Mozart Sonatas Can Help Treat Epilepsy: A New Study from Dartmouth

By Colin Marshall

Many and bold are the claims made for the power of classical music: not just that it can enrich your aesthetic sensibility, but that it can do everything from deter juvenile delinquency to boost infant intelligence. Making claims for the latter are CDs with titles like Baby Mozart: Music to Stimulate Your Baby’s Brain, a case of trading on the name of one of the most beloved composers in music history. Alas, the proposition that classical music in general can make anyone smarter has yet to pass the most rigorous scientific trials. But recent research does suggest that Mozart’s music in particular has desirable effects on the brain: his Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major on epilepsy-afflicted brains in particular.

For about 30 years the piece has been thought to reduce symptoms of epilepsy in the brain, a phenomenon known as the “K448 effect” (the number being a reference to its place in the Köchel catalogue). Recent work by researchers at the Geisel School of Medicine, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC) and Dartmouth College’s Bregman Music and Affective Sound Lab has gone deep into the workings of that effect, and you can read the results free online: the paper “Musical Components Important for the Mozart K448 Effect in Epilepsy,” published just last month in Nature. What they’ve found suggests that the K448 effect is real: that the piece is effective, to be more specific, in “reducing ictal and interictal epileptiform activity.”

Writing for non-neuroscientists, Madeleine Mudzakis at My Modern Met explains that when the researchers “played the tune while monitoring brain implant sensors in the subjects,” they detected “events known as interictal epileptiform discharges (IEDs). These brain events are a symptom of epilepsy and are harmful to the brain.” But “after 30 seconds of listening to the sonata, the subjects experienced noticeably fewer IEDs,” and “transitions between musical phases lead to larger effects, possibly because of anticipation being created which culminates in the pleasant nature of a shifted tune.” These neurologically soothing qualities may also have something to do with the pleasure all Mozart aficionados, epileptics or otherwise, feel when they hear the Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major — or what they don’t feel when they hear Wagner, whose music was here employed as the control that every proper scientific experiment needs.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.