The Mozart Effect Debate and Clinical Psychology

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In its most narrow sense, the Mozart effect refers to the proposed influence of listening to the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on mental ability. While this influence is popularly understood to involve a beneficial impact on cognitive development, the scientific claim for the Mozart effect is more restrained, positing a temporary enhancement of specific areas of mental performance. Often included under this term are similar effects attributed to other types of music and cultural experiences. The mechanism of the scientifically documented effect has been described as either neurological priming or enjoyment arousal, improving spatial-temporal reasoning and possibly other areas of cognitive performance. Although the Mozart effect has attained considerable prominence in popular culture and educational thinking, many scholars now consider it a myth. Nevertheless, some variations of that claim continue to enjoy sufficient academic backing to keep the controversy alive, and some studies suggest a tangible influence of music on cognition. By focusing on scientific research and discussions concerning the Mozart effect, this paper will examine its relevance for education and clinical psychology.

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Origins of the Mozart Effect

Speculation concerning the influence of music on cognitive performance and development spiked during the 1990s as a result of increased interest in neuroscience. In 1993, Rauscher and colleagues published the results of an experiment that demonstrated an improvement in the performance of temporal-spatial tasks by subjects exposed to Mozart’s K.488 sonata (as cited in Talero-Gutiérrez & Saade-Lemus, 2018). The experiment was intended to prove the hypothesis that music can stimulate cortical firing patterns used in spatial-temporal reasoning through neurological priming. If proven to be successful, such an experiment would support the emergence of an innovative theory of learning based on neuroscience (Lim et al., 2019). Significantly, the subjects were all college students, and the effect only lasted for under 15 minutes (as cited in Talero-Gutiérrez & Saade-Lemus, 2018, p. 71). The researchers estimated an IQ increase of 8-9 points by multiplying the test tasks’ Standard Age Score result by three (as cited in Talero-Gutiérrez & Saade-Lemus, 2018, p. 71). Those results and their apparent implications quickly garnered widespread publicity in and out of the scientific world.

The perception of the newly identified Mozart effect in popular imagination swiftly diverged from the original findings. Mass media reporting and marketing campaigns for Mozart-related educational products created the incorrect impression that Mozart’s works can have a permanent positive effect on the cognitive development of young children (Düvel et al., 2017). The second half of the decade saw the beginning of an enduring popular psychology fad around the Mozart effect. Conversely, the reception of the research in the academic world proved more skeptical. Much of the criticism of Rauscher’s experiments focused on its lax methodology, which could not adequately verify the original hypothesis and utilized a questionable approach to scoring (Talero-Gutiérrez & Saade-Lemus, 2018). Several meta-analyses have shown that most follow-up studies conducted by authors other than the original team could not replicate the results (Giannouli et al., 2019). Rauscher asserted that the discrepancy arose from other authors not testing for spatial-temporal ability specifically (as cited in Talero-Gutiérrez & Saade-Lemus, 2018). Nevertheless, the scientific consensus largely turned against the original research.

Some critics of the original study proposed an alternative hypothesis to explain the observed effect. The arousal-mood hypothesis advocated by Thompson and others suggested that listening to Mozart may affect cognitive ability, including spatial performance, indirectly by altering the subjects’ emotional state (as cited in Nguyen & Grahn, 2017). They asserted that the Mozart effect ascribed to a direct neurological influence disappeared once the affective state was accounted for (Peck et al., 2016). Within the arousal-mood framework, similar effects were found for other music, both classical and in different genres, and for experiences such as listening to stories (Lehmann & Seufert, 2017). The impact of different experiences appeared to be dependent on the individual preferences of the subjects. Multiple studies have shown that happy and fast-paced music can have a positive effect on different areas of cognitive performance, while aggressive and unpleasant music has a negative impact (Nguyen & Grahn, 2017). However, this subjective psychological influence was very different from the neurological mechanism proposed by Rauscher and like-minded colleagues.

