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Recent News About Music Effects on Memory

Resolving the question: does music help or hurt memorization?

Most of us remember early school years where we were taught the memory trick of turning item names into a song. Lyrical rhymes seemed to help. In fact, one common mnemonic peg system uses rhyme to create numerical image pegs to which we can attach mental images of what we want to remember. The pegs are expressed, for example, for one as one/run, for two as two/zoo, for three as three/tree, and so on. Though I think there is a better number peg system, this one does show the power of rhyming.

While this approach works, it applies mostly to lists of items. However, I did once use a version of it to put on a stage show where I memorized the gist of a magazine content, by page number. While this is good memory exercise, it does not apply well for memorizing complicated concepts, as one might occur in academic courses in college.

I get the impression from my college students that the vast majority of them study while listening to music. They say it helps them learn. But formal research on this matter is not clear. It is clear that music has rich structure (melodies, chords, themes, riffs, rhythms) that engages the entire brain in ways that certainly could be distracting. But music can also have strong emotional power for evoking emotions and moods. All I have learned about memory is that the most common memory problems come from interfering stimuli. Certainly, music with lyrics can be quite distracting if you are listening to the lyrics while trying to memorize school work. Rap music would probably create the most interference of all.

Finally, a recent scholarly research study, prompted by conflicting reports on music effects on memory, was based on the premise that music, if it could be helpful at all, would be instrumental music. In this study, 20 young non-musician adults were asked to memorize different lists of words presented while they listened to instrumental music, the sound of a waterfall, or silence. Pre-tests established that the chosen song and the environmental sound were rated as enjoyable, of medium emotional intensity, and low arousal effect. Results revealed better recall under the music condition than either of the other two conditions. However, the degree of improvement was small, albeit statistically significant.

Another study that I reported in another blog post tested the role of music on memory in the elderly. The subjects were not musicians and had an average age of 69 years. The music test conditions were: 1) no music control, 2) white noise control, 3) a Mozart recording, and 4) a Mahler recording. All 65 subjects were tested in counter-balanced order in all four categories. The music was played at modest volume as background before and during performance of the cognitive tasks, two memory tasks and a mental processing speed task. An episodic memory task involved trying to recall a list of 15 words immediately after a two-minute study period. A semantic memory task involved word fluency in which subjects wrote as many words as they could think of beginning with three letters of the alphabet.

Episodic memory performance was better when listening to either type of music than while hearing white noise or no music. No memory difference was noted between the two types of music.

Semantic memory was better for both kinds of music than with white noise and better with Mozart that with no music. Processing speed performance was faster while listening to Mozart than with the Mahler or white noise conditions. No improvement in the Mahler condition was seen over white noise or no music.

Recognizing that emotions could be a relevant factor, the experimenters analyzed a mood questionnaire comparing the two music conditions with white noise. Mozart generated higher happiness indicators than did Mahler or white noise. Mahler was rated more sad than Mozart and comparable to white noise. Thus, happy, but not sad, music correlated with increased processing speed. The researchers speculated that happy subjects were more alert.

Surprisingly, both happy and sad music enhanced both kinds of memory over the white noise or silence condition. But it is not clear if this observation is generally applicable. The authors did mention without emphasis that the both kinds of music were instrumental and lacked loudness or lyrics that could have been distracting and thus impair memory. I think this point is substantial. When lyrics are present, the brain is dragged into trying to hear the words and thinking about their meaning. These thought processes would surely interfere with trying to memorize new information or recall previous learned material.

A point not considered at all in either study is personal preference for a certain types of music. The music in the most recent study was lyric-free "Down, Down, Down." This is certainly not classical music, and the version I heard on U Tube is more rock than jazz. In the earlier study that used classical music, we cannot assume that all of the 65 people like classical music. If one does not like a certain type of music, it is not pleasurable and most likely is a major irritant and distraction from whatever it is that needs to be memorized. My point is that studies of music and memory need to take into account whether the subjects were allowed to hear their preferred music.

My take-home lesson was actually formed over five decades ago when I listened to jazz background music while plowing my way through memorizing a veterinary medical curriculum. When I was a student, I listened to instrumental jazz and was convinced that it helped me learn. Two possible explanations come to mind: 1) it helped me relax and feel good, and positive emotions are proven to help memory, or 2) perhaps my brain was energized by the creativity and rhythms of jazz. At the time, I thought that the benefit was stress reduction (veterinary school IS stressful and happy jazz certainly reduces stress). Now I consider the possibility that frequent listening to such music might have actually helped my memory capability in general.

Another point to emphasize is that background music probably interferes with memory in musicians. They are likely to attend to the music structure and technical performance, which would most certainly interfere with memorizing. My final advice: it you are not certain that background music helps studying, then think in silence. When it comes to learning, it is hard to beat intense focus.


Ferreri, L. Bigand, E., and Bugalska, A. (2015). The positive effect of music on source memory. Musicae Scientiae. 19 (4), 402-411.

Klemm, W. R. (2012). Music Effects on Cognitive Function of the Elderly.…

Klemm, W. R. (2012). Memory Power 101. New York: Skyhorse.