Study: Vivaldi's Four Seasons as the New Brain Food

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Vivaldi's Four Seasons may have long fallen into the realm of cliché when it comes to their use in TV commercials, films or fancy restaurants. But the sprightly concertos are back in the spotlight for a different reason: as performance-enhancing drug.

Researchers from the University of Northumbria say they have found cognitive benefits from listening to the ubiquitous concertos.

In an experiment, the evocative “Spring” section, “particularly the well-recognized, vibrant, emotive and uplifting first movement, had the ability to enhance mental alertness and brain measures of attention and memory,” writes Dr. Leigh Riby in the journal Experimental Psychology.

A group of 14 college-age adults listened to the concertos while performing a challenging concentration task. It involved pressing the space bar on a computer keyboard whenever a green square flashed on the screen. Other colored squares and circles occasionally popped up as well and were meant to be ignored. The test subjects’ brain activity was measured using an electroencephalogram (EEG).

When tested in silence, the volunteers' average response time was 408.1 milliseconds. This fell to 393.8 milliseconds during the “Spring” concerto, compared with 413.3 milliseconds during the “Autumn” concerto. Participants reported feeling more alert during "Spring" and the EEGs suggest the music impacted cognitive processes.

Both concertos were in major keys, suggesting that mode (major/minor) did not play a role in determining the impact of music on mental performance. Rather, the results suggested that the "pleasant and arousing" nature of the music was the greater factor. Dr. Riby also speculated that the programmatic nature of the music -- its evocations of chirping birds and rustling trees -- contributes to its stimulating natur.

It is unclear whether the students were familiar with the Four Seasons before the study, and whether that familiarity may have impacted the results; the “Spring” concerto (and especially the first movement) has been widely recorded and excerpted in popular culture.

The findings will immediately bring to mind the Mozart Effect, the largely debunked theory that Mozart's music can stimulate the intellectual and creative development of children.

Weigh in: What do you think of the Northumbria study? Does Vivaldi make you feel more mentally alert? Please leave your comments below.