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KIRKWEG, S. B. (2001). The Effects of Music on Memory. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 4. Available online at http://www.webclearinghouse.net/volume/. Retrieved September 28, 2023 .

The Effects of Music on Memory

Sponsored by: Brian Cronk (cronk@missouriwestern.edu)
Memory is a mental system that receives, stores, organized, alters and recovers information from sensory input (Coon, 1997). Research has shown memory to be affected by many different factors. One of these factors is music, which has been found to stimulate parts of the brain. Many studies have demonstrated that music enhances the memory of Alzheimer`s and dementia patients. Music has also been found to reduce stress, aid relaxation and alleviate depression. This experiment placed 60 subjects into three different conditions based on the independent variable of music. The three types of the independent variable were "The Seasons (Spring Movement)" by Haydn, Holier Than Thou by Metallica and white noise. Each group visually studied a picture for 30 seconds with their specific music or noise in the background. After 30 seconds the picture was taken away and the music or noise was turned off. The groups then filled out a questionnaire about their memories for the picture. There was not a significant interaction found between the type of music or noise played and memory recall. However, the white noise group made the least amount of memory errors while the Haydn group made the most. These results contrast a lot of the research on the effects of music on memory. Much research states that music, especially classical, enhances the storage and recall of memory. There were some limitations to this experiment. Noise outside of the testing area was not controlled for. Also, subjects may have talked to one another about the questionnaire while filling it out. Further research may explain why the results of this experiment contrast much of the published research on the effects of music on memory.

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. 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). 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. 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.


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.

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.

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. 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. 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.

Carruth, E. (1997) The effects of singing and the spaced retrieval technique on improving face-name recognition in nursing home residents with memory loss. Journal of Music Therapy, 34, 165-186. Coon, D. (1997). Essentials of Psychology. New York: Brooks/Cole Publishing. Larkin, M. (2001) Music tunes up memory in dementia patients. Lancet, 357, 1-3.Music and Stress Reduction. (1998) Futurist, 32, 1-3. Music therapy: One key for people with Alzheimer`s or Parkinson`s disease. (2001) Tufts University Health and Nutrition Letter. Shapiro, A. (1969) A pilot program in music therapy with residents of a home for the aged. The Gerontologist, 9, 128-133.


Submitted 5/1/01 9:42:11 AM
Last Edited 5/1/01 1:14:16 PM
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