Mozart and Memory


The Importance of Music

Music develops culture. It is an critical part of human development that has shaped the way we interact and think. Over the millions of years of human development, all ethnicities, religions and cultures have used music to enhance the experience of ceremonies, memorials, celebrations and leisure. Music can excite people for an event, it can temporarily numb feelings of loss or devastation, and it can bring tranquility to upset babies or stressed adults. Its clear that music creates a physiological sensation which has the ability to elevate emotions, critical thinking and mood. Whether people have been aware of the phenomenon or not, music can improve an array of human processes, particularly higher levels of intelligence, critical thinking and cognition.

My original fascination with music and attaining the benefits music may offer arose during my sophomore year in high school when my teacher played classical piano music during exams. Initially thinking of the auditory stimulation as a distraction, I was annoyed by the teacher’s unique test-taking approach and believed the musical stimulation was hindering my ability to succeed in the class. After a few weeks of experiencing the similar test taking pattern, I became accustomed to the background music and found myself more clear headed, focused, and attentive to the exam. Intrigued by the phenomenon, I briefly searched for evidence supporting significant improvements in concentration levels and overall intelligence by listening to music. To my delight, I found that there is a vast amount of evidence and studies supporting the hypothesis. In my initial research I discovered there are numerous physiological and cognitive benefits that can be gained from musical stimulation, many of which I was completely unaware of. In addition, I found that thousands of school teachers have been using music for decades to facilitate academic endeavors. People of all ages- even elementary level students- have been taught to use memory devices involving music to help them more effectively be able to retain important information and concepts without being aware of it.



Music and Memory

People of all ages use the rhythm and tune of music to more easily remember and retain information such as words, phonemes or phrases. Mothers and teachers sometimes subconsciously use tune and rhythm to teach children facts, dates, phone numbers and other important information. In the United States, the way young people have been taught to learn the alphabet heavily relies on music. The method is nearly uniform throughout the the entire nation, and one will quickly discover that when asking a child to recite the ABC’s, the child will almost always recite it using the tune, rhythm and pace of the song “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. The mnemonic device is so deeply embedded in the brain that trying reciting the alphabet in a normal speaking voice becomes slightly challenging.


Try it Yourself!

To demonstrate this, one may start by counting from 1 to 26. The majority of people likely have very little trouble doing this, and most don’t use rhythm or tune to help. In a second trial, count backwards from 26, and think about how difficult that was. Now, try to recite the alphabet backwards. For most people this task is probably very difficult if possible at all. Why is that? Simply, because most people do not use a musical-memory device to count to 26, it wasn’t very difficult to do it backwards. But because our knowledge of the alphabet is built on the melody of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” the song and the alphabet and are so strongly cognitively connected that separating them becomes a surprisingly difficult task. Because of the monumental progressions in the field of education that can arise using the highly efficient and rather simple learning technique, companies centered around the education industry have been created to help improve learning and memory using this method.

The company “Singin’ & Signin’” was created based off this principle, and it has helped elementary school students for almost a decade remember basic math formulas by altering the lyrics of well-known children’s songs. This allows the students to sing the new lyrics with the already known tune, helping them remember the formulas with less time and effort. In addition, the company also engages elements of kinesthetic learning though teaching students a series of hand movements to go along with the music. It is a very basic mathematical sign language that matches the rhythm and pace of the song, ultimately creating a dance that goes along the music. The dance moves help to create even more connections in the brain surrounding the mathematical concepts, significantly increasing synapses (mental connections) between the song, lyrics and movements. Combining the benefits of auditory stimulation as well as kinesthetic movements in order to memorize math formulas creates an extremely powerful cognitive connection, helping students retain information taught to them. It is plausible that in the future this type of education will dominate school systems because of its proven success through significant improvement in state administered test scores, as well as evidence supported by scientific testing.


Self Test

The following link is to a YouTube video, of which I recorded Nikhil Sanon, a senior Psychology TA and musically inclined student at Duke. In the interview, Nikhil and I discuss the possible connection between music and learning, as he gives his educated opinion on the subject. In addition, I have added background music of various genres. The following are questions you may want to think about during this self-experiment. How did the addition of music affect your learning and understanding of the topics discussed in the interview? Did the music make you more alert? Was there a specific genre that helped you concentrate? Did the addition of music negatively impact your concentration on the interview? Are you able to focus more in silence?

Physiological Changes Resulting In Higher Levels of Creativity

Not only can music improve memory, but it can also increase the ability to learn new concepts and allow people to be more creative in their thinking. Studies on professional musicians show that their corpus callosum “is thicker and more fully developed” (2) than those in average humans. An enlarged, higher functioning corpus callosum (which is the cranial structure responsible for connecting the right hemisphere of the brain to the left hemisphere of the brain) allows for an increase in learning ability and information processing. In addition, the corpus callosum plays a significant role in critical thinking and analyzing due to the fact that many of our higher level cognitions start in one hemisphere of the brain and are then transferred and analyzed in the other. This complex cognitive process allows humans to literally analyze information in multiple ways. Being able to analyze and interpret our perceptions in a variety of ways is one of the three officially defined psychological elements that contribute to creativity.

