Is the Mozart Effect a real thing?

The idea that listening to Mozart can help people with epilepsy has been around since the early 1990s.

It has been treated with not a little scepticism, but also not ignored: there have been studies (this one, for example) and even studies of studies (this meta-analysis is from as early 1999). The brief has also expanded from just Mozart to other forms of music.

In fact, there has been such “a flow of new research in the last few years”, according to Gianluca Sesso from Italy’s University of Pisa, that it was again “time to stand back and look at the overall picture” – which is what he and colleague Federico Sicca did.

In a paper published in the journal Clinical Neurophysiology and just presented at a virtual meeting of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology, they present findings which, they say, “may overturn current scepticism about the effect”.

They looked at 147 published articles, evaluated them according to relevance and quality, then selected the 12 pieces they thought represented the best available science on the topic.

They found, they say, that listening to Mozart, especially on a daily basis, led to a significant reduction in epileptic seizures, and also to a reduced frequency of interictal epileptiform discharges – abnormal brain activities commonly seen in epileptic patients.

These effects occurred after a single listening session and were maintained after a prolonged period of treatment.

The meta-analysis indicates that a period of listening to Mozart can give an average reduction in epileptic seizures ranging from between 31% to 66%, but this varies from person to person and according to the music stimulus used.

The original studies on the Mozart Effect used the sonata for two pianos, K448, and this has remained the music most used in studies. The K545 piano sonata has also been shown to have an effect.

“All cultures have music, so it obviously fulfils some psychological need,” Sesso says. “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.”

The researchers say the highly consistent results of their meta-analysis “strongly suggest that music-based neurostimulation may improve the clinical outcome in epilepsy… and, thus, deserves not to be kept out of the set of non-pharmacological complementary approaches for treating epilepsy”.

“Nonetheless,” they add, “it also points out that the actual potential of music to treat the different forms of epilepsy and the definition of the most effective protocols need further and stronger evidence…”.

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