Music Psychology: Classical Music

Mozart, Johann Nepomuk della Croce, Wikipedia

How Does Classical Music Affect Mood?

Studies suggest that listening to classical music decreases tension and enhances mood (Alalami et al., 2009; Rea et al., 2010), but the ability of music to influence feelings appears to vary depending on musical preference.

What Is the Mozart Effect?

The Mozart effect has been the subject of much research in recent years, after it was found that listening to Mozart’s music (or other classical music) may increase specific types of intelligence, particularly spatial-temporal abilities (Rauscher et al., 1993; Nantais & Schellenberg, 1999).

A number of studies have supported the fact that classical music can have a positive short-term effect on linguistic abilities. For example, Ohio State University researchers (2004) found that those who listened to Vivaldi while exercising had increased scores on verbal fluency tests after their workouts compared to those who exercised without music.

However, Thompson et al. (2001) attribute the so-called Mozart effect to improved mood and cognitive arousal rather than enhanced intelligence. Also, preference plays a major role, as the researchers found that subjects who were given either a Stephen King audiobook or a Mozart piece to listen to made spatial performance gains after hearing the type of audio they preferred. In other words, if you like Stephen King stories better than Mozart’s music, they will probably do a better job of priming your brain for learning.

A recent meta-analysis of Mozart-effect studies suggests that there is little evidence that simply listening to Mozart or similar music triggers brain-boosting effects (Pietschnig et al. 2009). However, there is plenty of evidence for long-term brain benefits as a result of actually playing music.

Does Playing Music Improve Learning Ability?

Girl Playing Guitar
Girl Playing Guitar, Woodleywonderworks, Flickr

Rauscher et al. (1997) found that children who were given keyboarding lessons, taught musical notation and other music-related skills, and learned to play simple melodies by Mozart and Beethoven achieved scores that were approximately 30% higher on tests of spatial-temporal reasoning than children of the same age who didn’t receive musical training, and these effects did not diminish over time.

In another study of 90 boys between the ages of 6 and 15, those who learned to play music with their school’s string orchestra program scored higher on tests of verbal memory than a control group who did not receive musical training. The boys in the music group were also able to learn more new words than those in the control group (Yim-Chi Ho et al., 2003).

In addition to the immediate brain-boosting effects of learning to play music, evidence suggests that making music provides long-term benefits as well. Hanna-Pladdy and MacKay (2011) found that healthy adults aged 60-83 who had been playing music for 10 years or more performed better on tests of nonverbal memory and executive functioning than their nonmusical counterparts. Instruments played by subjects (in decreasing order of popularity) were the piano, woodwinds, and string/percussion/horn. The majority of subjects played classical music, though some reported playing popular music.

Does Classical Music Affect Animal Learning?

Mouse, Aaron Logan (LIGHTmatter Photography), Wikimedia Commons

A few studies have been conducted into the effects of classical music on animal learning. In particular, research has been undertaken to determine whether the so-called Mozart effect works on rats by exposing them to classical music music in utero and during childhood, and then testing whether or not this early exposure improves their ability to solve mazes. Rauscher et al. (1998) did find evidence for a Mozart effect in rats. However, Steele (2003) notes that a number of other studies have been unable to replicate this effect.

A young man named David Merrill conducted an experiment to determine whether or not listening to classical music would enhance the ability of adult mice to complete mazes. In his first experiment, one group of mice listened to Mozart 24 hours a day, another group was subjected to the music of the heavy metal band Anthrax, and a control group heard no music at all. The Mozart mice did indeed improve their maze-solving times, whereas the heavy metal mice all killed one another, cutting the experiment short. Merrill conducted a subsequent experiment with a larger mouse subject pool during which the music was played at a lower volume and the mice were separated from one another to prevent attacks. Again, the classical music mice outperformed both the music-free controls and the heavy metal mice (the heavy metal mice actually grew increasingly worse at maze-solving, and when Merrill tried putting them together, they fought one another) (Wertz, 7 February 1998).

Does Playing Classical Music Reduce Crime?

Capers (2009) details a number of experiments in the use of music to deter crime and loitering. Officials in various regions have used classical music to drive teens and adult loiterers (often drug dealers) from railway stations, subways, parks, and stores. Classical, though most often presed into service for these strategies, isn’t the only type of music that has been used. Town officials in Sydney, Australia, played the music of Barry Mannilow via outdoor speakers between 9 pm and midnight to drive away noisy teenagers.