State of the Controversy

Although many scholars dismissed the Mozart effect as non-replicable, the debate around it continues in the present day. The three dominant perspectives in this debate revolve around the original neurological approach, the arousal-mood hypothesis, and the denial of any significant positive influence of listening to music on mental skills, respectively. The neurological perspective is supported by multiple studies that confirm the influence of Mozart and similar music on brain function, as observed through electroencephalography (as cited in Giromini et al., 2016). Tests have demonstrated the positive influence of classical music on rats and human subjects’ spatial and memory performance (Xing et al., 2016). Curiously, the same pieces played in retrograde have caused a marked reverse effect, suggesting that the rhythm was crucial to the effect. Similar tests have also shown that exposure to music can modify protein expression, perhaps even encouraging neuronal plasticity during early development (Du & Wu, 2018). Though promising, such recent results remain highly speculative, necessitating further study before they could be reliably incorporated within a neuroscientific theory of learning.

The arousal-mood hypothesis has become the subject of a learning controversy in its own right. Its adherents advocate using background music to encourage learning behaviors on the strength of observational evidence (Pelayo III, 2019). Furthermore, tests have shown that arousal and mood induced by music can have a positive effect on the performance of some memory tasks (Nguyen & Grahn, 2017). With its emphasis on an interaction between individual perception and environmental influence, this approach may be aligned with a variant of behaviorism, such as Bandura’s social learning theory (Pelayo III, 2019). It can also fit within the learning framework of neuroscientists, due to its interest in the influence of emotions on mental performance (Lim et al., 2019). However, the idea of a benign influence of background music on learning has not gone unchallenged. At least one study did not detect any positive influence on memory performance, finding instead that music playing during study imposed an additional strain on working memory, impeding learning (Lehman & Seufert, 2017). The scientific complexity of the arousal-mood framework lies in its inherent subjectivity, as different subjects will inevitably have different responses to varying stimuli.

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In the absence of overwhelming proof of its existence, skepticism towards the Mozart effect remains a common position. It is often represented as a neuromyth due to the difficulties in its replication and the widespread misrepresentation of its nature (Düvel et al., 2017). Some authors have emphasized the established impact of musical education on cognitive development, as compared to the less certain effects of passive listening (Talero-Gutiérrez & Saade-Lemus, 2018). This position is better supported by the existing evidence, with many studies pointing towards the higher average IQ of musicians and children receiving musical training (as cited in Talero-Gutiérrez & Saade-Lemus, 2018). The combination of musical and mathematical education in a pre-school workshop has demonstrated the efficacy of musical training for encouraging experiential learning (Gillanders & Casal De La Fuente, 2020). Nonetheless, the frequently observed influence of listening to music on cerebral activity and cognitive skills suggests that further inquiry into the Mozart effect is merited.

Implications for Clinical Psychology

While the debate over the Mozart effect remains unresolved, it has suggested several possibilities concerning the influence of music on cognition. Whether it takes the form of direct neurological interaction or indirect effective influence from listening to music, or the long-term benefits of musical training, this effect holds considerable promise for clinical psychology. The use of music in mental health care is well-established, with research suggesting that it may be used to control symptoms or even cure conditions such as dementia (Iyendo, 2016). Mental health findings appear to support the arousal-mood hypothesis, with pleasant musical stimuli improving mood and cognitive function (Iyendo, 2016). This beneficial influence forms a possible mechanism behind successful interventions resulting in partial cognitive rehabilitation of individuals diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease (Peck, 2016). The priming mechanism of the original Mozart effect hypothesis has been used to examine the neurological impacts of the Rorschach test, revealing noticeable results that support the viability of further experiments (Giromini et al., 2016). Other uses of music in clinical psychology are likely to present themselves as scientific understanding of the Mozart effect continues to expand.

