Is Music Affecting Our Memory?

in Article, News
March 25th, 2015

cf7eb5b4_Listen-to-musicMusic has been scientifically proven as beneficial, having effects such as reducing stress, enhancing blood vessel function, improving sleep quality, and improving cognitive performance. However, one thing that music does not improve is one’s ability to focus. In a recent study conducted at Georgia Institute of Technology, researchers found that listening to music decreased the efficiency of remembering names.

Participants in this study were asked to match faces to names, a task that involves associative memory. In associative memory, a memory of an event or place is triggered by the recollection of something associated with it. Music is heavily involved in associative memory, which is why it can be upsetting to listen to certain songs if you have associated them with an ex-significant other. Much like other types of memory, associative memories are processed in the hippocampus of the brain.

Some participants completed this name-face test in silence, while others had non-lyrical music playing in the background. All age groups of participants agreed that the music was distracting from the test, but only the scores of the older adults were affected by it.


A sample of faces and names for participants. Participants were first asked if the name looked like the face. They were later asked if the face-name combinations were the same.

Sarah Reaves, the Georgia Tech psychology graduate student who led the study, linked these results with the “cocktail party effect”. This phenomenon allows a person to focus one’s auditory attention on a particular stimulus while ignoring the rest. This is why you can focus your attention on one conversation at a party without being distracted by all the other conversations going on. “Older adults have trouble ignoring irrelevant noises and concentrating,” says Duarte, who oversees Georgia Tech’s Memory and Aging Lab. “Associative memory also declines with age. As we get older, it’s harder to remember what name went with a face or where a conversation took place.” With these two deficits combined, it’s no wonder the adults’ scores were affected by the music in the background.

Even though this study only reported effects on older participants, it does not let teenagers off of the hook. In a 2010 study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, teenagers and young adults were asked to recall sounds presented in a particular order. Their performances suffered when background music was playing during the study. So while younger adults may be better at focusing their attention while multitasking, they are not immune to the effects of distractions.

Despite these findings, music can still be beneficial to one’s ability to focus – as long as it is not playing while one is attempting to focus. Playing your favorite music before getting to work can lift your mood and increase your arousal, allowing you to focus more once it’s time to get down to business. So before giving up on music completely, it’s important to remember that it can improve physical activity, make routine tasks more enjoyable, and enhance mental performance. Just remember to turn it off when it comes time to study for an exam!

– Amy Casarella


Terrible at remembering names? Blame it on the music, not the memory – Science Daily

Does Listening to Music While Working Make You Less Productive? – Time

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