Can music enhance our cognitive skills? Research suggests it may be possible under certain circumstances and for specific skills

Many people listen to music while engaging in various activities, from reading to washing dishes. Some are particularly insistent on having music playing while working, or studying for a test, believing that it aids their concentration. But what does science say about this? And can certain types of music affect us more than others?

In 1993, researchers at University of California, Irvine, conducted an experiment to examine the impact of music on cognitive performance, encompassing thinking, memory, learning, attention and information processing skills. They divided college students into three groups. One group listened to Mozart’s Sonata 448 for two pianos for ten minutes. Another group of students listened to instructions for achieving a state of calm and tranquility, and a third group was instructed to sit in a quiet room. Afterwards, all the students received a task assessing their adaptation abilities and spatial vision, taken from the common Stanford-Binet intelligence (IQ) tests.

The students who listened to Mozart achieved higher scores for the task compared to the other two groups. But perhaps they were more skilled from the start? To rule out initial differences, the groups were swapped and the new group that had just listened to Mozart consistently achieved higher scores compared to the other two. The surprised researchers called this phenomenon the “Mozart effect” - improvement in performing a spatial task after listening to a composition by Mozart. This effect led to the growth of several prosperous businesses, such as the “baby Mozart” tapes, which, according to their producers, will make children smarter. However, reading the study itself makes it clear that there is no support for these claims: the improvement in performing the tasks was only temporary, and did not have a lasting effect on the students’ abilities.


Can music really boost concentration? A woman reads a book while tuning in to music via headphones | Shutterstock, dotshock

Contradictory Evidence

Subsequent studies attempting to replicate the Mozart effect yielded mixed results - some were successful, while others found nothing. A review of studies conducted up to 2010, involving dozens of experiments with over 3,000 participants over the years, showed that the Mozart effect did exist, but its magnitude was small. In other words, the effect of music is modest, and the statistical relationship between listening to music and improving performance is a weak one.

However, it’s worth noting that not all studies required the same abilities from the participants: many involved tasks that tested spatial visualization, while others focused on attention and response time. This may be another reason for the variations in the results. For instance, a 2022 study demonstrated that listening to Mozart’s music improved the participants’ performance on a ‘Stroop’ task, which assesses attention and response time in confusing situations. However, we cannot conclude from this that listening to music will have the same effect on language skills, memory abilities or spatial orientation.

Another factor that contributes to the belief in the ‘Mozart effect’ is publication bias—researchers tend to publish studies in which an effect was found more than studies that showed none. There may be more evidence that the Mozart effect does not exist, but it has not been published. A recent review of eight studies, conducted independently in different research centers in different countries around the world, revealed that listening to Mozart has no effect on the performance of cognitive tasks.


Listening to music requires attention. How does this align with the guy in the office working with headphones? A woman works at a computer while listening to music | Shutterstock, Look Studio


No Words

But wait a minute, is it specifically Mozart? Will compositions by Mozart, Noa Kirel and The Beatles have the same effect? And what about background music during the performance of the task? Listening to music requires attention from our brain, so it is easy to assume that it might actually hinder task performance. How does this fit in with the guy in the office who works with headphones?

Well, the answer is—it depends on the task. In a 2010 study the participants underwent three different tests: a language skills test, a math test, and a chart test. Each one of the tests was completed under three different conditions: while listening to popular songs with lyrics (e.g. Umbrella by Rihanna), while listening to instrumental music without lyrics, and in silence. In the language task the subjects achieved the highest scores in complete silence, meaning that listening to music, even without words, required attention from the subjects and negatively affected their achievements. There is substantial evidence that music with lyrics has a negative effect on the performance of tasks such as reading, and relatively little evidence that classic or instrumental music aids in reading.

An analysis of dozens of studies that investigated the effect of background music on performance across various domains revealed that in most cases, background music negatively affected the performance of memory tasks. In contrast, individuals who listened to music before or during physical activity reported enjoying the workout more, feeling less tired and had higher oxygen consumption.

Does our early exposure to music also influence us? It seems that it does indeed. A 2016 study found that familiar music had a beneficial effect on a verbal memory task in comparison to unfamiliar music. However, the study found no correlation between the level of familiarity with the music and subjects' performance in number memory tasks or mathematical tasks. In another study that examined the effect of the rhythm of music on physical activity it was found that rhythm did indeed affect the subjects’ performance: individuals who listened to louder, rhythmic music, applied more force and engaged their muscles more.

In summary, the picture is complex and depends on both the nature of the task and the type of music. If the task at hand is not overly challenging, music might enhance your performance, motivation and rhythm - similar to its impact during physical activity. For more demanding tasks that require increased concentration and attention, it may be advisable to select instrumental music or even avoid music altogether, or at least listen to it before the task rather than while performing it. However, at the end of the day, there is no one-size-fits-all rule: each individual’s brain function, abilities and preferences all play a significant role in determining the effect of music in a given situation.