The Impact of Instrumental Music on Short-term Language Association



This study examined the effect of classical music on participants’ short-term language comprehension, thereby testing the translative properties of ‘The Mozart Effect’ on a different cognitive process. ‘The Mozart Effect’, first brought to light following the experiments of Rauscher et al. claimed to demonstrate a casual correlation between short-term exposure to Mozart’s Sonata in D major for Two Pianos, K. 448 and proficiency in Spatial-Temporal tasks. In this version of the study, thirty participants were asked to determine a word which best correlates to two words previously given within a twenty-second-time limit to examine the effect of Mozart’s sonata on language association. Limited support for the previously obtained enhancing effect was revealed in the measures of performance for this language association task. Results showed that those exposed to the music condition answered more questions correctly, answered at a faster rate, and had a greater tendency to guess answers, even when incorrect.  However, in contrast with prior studies involving the effect of classical music on Spatial-Temporal reasoning, no improvement was demonstrated across different testing periods (i.e. between day 1 and day 2). These findings are discussed in relation to the need for further replication of this effect on language association before strong claims of generalizability can be made.



Links between the appreciation of music and forms of human intelligence date back for centuries. More recently, researchers have concerned themselves with correlations between musical cognition and spatial reasoning1,2. Indeed, many experiments have brought justification to the notion that certain types of instrumental music, particularly specific compositions by Mozart and J.S Bach, can induce a high degree of long term periodicity, thereby bettering performance in Spatial-temporal tasks. Computer analysis of over 150 works from a variety of composers, including 81 selections of Mozart, and 67 of J. S. Bach demonstrated that many of Mozart’s works and two Bach’s demonstrated long-term periodicity, especially within the 10-60 second range3. In contrast, minimalist music, such as that by composer Phillip Glass, which has demonstrated little effect on spatial-temporal tasks4 showed little long-term periodicity. In prior studies1 groups of participants scored 8 to 9 points higher on the spatial IQ reasoning subtest of the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale after listening to 10 minutes of Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, K. 448 as compared to taped self-hypnosis instructions or silence.

With the advent of PET scanning and functional magnetic resonance scanning, together with studies on localized brain lesions, have shown that listening to music activates a wide distribution of brain areas, particularly the primary auditory cortex in the temporal lobe. Of course, other areas of the brain, ranging from the prefrontal cortex and superior temporal gyrus to the precuneus of the parietal lobe are connected to the appreciation involving rhythm, pitch, meter, and melody5,6,7.

Areas of the brain activated by spatial temporal tasks, such as the building of a three-dimensional cube assemblies in sequence, have also been mapped by PET scanning; with results showing that the prefrontal, temporal and precuneus regions demonstrate usage, which is comparable with many of the areas connected to those involved in the processing of music8. Incidentally, language processing takes place in similar areas of the brain. Wernicke’s area, located in the posterior section of the superior temporal gyrus of the dominant hemisphere (in between the auditory and visual cortex), is strongly linked with language comprehension9.

Furthermore, research using transcranial magnetic stimulation has demonstrated that Wernicke’s area and the region corresponding to it in the non-dominant hemisphere contribute to the processing of dominant word meanings (“teller” given “bank”) and the resolution of subordinate meanings of ambiguous words (“river” given “bank)10.

Upon taking into consideration research linking Wernicke’s area to the processing and association of word meanings, similarities in the regions of the brain which are associated to musical appreciation and language comprehension, and the effect of music on spatial-temporal processes, the question was formed: If similar parts of the brain are activated by both language tasks and the appreciation of music, then can the short-term listening of music impact word association?

Here, findings from a study which analyzes the effects of listening to music on the processing and association of word meanings is presented. It is hypothesized that listening to specific types of instrumental music prior to engaging in word association tasks can enhance short-term language association.



30 participants, the youngest participant being 17-years-old and the oldest being 52-years-old, volunteered for the study. All successfully completed the study. 15 were females and 15 were males. All participants had normal hearing, fluent in English and had no cognitive impairments or conditions.


Participants were exposed to two different types of conditions: silence and instrumental music. The music was played from a computer at medium volume. One piece of instrumental music: Mozart’s Sonata in D major for Two Pianos, K. 448: I. Allegro con Spirito, was used. Following the experiments of Rauscher et al.1 most researchers have used Mozart’s double piano sonata, which has been dubbed as “one of the most profound and most mature of all Mozart compositions.”11 Mozart’s Sonata in D major for Two Pianos, K. 448 has been proven to elicit long-term periodicity in participants; the use of this work also makes the study comparable to others done in a similar manner.

Design and Procedure

Participants would be split up between the two conditions: silence and instrumental music. To ensure that the gender and ability was relatively even throughout the two groups, they were asked five language association questions on the first day of participation. The initial five questions were the same for each participant, thereby eliminating any discrepancies in difficulty between the participants (Figure 1).

