The impact of music on memory

Traditionally, music played an important part in the life of humans. However, people get used to think of music as a sheer entertainment, while the actual potential of music has remained under-researched for a long period of time. In fact, it is only at the beginning of the 20th century the interest of scientists to music started to increase consistently. It is during this epoch the first efforts to reveal possible effects of music on human mind and human brain were undertaken. At this point, it should be said that the impact of music on human emotion and mood had been already known at that epoch, but the 20th century was marked by the dominance of science and it is quite natural that scientists had started their experiments concerning the impact of music on the mental state of people and their brain.

Among the variety of researches, the researches dedicated to the study of the effects of music on human memory seem to be particularly interesting and important. In fact,  today, the research of the impact of music on human memory is even more significant than it used to be a century ago. The modern world and modern humans have changed dramatically. The fast rhythm of life and the increased amount of information the human brain should process daily and uncountable amount of pieces of information that should be stored in human memory stimulate modern research to study the ways to improve human memory and increase the capability of human brain to remember important information.

In such a context, the research of the impact of music on human memory is very important because reveal the fact whether the music can produce a positive impact on human memory, including people with mental difficulties, such as Alzheimer disease, or probably the music does not affect human memory much. In this respect, it should be said that traditionally it is believed that classical music produces a positive impact on human emotions, brain and, therefore, memory. However, it is important to conduct an empirical research to prove or reject the hypothesis that music can enhance memory.


Literature review

In the early to mid 20th century, researchers began to extensively study memory. Since then, there have been tremendous advances in the knowledge of how the mind processes information. The brain is composed of a very complex system of neural networks that transfers information from one section to another. The study of these networks is an ongoing process, because there is still much to learn. From this research, many factors have been found that seem to affect memory. Included in these factors are attention, stress, emotion, music, and aging. This experiment will concentrate on how the factor of music effects memory.

In this respect, it is important to lay emphasis on the fact that specialists (Larkin, 2001) argue that music produces a significant impact on human emotions since, as a rule, under the impact of music people tend to change their emotions and mood. Obviously, the change of the emotional state of people clearly indicate to the impact of music on human brain because emotions cannot exist separately from brain activity. At the same time, as music can influence brain, than it would be logical to presuppose that music can influence human memory as well because certain parts of the brain are responsible for the storage and processing of human memory and if they are exposed to the impact of music than these brain areas can be stimulated. In such a context, the research should give the answer to the question following question what the effects of music on memory are, and, namely, whether these effects are positive or negative.

The memory is a mental system that receives, stores, organizes, alters and recovers information from sensory input. Sensory memory, short-term memory and long-term memory are the three basic types. Information first enters sensory memory, which holds an exact copy of the data for a few seconds. Short-term memory is the next step, and it holds small quantities of information for a brief period longer than sensory memory. Selective attention is utilized at this time to regulate what information is transferred to short-term memory. Unimportant information is removed permanently (Coon, 1997).

Another name for short-term memory is working memory, which describes the thinking and problem solving aspects. Short-term memory, according to psychologist George Miller, can hold a “magic number” of seven (plus or minus two) bits of information. Bits are units of information such as numbers, phrases or words. Information is held in short-term memory by two types of rehearsal. Maintenance rehearsal refers to silently repeating or mentally reviewing information. Elaborative rehearsal connects the new information with existing information (Coon, 1997).

Many areas of the brain are used to process information. However, the hippocampus is the section that transfers information into long-term memory. This type of memory contains all of the presorted important information in a relatively permanent and limitless storage. Long-term memory also organizes information for easy recovery (Coon, 1997).

Music has an amazing power to influence man’s emotions and behavior. It has been found to affect and stimulate many different parts of the brain and body. Psychological study of music is based on this reason. Studies have found that music can reduce stress, aid relaxation, alleviate depression, and help store and recall information among other functions. William Congreve once stated that “music has the charms to soothe the savage beast”. Stress is reduced through music by decreasing the amount of the hormone cortisone released in the body. This can be applied to everyday life for stress relief (Music and Stress, 1998).

Music therapy is a new intervention that uses “music and musical activities for the purposes of altering behavior and enhancing the everyday existence of people with various types of emotional disturbance”. People have been using forms of music therapy since the earliest recorded history. Egyptian priests spoke incantations that supposedly influenced women’s fertility. Hebrews and Greeks treated physical and mental illness with the playing of music. Zenocrates, Sarpander, and Arien, all of whom were Greeks, were the first to use music therapy as a regular practice. They employed harp music to ease the outbursts of people with mental illnesses (Shapiro, 1969).

