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Tired of winter? You need a Vivaldi 'Spring' pick-me-up

Is this long, long winter making your brain feel lethargic?

You might want to try listening to a bit of “Spring” — the opening violin concerto in “The Four Seasons,” probably the most popular composition by that great Baroque master of music Antonio Vivaldi.

For, according to a study published earlier this year in the journal Experimental Psychology, “Spring”  — particularly its familiar and vivacious first movement — helps people become more alert and attentive.

Yes, yes, I know we’ve been through this before with the so-called Mozart effect. In the early 1990s, a study suggested that listening to classical music (particularly Mozart) could temporarily boost children’s mental spatial skills, and soon every new mom was receiving a Mozart CD at her baby shower.  As I’ve noted here before, that research has been pretty much debunked. Scientists have been unable to replicate its findings.

That’s not to say that music doesn’t have an effect on our brain and even on our cognitive abilities, however. Plenty of research has shown that “music (including passive listening to music) involves the engagement of numerous cognitive functions,” as the author of the Experimental Psychology study, British psychologist Leigh Riby, writes in his study’s introduction.

It seems plausible, he adds, “that it is not so much that music has ‘special’ qualities, but similar to any other pleasurable stimuli (e.g., viewing artwork), music evokes an emotional response and this change in the listener’s mood or arousal subsequently enhances cognition.”

Study details

For his study, Riby recruited 14 young adults. He had them perform a specific cognitive task while listening in random order to “The Four Seasons” concertos, each of which has three (fast, slow, fast) movements and is intended to evoke feelings about its respective season. As a control, the study’s participants also performed the task during three periods of silence.

The task involved pressing a spacebar on a keyboard when a green square appeared on screen and doing nothing when a red circle or a blue square appeared. Throughout the experiment, the participants were hooked up to an electroencephalogram (EEG), which measured the electrical activity in areas of the brain associated with attention.

Riby found that the participants performed the task significantly faster and more accurately during “Spring.” They reacted to the green squares at an average speed of 393.8 milliseconds during its famed first movement and 392.6 milliseconds during its second movement. That compared with 425.2 milliseconds (their slowest time) during the third movement of “Winter” and 408.1 milliseconds during the first “movement” of silence (their best time during those control periods).

The participants were also found to be more alert during “Spring” than during the other concertos — and the least alert during “Winter.”

A special status?

 “Winter” is a more somber movement than “Spring,” partly because it’s written in a minor rather than a major key. As Riby points out, other research has suggested that major keys tends to have a more positive effect on cognitive performance. But in this study, key did not seem to be a factor. The “Autumn” concerto, which is also written in a major key, did not have the same enhanced effect on cognition as “Spring.” In fact, the participants' scores during all three of its movements were lower than those for the G-minor “Summer.”

So could it be that the participants were responding to the unconscious “programmatic qualities” of “Spring” — in other words, to its deep musical evocations of that uplifting season? Perhaps, suggests Riby. “The first movement of ‘Spring’ has been used successfully in a therapeutic setting while assessing its impact on stress and blood pressure, and is used in the media and marketing because of its potential to induce mood and influence shoppers’ choices,” he writes. “… This type of work may provide tentative support for the special status of this piece of program music as a mood inducer.”

Here in Minnesota, we can certainly use a mood inducer. More snow is predicted for this weekend.

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