The most impressive of the anti-crime music experiments was the piping of classical music into the crime-ridden London Underground, after which the rates of robbery, staff assaults, and vandalism decreased by 33%, 25%, and 37% respectively. Similar effects were seen in West Palm Beach after police began playing classical music 24 hours a day in a crime-ridden area. However, it’s unknown whether classical music reduces the desire to commit crimes or simply drives criminals to other areas.

Does Classical Music Affect Consumer Behaviour?

Women Shopping
Women Shopping, Jobsearch, Wikimedia Commons

North et al. (2003) found that hearing classical music actually increased consumer restaurant spending, whereas pop music had no effect. The study, conducted in a British restaurant and spanning 18 evening sessions, found a significant increase in purchasing of food and drinks when classical music was played, but no increase for pop music over the no-music condition. This result matches those of prior research, which has found that hearing classical music leads to higher spending in other contexts.

For more music psychology articles, see the main Psychology page.


    • Alalami, U.; Alalami, S.; & Cooper, R. (2009). “The Effect of Music on Cognitive Emotional Response in Undergraduate Students Studying Health-Related Courses: A Pilot Study.” Turkish Journal of Medical Sciences, 39(3), 501-502.
    • American Psychological Association. (19 August 2004). “New Research Provides the First Solid Evidence That the Study of Music Promotes Intellectual Development.”
    • Capers, B. (2009). “Crime Music.” Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, 7(1), 749-768.
    • Cassity, H.; Henley, T. B.; & Markley, R. P. (2007). “The Mozart Effect: Musical Phenomenon or Musical Preference? A More Ecologically Valid Reconsideration.” Journal of Instructional Psychology, 34(1), 13-17.
    • Hanna-Pladdy, B., & MacKay, A. (2011). “The Relation Between Instrumental Music Activity and Cognitive Aging.” Neuropsychology, 25(3), 378-386.
    • Jenkins, J.S. (2001). “The Mozart Effect.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 94(4), 170-172.
    • North, A.C.; Shilcock, A.; & Hargreaves, D.J. (2003). “The Effect of Musical Style on Restaurant Customers’ Spending.” Environment & Behaviour, 35(5), 712-718.
    • Ohio State University. (24 March 2004). “A Little Music With Exercise Boosts Brain Power, Study Suggests.”
    • Pietschnig, J.; Voraceka, M.; & Formanna, A.K. (2010). “Mozart Effect-Shmozart Effect: A Meta-Analysis.” Intelligence, 8(3), 314-323.
    • Rauscher, F.H.; Robinson, K.D.; & Jens, J. (1998). “Improved Maze Learning Through Early Music Exposure in Rats.” Neurological Research, 20, 427-432.
    • Rauscher, E.H.; Shaw, G.L.; & Ky, K.N. (1993). “Music and Spatial Task Performance.” Nature, 365, 611.
    • Rauscher, F.H.; Shaw, G.L.; Levine, L.J.; Wright, E.L.; Dennis, W.R.; & Newcomb, R.L. (1997). “Music Training Causes Long-Term Enhancement of Preschool Children’s Spatial-Temporal Reasoning.” Neurological Research, 19, 2-8.
    • Rea, C.; MacDonald, P; & Carnes, G. (2010). “Listening to Classical, Pop, and Metal Music: An Investigation of Mood.” Empora State Research Studies, 46(1), 1-3.
    • Steele, K. M. (2003). “Do Rats Show a Mozart Effect?” Music Perception, 21(2), 251-265.
    • Thompson, W.F.; Schellenberg, E.G.; & Husain, G. (2001). “Arousal, Mood, and the Mozart Effect.” Psychological Science, 12, 248-251.
    • Wertz, M. (7 February 1998). “Why Classical Music Is the Key to Education” in The Schiller Institute’s Towards a New Renaissance in Classical Education,
    • Yim-Chi Ho, M.P.; Cheung, M.; & Chan, A.S. (2003). “Music Training Improves Verbal But Not Visual Memory: Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Explorations in Children.” Neuropsychology, 17(3), 439-450.

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