In our nation’s brief history, two people who have set the bar for the highest level of critical thinking and upmost creativity are Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein. Outshined by their individual achievements in science, politics, creativity and ingenuity, many Americans are unaware of Franklin and Einstein’s musical background. Regarded as two of the most creative and intelligent people in the history of the United States, the musical background of Einstein and Franklin is almost always overlooked because of their many contributions to society and development of the nation. Primarily known for his invention of electricity, Franklin also invented the glass harmonica, a musical instrument featured in several musical compositions of Mozart and Beethoven. Although relatively unknown now, his musical invention was a hit in the 1700’s, where it became an essential part of the music industry. In addition to his enormous contributions to math and science, Einstein was also regarded as a very talented pianist and violinist. He claimed that “the greatest scientists are artists as well” (3), and often mentioned that his musical background was essential in developing his overall intelligence, as he stated that “he never thought in logical symbols or mathematical equations, but in images, feelings, and even musical architectures”. Although Einstein and Franklin’s musical background is commonly overlooked, scientists agree with Einstein and suggest it may have been a key factor in both of their neurological development which allowed them to achieve incredible levels of cognitive function. Studies of Einstein’s brain show he did in fact have a more pronounced corpus callosum, which is said to have allowed for “enhanced communications routes between… his two cerebral hemispheres” (2).  Supporting findings on enlarged corpus callouses in professional musicians, Einstein’s musical background is likely to have been a an essential element in developing increased size and function in his cortical structures.



A Tool to Develop Creativity: Cognitively

To somewhat debunk the previous idea that music allows one to be more focused and engaged in a studious task, studies have been shown that music can be more of a distraction than facilitating factor for concentration. While questions may arise about how this statement supports the hypothesis that music improves multiple forms of intelligence and cognitive function, it is necessary to understand that volume (as well as several other factors such as genre and rhythm) play a significant role in determining whether music is distracting or helpful during mental tasks. To the surprise of many however, a short-term distraction created by music can improve creativity because it puts our brains in a “mind-wandering mode” (1). It causes a “flood of different thoughts” which allows humans to think differently about a certain problem or situation. If for example, someone is stuck on a particular problem for a significant period of time his or her mind may become fixed on trying to solve the problem using only one method or pattern of thinking to find a solution. At this point, the flow of new thoughts has slowed and its likely that a solution will not be found without a change in thought process or new flow of ideas. Fortunately, one of the most effective ways the mind can become ‘unstuck’ is though musical stimulation. In a sense, music can provide humans with the ability to step back from a problem and allow them to think about it in a new, unique way that may allow for an eventual fix. Mind-wandering mode allows people to “feel recharged and inspired” which is what ultimately allows people to “come up with imaginative ideas”.



Benefits By Genre

Listening to specific genres of music increase different elements of cognitive function.  Studies have shown that “music centered on the beat” (2) (such as rock and rap) help increase the ability to ‘work under the clock’ per se. It is a chaotic and violent genre of music, and helps people who live in chaotic areas deal with the stresses of living there. Supporting evidence for this claim can be seen in areas where this type of music is particularly popular such as in poorer parts of big cities such as Chicago or Detroit. In these cities, thousands of people must complete a variety of laborious tasks in short amounts of time in order to meet quotas. Therefore, it is very important that they manage their time well and keep a consistent pace for their work, as well as dealing with the chaos and uncertainty of their environment. A similar study suggests that people who often listen to New Age music have improved abilities dealing with space and organization. Typically, this kind of music would be helpful to a person living a “highly mental, structured life”, aiding them in better organizing and making sense of their complex thoughts. A final genre associated with specific cognitive improvements is jazz. Because of the aspects of jazz that give it the characteristics of an “organized chaos”, it is suggested that this specific phenomenon helps jazz listeners to make sense of seemingly wild, unpredictable situations. Creativity is developed from being able to find a variety of solutions, and being able to organize chaos, so it is not difficult to understand why a possible association can be drawn between jazz and creativity.



It is clear that music benefits us in a variety of ways. Although there’s significant differences in the ways humans listen to music across cultures as well as the genre they enjoy, there is likely a cognitive or mental benefit that can be gained from any type of auditory stimulation. Although research doesn’t support the claim that music directly improves intelligence by being periodically exposed to it (for example one’s IQ score won’t improve by just listening to music), there is extensive evidence that shows an increased ability to learn, work and stimulate creative thoughts by listening to music. In this way, one may infer that music enhances our learning ability and the way we think or perceive stimuli, but it does not directly increase current knowledge.













  1. Adams, Rebecca. 2014. Here’s proof music can do more than just make you feel good.The Huffington Post, June 24th, 2014.
  2. Don Campbell. 1997. Sound intellect. InThe Mozart effect: Tapping the power of music to heal the body, strengthen the mind, and unlock the creative spirit., 175. New York: Avon.
  3. Healy, Melissa. 2013. Einstein’s brain a wonder of conectedness.The Washington Post, October 12th, 2013, sec 2015.
  4. Heath, David. Glass Armonica. 2002 [cited November 24th 2015]. Available from
  5. Root-Bernstein, Robert, and Root-Bernstein, Michele. Einstein on creative thinking: Music and the intuitive art of scientific imagination. 2010 [cited November 24th 2015]. Available from
  6. Sanon, Nikhil. “Music and Intelligence.” Personal interview.

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