Uplifting music can boost mental alertness and concentration, according to researchers who studied the effect of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons.
A group of 14 young volunteers listened to the concertos while performing a challenging mental task. At the same time, scientists measured the electrical activity of their brains.
Results showed that participants carried out the task faster and more accurately while listening to the uplifting strains of the Spring concerto. They slowed down during the more sombre Autumn passage.
Psychologist Dr Leigh Riby, from the University of Northumbria, said: "The Spring movement enhanced overall activity within the brain but had an exaggerated effect on the area of the brain that's important for emotional processing. It seemed to give rise to particular imagery in the brain and evoke positive, contented feelings which translated into higher levels of cognitive functioning."
The task involved pressing the space bar on a computer keyboard whenever a green square appeared on the screen. Different coloured circles and squares that appeared intermittently had to be ignored.
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.
The findings are published in the journal Experimental Psychology.
Dr Riby pointed out that the Spring movement had been successfully used in marketing to alter mood and influence behaviour.
He added: "The current study provides evidence that there is an indirect effect of music on cognition that is created by mood, alertness and emotion. This experiment shows that cognitive capacity is enhanced when pleasant and arousing stimuli are introduced."
Both pieces were written in major keys, suggesting that major or minor key type makes no difference to the impact of music on mental performance. Music based on a minor key is often associated with sadness, yet the more downbeat Autumn concerto in Vivaldi's The Four Seasons is written in a major key.