• Robb G. Best

The Mozart Effect: Just How Magic Was that Magic Flute?


The person in the cubicle next to you is driving you crazy with their constant chatter. Naturally, you reach for your headphones. Whether piped through a big bulky over-the-ear model or those diminutive ear buds, music is your salvation. But it gets even better: the next track up on your playlist is Mozart. You’re counting on the ‘Mozart effect,’ the theory that listening to classical music’s greatest hits actually lets you operate at a higher cognitive level, or in layman’s terms, makes you smarter.

So it would appear to be a win-win-win: you’re drowning out your irritating neighbor, giving your brain a boost, and laying the groundwork for your next raise.

You smile to yourself, unaware that your nearby boss witnessed the headphones move and is now wondering whether you’re truly a team player.

But wait a minute, doesn’t the science support you? Aren’t you completely in the clear on this one?

Well­­­­, sort of.

It is true that listening to music you like tends to release dopamine, a multipurpose brain hormone that, among other things, makes you feel good.

Paying attention is a costly enterprise to the brain, and to save energy, it tends to default to mind wandering. Although in some ways efficient, mind wandering lets us drift towards negative thoughts, replaying loops of past slights, miscues, and mistakes. That little dose of dopamine doesn’t just lower your stress level; it can help break those loops. And when we’re happier, we tend to perform at a higher level.

Music has also been shown to heighten focus in other ways. Research suggests that as your brain takes in a musical score, it subconsciously tracks rhythmic and tonal beginnings, endings and transitions. This subconscious attention seems to strengthen your conscious attention.

However, it appears that soundtracking your work follows the ‘Goldilocks rule.’ If you’re a complete novice at something, adding music can simply increase your confusion. If you’re a skilled taskmaster, unfortunately, music doesn’t improve your performance much either, although it can help to pass the time. But if you’re somewhere in between novice and master, music can enhance both your output and mood.

As for listening to Mozart, newer studies suggest it’s not really about ol’ Wolfgang Amadeus per se. Under the right conditions, listening to any music that you find enjoyable can lift your spirits and focus your concentration. That might be a bummer for the Mozart aficionado out there, but those folks can take solace in the fact that many of his songs come to us sans lyrics. That’s important because instrumental music seems to demonstrate the greatest positive effect on work performance.

Good luck on that raise…

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