Music Enhances Reasoning

THE CONNECTION BETWEEN music and reasoning has long been discussed. Famous physicist Albert Einstein revealed that music was an extension of his thinking process, a method of allowing the subconscious to solve difficult problems. Anecdotally, it seems that scientists and mathematicians have an above average interest in classical music (Shaw, 1999). But, is there any actual scientific proof that a causal relationship between music and reasoning exists?


Thinking music and math cartoon

The link between music and cognition, in particular, spatial-temporal reasoning and math, is just beginning to be understood.

The Mozart Effect

Based upon the trion model of higher brain function, researchers Gordon Shaw and Frances Rauscher of the University of California, Irvine predicted that listening to music could causally enhance one's ability to do spatial-temporal reasoning.

Spatial-temporal reasoning is the ability to create, maintain, transform, and relate complex mental images, even in the absence of external sensory input or feedback. In other words, reasoning through space and time. Math, science, physics, chess, and music all involve this type of reasoning.

Results from their 1995 experiment showed that listening to the Mozart Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major (K.448) did cause a subsequent enhancement in spatial-temporal reasoning! The media quickly grabbed hold of these findings, and dubbed the phenomenon the "Mozart effect."

The Experiment

Seventy-nine college students participated in this 5 day listening experiment. On Day 1, all students were tested on 16 paper folding & cutting (PF&C) items and then randomly divided into 3 groups of equal ability. On Days 2-5, each group received a different 10 minute listening treatment (Silence, Mixed, or Mozart) followed by 16 new PF&C items.

The Silence group sat in silence, the Mixed group listened to something different each day, including a minimalist piece, an audiotaped story, and a dance piece, and the Mozart group listened to the first movement of Mozart's Sonata (K.448).
Example of the paper folding & cutting task used in the experiment (modified from the Stanford-Binet tests). Depicted is a piece of paper before it was folded and cut (top left). The dashed lines and straight arrows represent the location of the folds, and the solid lines represent cuts. Subjects had to choose which of the five choices the paper would look like when unfolded. Check to see if your reasoning is correct by clicking the "get answer" button.  

Bar graph of results  
Mean number of PF&C items answered correctly out of 16 by the Mozart, Mixed, and Silence groups for Days 1-2. The Mozart group's improvement from Day 1 to Day 2 was significant and significantly greater than the other groups. No other differences were significant. The results of the PF&C tasks continued to improve on subsequent days, with the Mozart group always doing best.  


Only the Mozart group showed a significant improvement from Day 1 to Day 2. Even more remarkable, Mozart group subjects who correctly answered 8 or fewer paper folding and cutting items on Day 1 increased 62% on Day 2, versus only a 14% increase for those in the Silence group, and 11% for the Mixed group. This suggests that the "priming" effect of the Mozart Sonata on the neural pathways involved in spatial-temporal reasoning may have larger effects on "below average" subjects.





Along with the media attention has come many misunderstandings about the Mozart effect. Two of the most common are addressed below.

Misunderstanding Clarification
Listening to classical music while studying helps learning. Maximal enhancement is seen 5 or more minutes after listening (due to a priming effect).

Listening during studying may interfere, especially if the material involves spatial temporal reasoning (because both tasks make use of the same cognitive processes).

ALL classical music enhances reasoning. Only the K.448 piece has been scientifically shown to cause the effect, although it is likely that other highly structured pieces will yield the same enhancements.


Further Studies

Since the discovery of the Mozart effect, Shaw and other researchers have continued to use the Mozart Sonata (K.448) as a tool to help them decode the cortical language of higher brain function. Thus far, the Mozart effect has been replicated in rats, creating an animal model. In humans, EEG and fMRI studies have found a neurophysiological basis for the effect. Studies with children have shown that piano training can give long-term spatial-temporal enhancement. More information on these, and other relevant studies can be found at

Jill Hansen
San Diego State University