After being given instructions and a sample question, the participant would then have 20 seconds (as timed by a stopwatch) to answer with a word they felt was most associated with the two words said. As participants had to respond verbally to the questions, they were given free-reign, and instructed to ‘think out loud’, but were only stopped when a correct answer was given or the subject indicated that they had given a final answer. A 5 second warning was given to give the opportunity for the participant to give a final answer. Based on their results, the groups were divided into a silent and instrumental testing groups of equal means and distribution. The participants engaged in the experiment as follows:

  • Silence condition (n=14), on days 1 and 2, participants were instructed to sit silently for 8 minutes before being asked another 8 questions (each day) under the same guidelines above to test language association skills.
  • ‘Mozart’ Condition (n=16), on days 1 and 2, participants were instructed to sit while listening to Mozart’s Sonata in D major for Two Pianos, K. 448: I. Allegro con Spirito for 8 minutes before immediately being asked another 8 questions (each day) under the same guidelines above to test language association skills.

Three measures were focused on to index the participants’ language comprehension and association. First, the number of valid answers given by each participant was used as an overall measure of performance. A second accuracy measure, time (in seconds) need to give a correct answer, was determined by the amount of time the participant required to give a word or phrase that was a valid answer. The third measure was the number of incorrect answers with at least two guesses made in the first 10 seconds.

Each participant completely the tasks on a completely individual basis. Questions were given in the same order for each participant. The full question bank has been inserted into the Supplementary Data section at the end of this paper.


The hypothesis that listening to the classical music of Mozart can enhance language comprehension received support from the data. The mean number of questions answered correctly overall was greater after participants listened to Mozart (M=5.40) than the silence condition (M=4.86), F (1,28) = 4.40, p < 0.05. The respective means on day one with music (M=5.31) and without (M=4.78) had a similar difference to the results with music on day two (M=5.49) and without (M=4.92). However, there was no significant improvement in either group between the two days, as demonstrated by a Scheffé multiple comparison analysis from day one and day two between each respective condition (t = 0.659, p < 0.6 for music and t = 0.383, p < 0.8 without music).

The second measure, average time of correct answers in seconds, varied greatly between the music group (M= 6.21) and the silent group (M= 8.03), an ANOVA test found this difference to be statistically significant: F (1,28) = 13.01, p < 0.001. A third measure, the number of incorrect answers with at least 2 guesses made in the first 10 seconds, showed a difference between the music group (M= 4.06, or 78.3% of all incorrect answers) and the silence group (M= 3.64, or 59.3% of all incorrect answers) F (1,28) = 24.24, p < 0.001. A significant difference was demonstrated between those who listened to music and those who did not in Scheffé multiple comparison analysis (t= 4.92, p < 0.01). All in all, participants presented with the Mozart condition answered more questions correctly, gave correct answers at a quicker rate than those not presented with instrumental music, and demonstrated a greater tendency to give answers at a faster pace, even when those answers weren’t entirely correct.



The results of this study indicate that listening to classical music can indeed enhance performance in some aspects of short-term language comprehension. It appears that Mozart’s music is sufficient to improve accuracy and speed on this language association task relative to the silence condition.

It was initially postulated that certain types of music, specifically those which elicited long-term periodicity in the participant, such as Mozart’s Sonata in D major for Two Pianos, K. 448, would be the only condition under which rapid language association would improve. However, upon the conclusion of the study, it would be interesting to observe the effects of minimalist or vocal music relative to the silent and instrumental condition. In prior studies involving the effect of music of spatial-task performance12 participants exposed to minimalist music demonstrated increased spatial-temporal capacity in comparison to those in the silent group, therefore posing the possibility of a similar effect taking place in a study with language association.

Keeping with comparisons to past studies, there was no significant discrepancy between the rates of improvement from day one to day two in the Mozart and silence group, a different outcome to those reached in several studies involving spatial task performance12. In fact, prior studies have demonstrated a great improvement in spatial tasks between the first and second periods of testing. These studies have hypothesized that both the effect of the music and the learning curve between the various sessions of testing are the primary causes of this improvement. It can be postulated that the relative lack of questions in each day and the nature of the questions did not allow for a statistically significant discrepancy to form between the improvement from day one to day two between the Mozart and silent groups. For future studies regarding language association, it would be interesting to see if a greater number of questions, or different styles of language association questions would yield statistically significant improvement in between the initial testing and those done in future sessions.

The greatest difference between the Mozart and silence groups came in the second and third measures (average time of answer and rate of incorrect answers with at least two guesses made in the first 10 seconds). Although it was mentioned in the introduction that corresponding areas of the brain were used for language comprehension and musical comprehension, which may explain the tendency for the ‘Mozart’ group to answer correctly faster than the silence group, it does not entirely explain the tendency of the ‘Mozart’ group to guess far more frequently than the silence group. The temporal lobe is associated with the effects of long-term periodicity in the brain caused by music, and could therefore could have potential to influence the participants’ general tendency to guess quicker and more frequently. However, guessing is a complicated process in the brain, with several variables that could affect it.