In this respect, it is worth mentioning then fact that music therapy is widely applied not only in the treatment of patients with mental health problems, but it is also considered to have a positive therapeutic effect on patients with disabilities (Larkin, 2001). Moreover, many specialists (Carruth, 1997) recommend using music in the process of education en mass. The positive effect of music on the emotional state can contribute to an effective learning and, what is more, the use of music in education stimulate the development of aesthetic tastes of students and, in a way, it can affect the behavior of students (Coon, 1997).

Nursing homes often hire music therapists. People are likely to feel depressed and grief-stricken when moved away from their homes and families into a facility for strangers to take care of them. Music therapy helps to relieve grief and improve emotional tones and feelings (Shapiro, 1969). Therapists can also help residents that suffer from Alzheimer’s and dementia, because studies have found that music can improve their memory. This improvement is partly due to the effect music has on increasing the release of certain hormones in the body (Music and Stress, 1998).

Carruth (1997) conducted an experiment to find out if music would improve the face-name recognition of nursing home residents with Alzheimer’s. There was a music condition and a no music condition. During the music condition, a therapist sang and played a guitar to a familiar song. The subjects were allowed to join the therapist in singing. Afterwards, the subjects were given a face-name recognition test.

The no music condition received the test in the same manner, except for the singing. Four of the seven participants had a higher mean percent of correct responses during the music condition that during the no music condition.

A study conducted at the University of California, Irvine, showed that scores on memory tests of people with Alzheimer’s greatly improved when they listened to Mozart. They recalled shapes and patterns better, for example, than when they were not listening to Mozart (Music Therapy, 2001). At a British Psychological Society Conference in December of 2000, Elizabeth Valentine reported that music promotes memory better than either silence or background noise. Valentine and her colleague selected 23 subjects with dementia to be tested for recall after being exposed to four different types of noise. The four types were no noise, cafeteria noise, familiar music, and novel music.

Recall was better with sound than with silence and better with music than with cafeteria noise (Larkin, 2001).

As shown, many studies have found that music aids the storage and recall of information in the human memory. At the same time, it is important to stress the growing interests of scientists to the effect of music on memory. The profound interests of scientists to the impact of music on memory is, to a significant extent, determined by the increased role of the information and knowledge in the modern society.

It proves beyond a doubt that modern people need to store and process consistently larger amount of information than their ancestors did.

Naturally, the increased amount of information implies the increased opportunities of human memory to store and process this information. Otherwise, people can difficulties with effective processing and storage of information that is apparently unacceptable for modern people. In such a context, people need to facilitate the functioning of their memory, i.e. the process of storage and processing of information they learn from the surrounding world. On the other hand, in spite of numerous research the impact of music, which is often considered to be stimulant for human brain and probably memory, is still under-researched. In fact, a lot of researches have been conducted since the beginning of the 20th centuries but there is still no definite and unanimous conclusion made by scientists in regard to the impact of music on human memory. Based on the previous information, the following experiment will examine how music affects the recall of information from the short-term memory of college students.


 a Participants

There were 60 subjects who participated in this experiment. All of the subjects were students enrolled in either general psychology or intermediate psychology at Missouri Western State College. Roughly 5,000 undergraduate students attend Missouri Western State College, which is located in northwest Missouri. All participants will be treated in compliance with ethical principles.

b Materials

A Marantz stereo cassette deck/compact disk player PMD 350 and a Lafayette Instrument white noise generator model 15012 were used to transmit the background sound for the three experimental conditions. One of the songs used was “Holier Than Thou” by Metallica and the other was “The Seasons (Spring Movement)” by Franz Joseph Haydn. The picture used for recall was displayed by a document camera. Paper and pencil were used to fill out the recall questionnaire about the picture.

c Procedure

One general psychology class and two intermediate psychology classes were selected to participate in this experiment. Each class was be randomly assigned to one of three conditions. The conditions, based on the independent variable of background sound, were white noise, classical music by Haydn, and heavy metal music by Metallica. After the subjects were seated, they were asked to visually study a picture projected on a screen at the front of the room for 30 seconds. The independent variable for that condition was activated, also. At the end of the 30 seconds, the picture was taken away and the independent variable was deactivated. Subjects were then asked to answer the questionnaire. The data was then collected and recorded.


A three (music type) x two (memory type) mixed design ANOVA was calculated comparing the number of memory errors for subjects for each one of three independent variables of background sound. A non-significant trend for music type was found (F (2,57 = 2.894, p = .064).

