Scientifically Speaking | The Mozart Effect. Can music treat brain disorders?
Music makes us emotional by evoking memories of earlier times in our lives. It can make us recall childhood moments and special people, rousing profound feelings deep inside us. Can music improve brain function and treat diseases too?
Two scientific articles published this year by two different research groups provide strong evidence that a single musical composition by the Austrian composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, lessens abnormal brain activity in epileptic patients. Earlier work had already found a connection between listening to this composition and improved spatial thinking in other people.
Epilepsy is the most common neurological disorder in the world, affecting around one in one-hundred people. It is characterised by seizures and other electrical brain activity disturbances. Epilepsy can result in progressive deterioration in quality of life.
The severity of the disorder varies, but current drugs are not effective in a third of sufferers. In some people, seizures may occur without any warning signs. Abnormal brain activity can also occur undetected between two seizures. In the clinic, electroencephalograms (EEG) track abnormal electrical activity in the brain associated with epilepsy.
Since the 1990s, there has been substantial interest in Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major (K448) from a neurological perspective. This sonata consists of three movements- a rousing first, a contemplative second, and a lively third.
Researchers found that listening to the 10-minute first movement – which has a fast tempo and a sudden start – resulted in reduction of abnormal electrical brain activity in scalp EEGs. They hypothesised that listening to the movement prevented seizures in many patients. Others found that listening to this music improved spatial thinking skills. This became known widely as the “Mozart Effect”.
Since then, roughly a dozen studies have shown the reduction of brain wave abnormalities in patients with epilepsy. However, the “Mozart Effect” fell out of favour among many scientists because of how earlier studies were set up. One criticism was that EEGs were used with electrodes on the scalp. A more accurate reading of seizures can be made with electrodes placed inside the cranium directly in the brain. These electrodes are placed prior to surgery to identify parts of the brain where seizures cause extensive damage.
Direct brain EEGs are much more sensitive since electrical brain waves don’t have to pass through bone to be detected.
To my knowledge, the two research articles published this year are the first to examine the effect of Mozart’s sonata with electrodes in the brain. Building on these studies may pave the way for “music medicine” as a treatment option in neurological and psychiatric diseases.
In work published in European Journal of Neurology in May, Ivan Rektor’s group found that listening to Mozart’s sonata reduced abnormal electrical brain activity by a third in 18 patients. They also tested Austrian composer Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No 94 because it was from the same time and composed in a related style to Mozart’s music. Haydn’s music had no positive effect, and in some cases was linked to more abnormal brain activity.
Research led by Barbara Jobst’s team published in Scientific Reports earlier this month found listening to Mozart’s sonata for at least 30 seconds reduced brain-wave spikes in people whose epilepsy was unresponsive to drugs. In the 16 patients who were part of the study, abnormal electrical activity fell substantially throughout the brain. The researchers also played Wagner’s classical wedding march, but it didn’t garner a similar response.
Music by Nickelback, Judas Priest, and Beethoven had no effect either. In fact, the only other music shown to elicit an antiepileptic response is another composition by Mozart- Piano Sonata in C Major (K545).
This raises a hairy question. If there’s a causal link, how does this sonata exert an effect on the brain? Early researchers thought that the emotional effect of listening to it caused changes to brain electrical activity via the brain chemical, dopamine. But this failed to answer why only this music works. There is a lot of other evocative music in the world. The effect also seems to occur with music of a relatively short duration, in laboratory animals, and in people who don’t seem to be consciously aware they were listening at all.
I noted that participants in these two studies did not have any musical training and were not particularly fond of classical music, hinting that the effect wasn’t purely emotional either. This means that if the music is causing a change in brain activity, it is because of its acoustic properties such as tempo, rhythm, melody, and harmony.
What is it about Mozart’s sonata that makes it different? How long does the effect on brain activity last? Does it go away over time or after repeated listening? What is going on inside the brain while listening to it? Discoveries like this often throw up more questions than they answer.
I have been an admirer of Mozart’s music for many decades now. Mozart’s compositions are somewhat unique among his peers. I listened to the sonata many times before and while writing this piece. The first movement has a fast tempo with an abrupt start, quick transitions, and repeated harmonies. But there was nothing that hinted at unique therapeutic effects to my untrained ears. In fact, I preferred the more soulful second movement to the first.
A randomised controlled trial last year by Marjan Rafiee’s team found that daily listening to Mozart’s sonata reduced seizure frequency in adults. Longer term clinical trials with more participants are next. Researchers will also need to continue dissecting the acoustic properties of the sonata. But these studies make one thing clear — even after decades of research, there is much to learn about the mysterious human brain.
Anirban Mahapatra, a microbiologist by training, is the author of COVID-19: Separating Fact From Fiction
The views expressed are personal