Upon further reading of literature and past studies, the idea that “enjoyment arousal” (the notion that the subject’s enjoyment of the music provokes them to perform better) is responsible for the positive results4,11 has been deemed unlikely until evidence is provided to the contrary.

For future studies, it would be very appealing to observe cortical blood flow activation by the Mozart Sonata and in the silence condition when presented with language association problems; prior studies have compared blood flow activation by the Mozart Sonata vs. other music through and fMRI studies14. Exposing participants to language comprehension questions as well could provide more concrete postulations for the discrepancy in average answer time for correct answers and the rate of incorrect answers with at least two guesses made in the first 10 seconds.


This study provided evidence for the claim that the classical music of Mozart is casually correlated to improved short-term language association. Those exposed to the Mozart condition, on average, answered more questions correctly, guessed more frequently, and gave their correct answers faster than those in the silent control group. For future studies, exposing participants to multiple musical conditions, such as vocal music and minimalist music, is recommended to understand the effects of multiple types of music on short-term language comprehension. Further studies are encouraged to better understand the core reasons for the causal correlation between Mozart’s classical music and improvement in language association tasks, along with other cognitive process.


This project would have been impossible without the assistance of Navid Samiei with his help in finding willing volunteers for the study. I’d also like to thank Mrs. Aliisa Sarte for providing feedback on the paper and Dr. Owen Tyers for providing guidance on the direction of the paper.


  1. Rauscher, Frances H., Gordon L. Shaw, and Catherine N. Ky. “Music and spatial task performance.” Nature365, no. 6447 (1993): 611. doi:10.1038/365611a0.
  2. Hassler, M., N. Birbaumer, and A. Feil. “Musical Talent and Visual-Spatial Abilities: A Longitudinal Study.” Psychology of Music13, no. 2 (1985): 99-113. doi:10.1177/0305735685132004.
  3. Hughes, John R., and John J. Fino. “The Mozart Effect: Distinctive Aspects of the Music — A Clue to Brain Coding?” Clinical Electroencephalography31, no. 2 (2000): 94-103. doi:10.1177/155005940003100208.
  4. Rauscher, Frances, Desix Robinson, and Jason Jens. “Improved maze learning through early music exposure in rats.” Neurological Research20, no. 5 (1998): 427-32. doi:10.1080/01616412.1998.11740543.
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  6. Platel, H., Cathy Price, and Richard Wise. “The structural components of music perception. A functional anatomical study.” Brain120, no. 2 (1997): 229-43. doi:10.1093/brain/120.2.229.
  7. Liegeois-Chauvel, C., Isabelle Pertez, and Myriam Babai. “Contribution of different cortical areas in the temporal lobes to music processing.” Brain121, no. 10 (1998): 1853-867. doi:10.1093/brain/121.10.1853.
  8. Crivello, F., N. Tzourio, E. Mellet, O. Ghaëm, and B.m. Mazoyer. “Functional anatomy of visuo-spatial mental imagery: Correlation maps between baseline NrCBF and psychometric data.” NeuroImage3, no. 3 (1996): 6504-512. doi:10.1016/s1053-8119(96)80208-4.
  9. Kensington, S.M. Introduction to Language Development. S.l.: SAGE Publications Inc, 2013.
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  13. Rauscher, Frances H., Gordon L. Shaw, and Catherine N. Ky. “Music and spatial task performance.” Nature365, no. 6447 (1993): 611. doi:10.1038/365611a0.
  14. Bodner, Mark, L. Tugan Muftuler, Orhan Nalcioglu, and Gordon L. Shaw. “FMRI study relevant to the Mozart effect: Brain areas involved in spatial–temporal reasoning.” Neurological Research23, no. 7 (2001): 683-90. doi:10.1179/01616410110119910

Supplementary Data

List of Questions Used


1. LOCK — PIANO (Key)


2. SHIP — CARD (Deck)

3. TREE — CAR (Trunk)

4. SCHOOL — EYE (Pupil)

5. PILLOW — COURT (Case)

6. RIVER — MONEY (bank or flow)

Session 1:

7. BED — PAPER (Sheet, Flat)

8. ARMY — WATER (Tank, Pistol, Navy)

9. TENNIS — NOISE (Racket)



12. GUITAR – THREAD (Strings)

13. COFFEE – MUD (Brown)

14. SKILL – EXCHANGE (Trade)

15. CASE – BOMB (Shell)

Session 2:

16. SCREEN — OBSERVER (Monitor)


18. BARRIER – CHINA (Wall)

19. RULER – CROWN (King or Queen)

20. BALLOT – CONSTITUENT (voter or elector)

21. VIRUS – SHOT (Flu, Epidemic)




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