The white noise group had the least amount of memory errors, while the Haydn group had the most. There was a significant main effect for memory type (F (1,57) = 4.247, p < .05). More false memories were recalled than failures to recall true memories. The interaction was not significant (F (2,57) = 1.517, p = .228). Neither type of memory was affected by the type of music played. Means for memories during the different music conditions can be found in Graph A.


The calculated results for this experiment were inconsistent with the original hypothesis that music, especially classical music, would enhance memory. The interaction between the type of music played and the memories recalled was insignificant. However, the white noise group was found to have the least amount of memory errors while the classical, Haydn, music group made the most. One significant effect was that all three groups remembered more false memories than failed to recall true memories. This outcome of the research still indicates to the possible impact of music on the memory. On the other hand, it is obvious that the prevalence of false memories over the true memories can imply that music have stimulated not only brain parts responsible for emotions and feelings, but it also stimulated the creativity of the participants of experiments. The music is likely to evoke imagination of the participants which naturally involves certain parts of brain the activity of which accompanied the development of false memories in participants.

Results of this experiment contrast much of the literature. This study found that there was not a significant interaction between any of the music groups and memory. Although, the white noise group did have the fewest amount of memory errors. Carruth (1997) found that the face-name recognition of Alzheimer’s patients significantly improved while listening to music. A study conducted at the University of California found that scores on memory tests of Alzheimer’s patients greatly improved when listening to Mozart (Music Therapy, 2001).

Elizabeth Valentine found that dementia patients had better memory recall after being exposed to music rather than background noise or silence (Larkin, 2001). As shown, the results of this experiment deviate from much of the literature and research on the effects of music on memory.

Several limitations could have affected the aforementioned experiment. First of all, the selection of participants was not truly random. The groups were already preset in psychology classes. Also, there were both general and intermediate psychology classes used. Intermediate psychology classes generalize less to the population because they have a unifying characteristic of being mainly psychology majors, while general psychology is a basic requirement for graduating college. Subjects may have talked to one another about the questionnaire while taking it. This could have affected their answers. Noise outside of the testing area was not controlled for, and therefore may have had adverse effects on the study. One of the classes used was a night class, so the subjects may have been tired and less willing to cooperate. The other two classes used were held during the day.

Results of this experiment would probably generalize to a person of any age as long as the person could read the questionnaire. Other types of classical music and heavy metal music would most likely generate the same results as were found with Haydn and Metallica. A different picture would probably produce the same results, also. However, it is possible to presuppose that the creation of more comfortable environment, which could prevent the participants from the access of external noises, could lead to different results. In addition, it should be said that the conducted experiment did not involve the long observation of participants. In other words, in order to achieve a higher reliability and validity of the research, it was possible to conduct a series of experiments, which could involve the change of music as well as picture. The analysis of the reactions and responses of participants on such changes would allow to make more definite conclusion whether music really fails to influence human memory consistently or probably under different conditions and with the use of different music samples for a longer period of time the outcomes of the experiment could be different.

For future research, the limitations stated above should be fixed. Different types of music could be used or the same types just with different songs. Music could be played for longer periods of time to see if that would affect the results differently. The music could also be played while the subjects answer the questionnaire to see if music affects memory recall. Other types of memory tests could be utilized. A silence group may also be added to the experiment. Further research might explain why the results of this experiment differed from much of the literature.


Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that the research was focused on the study of the impact of music on human memory. Basically, the research of this problem is very important at the present epoch because the increase of the potential of human memory becomes more and more important under the impact of the increased information which people should process effectively. The latter naturally implies the improvement of human memory capabilities. Obviously, the improvement of the memory potential could facilitate the acquisition of new knowledge as well as the development of new skills and abilities. At the same time, the researches in the field of the impact of music on human brain have been conducted since the beginning of the 20th centuries that means that the past studies have already prepared the theoretical basis for the current study. On the other hand, the past studies did not fully researched the problem of the impact of music on human memory.

In this respect, the current study was supposed to research this impact and evaluate it. However, the outcomes of the current research turned out to be quite unexpected because the literature review and the analysis of the position of specialist in this regard clearly implies that music, especially classical music should have a positive impact on human memory, while the present research have proved the contrary. To put it more precisely, the classical music turned out to be the least effective since its impact on human memory proved to be the least, while the white noise had the best effect on the memory. In such a way, it is possible to estimate that these outcomes of the research are quite unexpected and, in all probability, they have been influenced by limitations of the study, such as the external noises which were not totally eliminated.

Nevertheless, it does not necessarily mean that the outcomes of the research are totally wrong or absolutely correct. In fact, this study has proved the extent to which human brain and memory are complicated and the effect of music on human memory needs further researchers and the present research can be used as the basis for the further studies.

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