Music wields remarkable power over the human brain, with evidence for many medical benefits, but scientists have been unsure whether the effects rely on something in the composition, or if any complex sounds would do the trick. One study indicates that, at least for epilepsy, there is something specific to the art that enables it to work its magic.
"In the past 15 to 20 years, we have learned a lot about how listening to one of Mozart's compositions in individuals with epilepsy appears to demonstrate a reduction in seizure frequency,” said Dr Marjan Rafiee of Toronto Western Hospital in a statement.
Some studies for musical effects on medical conditions have included other sounds as controls, but most have not, particularly for epilepsy. Moreover, when comparisons take place, it is usually with pop artists, not disorganized noise. To address this, Rafiee scrambled the notes from Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, K. 448 so the same musical frequencies were present, but in a random order lacking the rhythm and melody that draw people to concert halls centuries after the work was written.
In Epilepsia Open Rafiee describes having 13 epilepsy patients listen to either the first six minutes of K.448 every day for three months, followed by three months of the scrambled version, or the same thing in reverse. Prior to the experiment, all the participants were monitored for three months listening to neither set of sounds, so Rafiee could measure their baseline seizure rate.
For both groups, listening to the music was associated with a statistically significant reduction in seizures; 35 percent compared to the scrambled performance, and even more against the baseline. Despite MRI scans showing the participants varied in the seizure type and brain location, 12 of the 13 participants benefited during the Mozart phase of their trial.
"As a surgeon, I have the pleasure of seeing individuals benefit from surgery, however, I also know well those individuals for whom surgery is not an option, or those who have not benefited from surgery,” said senior author Dr Taufik Valiante.
The authors acknowledge the need for larger samples. They also want to conduct longer studies to test if the effect wears off – it's easy to imagine that even such a great work would become annoying after daily listening, potentially reducing the benefits.
Nevertheless, with an estimated 50 million people suffering from epilepsy, a low-cost intervention like this could make a substantial contribution to human well being. Certainly, side-effects seem unlikely.
We have barely more than guesses as to how Mozart's music produces such an effect, nor how it reduces pain and inflammation in mice. On the other hand, chimpanzees' health reaps no such reward from exposure to the great man's music.