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

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear All of Mozart in a Free 127-Hour Playlist

The Wicked Scene in Amadeus When Mozart Mocked the Tal­ents of His Rival Anto­nio Salieri: How Much Does the Film Square with Real­i­ty?

Mozart’s Diary Where He Com­posed His Final Mas­ter­pieces Is Now Dig­i­tized and Avail­able Online

How Music Can Awak­en Patients with Alzheimer’s and Demen­tia

The Ther­a­peu­tic Ben­e­fits of Ambi­ent Music: Sci­ence Shows How It Eas­es Chron­ic Anx­i­ety, Phys­i­cal Pain, and ICU-Relat­ed Trau­ma

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.


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