In a new study, researchers Nobuo Masataka of Kyoto University in Japan and Leonard Perlovsky of Harvard University report that the soothing sounds of a Mozart minuet boost the ability in both children and seniors to focus and complete a task. The findings help to prove that music plays an active role in human development.

"Music evolved for helping to overcome the predicament of stress that arises from holding contradictory cognitions, so that knowledge is not discarded, but rather can be accumulated, and human culture can evolve," wrote the authors.

Some scientists currently argue that the success of consonance for brain development is based on the exposure to music knowledge and the exposure to specific cultures that enjoy that music, while other scientists believe there is a biological explanation for the observed preference and success rate with consonant performance.

Researchers took 25 boys, ages eight to nine, and 25 seniors, ages 65 to 75, and had them complete a modified version of a Stroop task — a well-known test used to investigate a person's psychological capacities, asking the participant to identify the color of words on a card. The trick is, the words spell out a different color than the color of the words themselves. For example, the word green is written in the color red. As the series of words flash before the participants on a computer screen, they are required to identify each color and ignore the word that the letters spell out.

Participants performed the test three times, once while a Mozart minuet played in the background, once with a modified version with dissonant intervals, and a third time in complete silence, which was used as the experiment's control.

The results were consistent for both the children and the seniors, whose reactions times for identifying colors while listening to Mozart were significantly quicker with lower error rate compared to working in silence. When dissonant music played, reaction times were significantly slower and, as expected, had significantly higher rates of error.

The aversion to dissonant music and the high success rate of performance for the consonant music of Mozart indicate the important effect of music on cognitive function. An increased success rate when performance coincides with consonant music also points to possible abilities to overcome cognitive interferences, such as studying distractions.

Companies such as "Baby Mozart" have reaped the benefits of other research that has pointed to the increase of intellectual performance later in life due to a fetus listening to Mozart. "It is known that infants and even newborns exhibit strong perceptual preferences for the original minuet containing mostly consonant intervals over its modified dissonant version," the researchers wrote.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's music was founded in the 1700s, and is well known throughout the world of music. He is regarded by many as the greatest natural musical genius that has ever lived. Mozart's compositions, which he began writing at age 13, were described as melodically beautiful and rich in harmony and texture. The Austrian composer, keyboard player, violinist, violist, and conductor died at the age of 35, and left behind more than 600 pieces.

The new research has built upon results learned from last year by the same team. Researchers found that participants coped better with cognitive dissonance, the experience of deep discomfort, when two of our belief systems are contradictory.

"Music evolved for helping to overcome the predicament of stress that arises from holding contradictory cognitions," said researchers Masataka and Pervosky, "so that knowledge is not discarded but rather can be accumulated, and human culture can evolve."

Source: Masataka N, Perlovsky L. Cognitive interference can be mitigated by consonant music and facilitated by dissonant music. Scientific Reports. 2013.