993 experiment by Rauscher, Shaw and Ky, when subjects listening to a Mozart sonata experience jumps in spatial reasoning. These spatial gains were very temporary, but resulted in a temporary IQ increase as relates to spatial ability.

The study created much controversy and some scientists were not able to replicate the results, though others were, and the study's authors suspected the flurry of testing following the original study led to some misapplications of testing and analyzation.

Successful replication of the test didn't ease controversy, since some said the boost in spatial ability may be caused by enjoyment of the music, not the music itself. However, the test was repeated with rats, and the effect persisted. The rats were exposed to either white noise, silence, another musical style or Mozart. Only the rats hearing Mozart experienced the benefit of superior spatial-reasoning abilities.

The Mozart Effect only lasts about 12 minutes and can be induced with just 10 minutes of listening to Mozart's piano sonata K448 or his piano concerto K488. Other classical music of similar structure is likely to also induce the effect, though testing will be needed to prove this.

Epilepsy and Mozart

Mozart's music also benefits the brains of some epilepsy patients, studies have shown. Test subjects included a coma patient and a child suffering many seizures in an average day. The investigations showed a significant improvement for many the patients exposed to Mozart. The child, for instance, saw a dramatic drop in the number and duration of her seizures.

Boosted IQ

While the Mozart Effect involves passive listening to classical music, a Canadian study tested active involvement. That is, the study authors tested the effect of music lessons on children's IQ scores. The study showed that children taking music lessons saw a general increase in overall IQ. The boost was not temporary.