The Mozart Effect: Study affirms classical music reduces epileptic seizures
A new systemic review has examined a dozen studies into the effect of Mozart’s music on epilepsy, finding the classical piano music may reduce the frequency of seizures. The review rekindles an idea that has circulated since the early 1990s, labelled the Mozart Effect, suggesting listening to certain classical music can make you smarter.
The origins of the Mozart Effect
In early 1993, psychologist Francis Rauscher conducted a small experiment with a cohort of students at the University of California, Irvine. Thirty-six students had their spatial reasoning skills tested on three occasions. Each test was immediately preceded by a different aural intervention: 10 minutes of silence, 10 minutes of vocal guided relaxation, and 10 minutes of listening to Mozart’s Sonata for two pianos in D major, KV 448.
The surprising results found the students’ spatial reasoning IQ scores were, on average, almost 10 points higher when tested after listening to the Mozart music, compared to the two other interventions. The results were published in a modest correspondence in the journal Nature.
Pretty quickly Rauscher’s work took on a life of its own, barreling from media report to media report with headlines hyperbolically reporting how scientists had shown listening to Mozart objectively makes a person smarter. Rauscher’s quite narrow little experiment had blown up into classic story of scientific misrepresentation.
"I mean we were on the nightly news with Tom Brokaw,” Rauscher said to NPR in 2010. “We had people coming to our house for live television. I had to hire someone to manage all the calls I had coming in."
At some point the idea of the Mozart Effect shifted to newborn children, with some believing babies intelligence could be boosted by listening to specific pieces of classical music. Day care centers in Florida started playing Mozart to children, and Georgia governor Zell Miller even went so far as to distribute classical music CDs to all mothers of newborns in 1998.
"Generalizing these results to children is one of the first things that went wrong,” Rauscher said to NPR. “Somehow or another the myth started exploding that children that listen to classical music from a young age will do better on the SAT, they'll score better on intelligence tests in general, and so forth."
Over the subsequent years, many researchers have tried to replicate Rauscher’s findings and the results have been mixed. Rauscher still affirms her original conclusions, but stresses her findings were highly specific, and had nothing to do with improving general intelligence.
The wave of research on the subject over the past couple of decades may have effectively debunked the Mozart Effect in relation to improving general intelligence, but some studies have found an unexpected association with epilepsy. A 2001 review found there is little data to suggest specific pieces of Mozart’s music have an effect on general intelligence, however, the review did call the beneficial effect on patients with epilepsy “impressive.”
Mozart and epilepsy
A new review published in the journal Clinical Neuropsychology is offering the most up-to-date round-ups on the link between Mozart and epilepsy. Gianluca Sesso, one of the authors on the newly published meta-analysis, says research has notably grown over the past few years, with a number of novel studies finding listening to Mozart daily can significantly reduce the frequency of epileptic seizures.
"This isn't the first such review of the effect of Mozart's music on epilepsy, but there has been a flow of new research in the last few years, so it was time to stand back and look at the overall picture,” says Sesso. “The design of the studies varies, for example some people look at a single listening session, others at daily listening sessions, so it's not easy to form a conclusion.”
Sesso focused on 12 studies, mostly conducted over the past decade. The studies included in the meta-analysis are admittedly very heterogenous, with a variety of different protocols and outcomes. However, Sesso suggests the consistent improvements in epilepsy outcomes across the differing studies affirms the hypothesis that music conveys some kind of beneficial effect on reducing seizure frequency.
The new meta-analysis calculates that listening to Mozart’s music can potentially reduce seizure frequency between 31 and 66 percent. The effect size varies depending on the patient and the music choice. Since Rauscher’s influential experiment, most researchers have concentrated on Mozart’s Sonata for two pianos in D major, KV 448, but Sesso notes there is evidence other Mozart compositions are effective, particularly Mozart’s piano sonata in C major K545.
"All cultures have music, so it obviously fulfills some psychological need,” explains Sesso. “The mechanisms of the Mozart Effect are poorly understood. Obviously other music may have similar effects, but it may be that Mozart's sonatas have distinctive rhythmic structures which are particularly suited to working on epilepsy. This may involve several brain systems, but this would need to be proven.”
How specific to Mozart’s music is this seeming anti-seizure effect? Could any music generate these same effects?
Not all music
A small volume of research suggests there may be something unique to certain Mozart compositions. Studies testing “old-time pop music” and minimal compositions by Phillip Glass both saw no effect on epileptic subjects.
A computer analysis of several hundred different musical compositions conducted in 2000 attempted to home in on the novelty of these particular Mozart pieces. That research suggested some distinctive compositional techniques could be key to the unique effect of Mozart on the brains of epileptic subjects.
“Long-term periodicity (especially 10-60 sec, mean and median of 30 sec), was found often in Mozart music but also that of the two Bachs, significantly more often than the other composers and was especially absent in the control music that had no effect on epileptic activity in previous studies,” the authors of the analysis note.
A recent, and even more compelling, study from Canadian researchers affirmed there is something structurally novel about Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, K 448 in particular. Thirteen subjects with epilepsy were recruited for the year-long study.
"In the past 15 to 20 years, we have learned a lot about how listening to one of Mozart's compositions in individuals with epilepsy appears to demonstrate a reduction in seizure frequency," says Marjan Rafiee, lead author on the recent Canadian study. "But, one of the questions that still needed to be answered was whether individuals would show a similar reduction in seizure frequency by listening to another auditory stimulus – a control piece – as compared to Mozart."
Each subject first spent three months tracking their baseline seizure frequency using a diary, before spending three months listening to the first six minutes of the K 448 sonata once a day. The subjects then spent another three months listening daily to “a phase‐scrambled version of the same piece containing similar frequency and amplitude content (albeit with no rhythmicity).”
Rafiee and the team hypothesized there would be no difference in seizure counts between the two types of music but the results told a different story. All but one of the cohort displayed reductions in seizure counts during the three months they were listening to the original Mozart composition. One subject even incredibly reported no seizures at all during the three months of listening to the Mozart composition. The scrambled version of the composition did not generate the same reduction in seizures.
"This suggests that daily Mozart listening may be considered as a supplemental therapeutic option to reduce seizures in individuals with epilepsy,” says Rafiee.
How this all works is still unknown
So, while decades of research has found listening to Mozart may not make you smarter, it could unexpectedly be a novel non-pharmacological treatment for epilepsy. Sesso, and his co-author Federico Sicca, are cautious and realistic in outlining their conclusions, admitting the science is not nearly up to the point where a doctor should be "prescribing" Mozart sonatas to epileptic patients.
However, the pair do suggest the body of evidence is convincing enough to justify further, serious, multi-center clinical research on the subject of music-based neuromodulation. Exactly how certain pieces of music effect the brain and potentially reduce seizure frequency in epileptics certainly seems deserving of more investigation.
Vesta Steibliene, from the European College of Neuropharmacology, says the promising findings of Sesso and Sicca’s review call for more investigations into non-invasive brain stimulation techniques for the treatment of neuropsychiatric disorders.
“This review revealed that Mozart music could be an effective non-invasive method of neurostimulation, reducing the frequency of epileptic seizures, even in hard to treat patients,” says Steibliene. “However, in order to use this method in clinical settings, the exact mechanism of the Mozart music effect on the brain regions should be better understood.”
The new meta-analysis was published in the journal Clinical Neuropsychology.