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About 15 years ago, a professor of psychology stirred up the music world with the idea that listening to Mozart could make you smarter. Before the decade was out, the work of Dr Frances H. Rauscher, professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, had brought forth a veritable flood of pop-psych books, tapes, and CDs promising in newspaper inserts and on television infomercials to boost your brain (or your baby’s). One enterprising author even went so far as to trademark the phrase "The Mozart Effect."

Dr Rauscher had a group of college students mentally unfold a piece of paper and try to identify its shape. She found that the students who had listened to a recording of Mozart’s K448 sonata were better and faster at the task. Dr Rauscher published the results in the journal Nature in 1993.

There were only two problems with the Mozart Effect. One was that it didn’t last: the students only held on to their newly acquired spatial skills for ten or fifteen minutes. The other problem was that when other researchers tried to verify the effect, some just couldn’t. So, over the years since, the idea that Mozart can make you smarter has lost much of its credibility.

However, a recent study has found that the Mozart Effect is real — but only for certain people. It definitely works for right-handed non-musicians.

Psychologist and Royal Holloway PhD candidate Afshin Aheadi assembled her own group of 100 university students — half musicians, half non-musicians. She had them listen to the same Mozart sonata that Dr Rausher used. Then they viewed a drawing, and were asked questions about it which forced them to mentally rotate the image.

Aheadi found that listening to Mozart helped the non-musicians with the task, but not the musicians. It seems that it’s the right hemisphere of the brain which processes spatial information. That’s the part of the brain that music tends to grab — in non-musicians. In effect, the Mozart "revved up" their right brains.

The musicians didn’t get the same right-brain boost because musicians process music with both brain hemispheres. And although the trial didn’t include any left-handed non-musicians, Aheadi’s team theorizes that they too might not get much benefit from listening to Mozart. That’s because southpaws tend to use both hemispheres of their brains more equally.

And the musicians? Mozart does them no good? Well, not exactly.

True, they didn’t get an immediate boost in their spatial processing skills from listening to Mozart. But that’s because they already had it. Thanks to their years of music study, the musicians were better at spatial processing right from the start of the test, long before the researchers ever hit the go button on the CD player. That finding confirms what we’ve known for years: early musical training improves mental ability. And that Mozart Effect lasts a lifetime.

Further reading:

A Limiting Feature of the Mozart Effect at Royal Holloway, from Sage Journals Online

Music and spatial task performance in Nature (14 October 1993)

The Mozart Effect: A Closer Look at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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