It is very likely that you have heard of the so-called "Mozart effect" and the benefits classical music has on babies. However, there is some science I should elaborate on before we take a look at the pieces discussed in this article.
The "Mozart Effect"
A short paper (F. Rauscher et al., 1993), published in the scientific journal Nature would be the first to cite the so called "Mozart effect". This study involved college kids who listened to either 10 minutes of a Mozart sonata in D-major, a relaxation track or silence. The results were quite intriguing. The paper said that students who had listened to Mozart before doing their tasks, seemed to show significant improvement in their performance. This did not result in just one or two extra spatial IQ points, but it resulted in a whopping eight to nine extra spatial IQ points.
There is often a catch to be found when a study comes to such stunning results. On account of quite a few other studies that have been done on this subject, a more precise and nuanced conclusion can be drawn: There is now a broad consensus in the scientific community that making your babies listen to classical music will not necessarily raise your baby's IQ, but definitely plays an important role in your child's development when it comes to bonding, playing, dealing with stress, sleep and mental health.
If that isn't enough to convince you of the actual Mozart effect, it is said to improve motor dexterity because of the rhythm. Scientists go as far as saying that it improves neural connections between your left and right brain hemispheres because of all the different parts of the brain that are involved in listening and interpreting the music. Even for fetuses, a much stronger reaction to Eine kleine Nachtmusik was observed than with mainstream pop music. Eine kleine Nachtmusik caused a reaction in 91% of foetuses compared to Adele’s Someone Like You with a mere 60%.
With this all said, here are some pieces that actually have scientific grounding to support their benefits.
Mozart - Sonata for 2 Pianos
Prokofiev - Peter and the Wolf
Mozart - Eine kleine Nachtmusik
Mozart - Marriage Of Figaro
Effects of tempo on the brain
Furthermore, what seems to have gotten the best results when it comes to attention span and test scores is a tempo similar to Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos, K.448 and The Marriage of Figaro Overture. It seems as though pieces with a fast pace help your brain get to work and focus. Important to note; there isn't a scientific consensus on this yet as it has also been found that math students who listened to classical music at 60-70 beats per minute (like Für Elise) scored an average of one point higher on their exam.
It begs the question how these seemingly very different pieces can have the same effect. However, it isn't very difficult to wrap your head around that: What seems to hold truth is that a fast-paced piece before making an exam will stimulate nearly every part of your brain in a way that makes them communicate and connect better. In a way, it prepares your brain for a mental state, similar to the one that you will need to be in during a test.
Now over to the slow-paced performance boosts: the reason these seem to be working to a greater degree during a test is most probably due to primarily two things: predictability and diversion.
Satie - Gymnopédie No. 1
Satie - Gymnopédie No. 2
Your mind has evolved a natural tendency to fill in the blank spaces, to use its imagination in order to seek answers to continue a sequel, even when there might not be any (evolutionarily used to predict danger). When listening to music, your brain automatically does this for you. It is one of the key-elements of music. In comparison to faster pieces, your brain gets more of a rest because the main melody will be easier to follow.
Diversion on the other hand, is more easily explainable. It entails that a piece like Gymnopédie No. 1 or 2 by Erik Satie has such a repetitive motif that your focus doesn't get diverted from what you're working on, while still enjoying the benefits of the music. The left-hand chords are constantly repeating, which your mind gets used to. This altogether results in a focused state of mind, perfect for an exam.
With all this in mind, here are some other pieces that really should get your brain activity going.