A significant caveat lies in the high individual variability of the observed effects. Numerous studies have shown that while listening to music can aid cognition, its actual effect depends heavily on the listeners, the pieces, and their interaction. For example, exposure to a Vivaldi excerpt has led to superior working memory performance in younger adults with an expressed preference for Vivaldi, while not affecting older adults (Giannouli et al., 2019). Studies on Alzheimer’s disease patients suggest that familiar music might have a more substantial effect on cognitive rehabilitation (Peck, 2016). Studies focused on the proposed neurological mechanism for the Mozart effect note that it does not affect trained musicians, as they process musical inputs with both hemispheres (as cited in Giromini et al., 2016). Such nuances must be taken into account as further uses for the Mozart effect in clinical psychology are sought.


Although the results of research into the neurological influence of music on cognition remain inconclusive, the utility of music for facilitating learning and healing remains a promising field of inquiry. The results of scientific tests on animal and human subjects suggest that despite the flaws of the original research into the Mozart effect, the neurological hypothesis cannot be dismissed. The psychological effect stipulated by the arousal-mood hypothesis has likewise been shown to work on many occasions. However, research into both suggested mechanisms is complicated by the high individual variability in the effect of music on individuals. The proven efficacy of musical training for supporting cognitive development does not remove the need for further investigation into the effects of passive listening. By identifying the exact mechanisms through which particular musical works can affect the minds of diverse individuals, it may be possible to open new paths for research and therapy within clinical psychology.

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Du, Q., & Wu, B. (2018). Neural mechanism for spatial memory exposed to Mozart music. NeuroQuantology, 16(6).

Düvel, N., Wolf, A., & Kopiez, R. (2017). Neuromyths in music education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers and students. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 629.

Giannouli, V., Kolev, V., & Yordanova, J. (2019). Is there a specific Vivaldi effect on verbal memory functions? Evidence from listening to music in younger and older adults. Psychology of Music, 47(3), 325-341.

Gillanders, C., & Casal De La Fuente, L. (2020). Enhancing mathematical thinking in early childhood through music. Pedagogies: An International Journal, 15(1), 60-79.

Giromini, L., Viglione, D. J., Brusadelli, E., Zennaro, A., Di Girolamo, M., & Porcelli, P. (2016). The effects of neurological priming on the Rorschach: A pilot experiment on the human movement response. Rorschachiana, 37(1), 58-73.

Iyendo, T. O. (2016). Exploring the effect of sound and music on health in hospital settings: A narrative review. International journal of nursing studies, 63, 82-100.

Lehmann, J. A., & Seufert, T. (2017). The influence of background music on learning in the light of different theoretical perspectives and the role of working memory capacity. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 1902.

Lim, D. H., Chai, D. S., Park, S., and Doo, M. Y. (2019). “Neuroscientism, the neuroscience of learning: An integrative review and implications for learning and development in the workplace”, European Journal of Training and Development, 43(7/8), 619-642.

Nguyen, T. & Grahn, J. A. (2017). Mind your music: The effects of music-induced mood and arousal across different memory tasks. Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain, 27(2), 81-94.

Peck, K. J., Girard, T. A., Russo, F. A., & Fiocco, A. J. (2016). Music and memory in Alzheimer’s disease and the potential underlying mechanisms. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 51(4), 949-959.

Pelayo III, J. M. G. (2019). Recent developments on related studies of the “Mozart effect” phenomenon on social learning behavior. Online Submission.

Talero-Gutiérrez, C., & Saade-Lemus, S. (2018). Demystifying the Mozart effect: Facts beyond the controversy. In González-Burgos I. (Ed.) Psychobiological, clinical, and educational aspects of giftedness (pp. 67-86). Nova Science Publishers.

Xing, Y., Xia, Y., Kendrick, K., Liu, X., Wang, M., Wu, D., Yang, H., Jing, W., Guo, D. & Yao, D. (2016). Mozart, Mozart rhythm and retrograde Mozart effects: Evidences from behaviours and neurobiology bases. Scientific Reports, 6, 18744.

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PsychologyWriting. 2022. "The Mozart Effect Debate and Clinical Psychology." January 24, 2022.

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PsychologyWriting. "The Mozart Effect Debate and Clinical Psychology." January 24, 2022.