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Mozart Music Enhances Everything From Brain Power to Microbial Activity

Carolina Avendano
Carolina is a Canada-based writer and journalist who enjoys learning and sharing information about how to lead a meaningful life. She is passionate about traditional culture, handmade crafts, the connection between humans and nature, and human rights.
Published: June 25, 2022
Exposure to Mozart's music has been shown to be beneficial to humans, animals, plants and even microorganisms. (Image: Josef Grassi via Wikimedia Commons Public domain)

Music is an essential component of life for many of us. Depending on the tune, music can make us feel joyful, melancholy, playful or bold. Yet scientists have discovered that music not only affects our mood, but also our abilities. Several experiments have shown that classical music is broadly beneficial, and that Mozart music enhances everything from our cognitive abilities to the taste of our food. 

Spatial reasoning in humans and animals

When it comes to the effects of classical music on the human brain, a 1993 study done by scientists at the University of California, always takes the spotlight. In fact, their findings gave rise to the theory that we know today as the “Mozart effect.”

According to this widely popularized theory, listening to music of Mozart may temporarily boost scores in a specific area of the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test. The findings are based on the team’s study of 36 undergraduates’ performance on the spatial IQ test. 

The researchers found that after listening to 10 minutes of Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos, K. 448; these students scored eight to nine points higher on the test than after listening to a variety of alternatives, including relaxation, trance, and minimalist music, audiobooks and silence. However, the effect seemed to be temporary, as the scientists noted that the facilitation only lasted between 10 and 15 minutes.  

Facsimile sheet of music in Mozart’s handwriting (Mozarthaus, Vienna) (Image: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Enthused by the results, Frances Rauscher, one of the scientists who participated in the 1993 research, expanded her studies to include the effect of Mozart on rats. To this end, she exposed a group of rodents to Mozart music while in the womb and for another 60 days after birth.

When tested for their ability to navigate mazes, these rats were observed to do so more quickly and with fewer errors compared with control groups that had exposed to silence, white noise, or music by minimalist composer Philip Glass. The difference in performance increased in magnitude through Day 5.

The study, published in the journal Neurological Research, stated: “This suggests that repeated exposure to complex music induces improved spatial-temporal learning in rats, resembling results found in humans.”

Does listening to Mozart make you smarter?

As the compelling results of the studies became widespread, the public and the mainstream media interpreted them to mean that listening to the classical pieces could increase general IQ, or “Mozart makes you smart.”

This led to a commercial fad with thousands of parents buying Mozart CDs for their newborns. In 1998, U.S. governor Zell Miller even proposed a budget increase of about $105,000 a year to provide every child in Georgia with a tape or CD of classical music. 

As the findings of the initial study continued to be misinterpreted, numerous researchers started questioning and challenging the 1993 study, claiming that there was little evidence to support the “Mozart effect” on intelligence. Rauscher addressed these concerns in a 1999 article:

“Our results on the effects of listening to Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major K. 448 on spatial–temporal task performance have generated much interest but several misconceptions, many of which are reflected in attempts to replicate the research. The comments by Chabris and Steele et al. echo the most common of these: that listening to Mozart enhances intelligence. We made no such claim. The effect is limited to spatial–temporal tasks involving mental imagery and temporal ordering.”  

The IQ test is a series of standardized tests or subtests designed to measure intellectual potential and ability. These tests assess abilities such as verbal comprehension, visual spatial, fluid reasoning, working memory, and processing speed. (Image: Andy Barbour via Pexels)

Although the author stressed that listening to Mozart has no effect on general intelligence, she still recommended exposing children to this type of stimuli — which she refers to as a “wonderful cultural experience” — based on the proven improvements in the performance of other mental tasks. 

Tastier food

Rats are not the only animals that exhibit enhanced performance with exposure to Mozart’s music. As reported in 2007 by Spanish media El Mundo, cows who listened to Mozart during milking time were found to produce two to seven liters more milk per day compared with cows on other farms; and what’s more, their milk was said to taste sweeter. 

Similar accounts of taste enhancement were related by the psychologist Sergio Della Sala, who told BBC about an Italian mozzarella cheese producer who claimed that playing Mozart three times a day to his buffalo herd resulted in higher quality milk.

As the idea that bovines are stimulated by classical tones spread quickly, milk producers around the world started investing in high quality sound systems for their farms. 

Although some find the theory questionable, popular science believes that placid harmonies may invoke brain stimulation and muscle relaxation that result in better quality milk.

Plants show music preferences

Predating the Mozart findings with spatial capabilities, research involving plants and music had already demonstrated the power of music. Dorothy Retallack, who published her findings in her 1973 book “The Sound of Music and Plants,” discovered that our green companions also seem to enjoy music — at least some types, anyway. 

By conducting detailed experiments at the Colorado Women’s College in Denver, Retallack observed that plants reacted differently when exposed to different types of music, with classical music yielding consistently positive reactions.   

Retallack categorized music like relaxing, melodic, classical music and jazz as “positive,” since compositions by Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald were shown to promote healthy growth, with plants bending their stems towards the speaker. 

When exposed to Country and Western music, the plants showed no change in growth rate or leaf size, leading Retallack to classify these genres as “neutral.”

Plants exposed to rock and roll, however, tended to lean away from the speaker and produce smaller leaves. Retallack observed that the plants were weak and leggy, and most of them died within 16 days. Similar effects were recorded when heavy metal and discordant modern classical music—like Arnold Schoenberg—was played. The author concluded that harsh or discordant sounds are detrimental to plant development, and deemed those genres as “negative.”

Microbes respond to Mozart’s ‘universal laws of nature’ expressed in his music

In 2010, the operators of a German sewage plant experimented with the microbes that break down the waste — installing a sound system in the plant to project Mozart’s notes in various directions, replicating the sound of a concert hall.  A few months into the experiment, they became discouraged with the lack of response, but after a full year they found the wait worthwhile. 

When it came time to remove the sludge, they found a significant reduction — approximately 1,000 cubic meters — less material to haul, saving the company €10,000 in transportation costs.

If the sludge in a sewage plant is not removed, it can dry, harden and attract bacteria, resulting in putrefaction. Thus, it is important to remove it from the sedimentation tank before this happens. (Image: Hannes Grobe via Wikimedia Commons)

Anton Stucki, Swiss-born chief operator of the plant, explained: “We think the secret is in the vibrations of the music, which penetrate everything — including the water, the sewage and the cells. It creates a certain resonance that stimulates the microbes and helps them to work better. We’re still in the test phase, but I’ve already noticed that the sewage breakdown is more efficient.

“But my theory as to why it works is that Mozart managed to transpose universal laws of nature into his music. It has an effect on people of every age and every cultural background. So why not on microbes? After all, they’re living organisms just like us.”