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Whether you’re at the grocery store, work, or in the classroom, you are guaranteed to see people wearing headphones or earbuds. With listening made easier than ever by mobile devices, we can be exposed to music at all times. However, is this beneficial to our concentration and productivity? You might hear that music can improve cognition and memory. Let’s think twice about how music impacts our cognition. What is the evidence that listening to music improves memory and cognition?
The evidence is mostly circumstantial and non-experimental. For instance, a 2007 study evaluated brain responses to musical symphonies in 18 people and found that listening to classical music stimulated parts of the brain related to working memory (1).
A study of 65 adults with an average age of 69 demonstrated that adults who listened to classical music during a vocabulary test and a semantic memory test had faster processing speeds than adults who listened to no music or to white noise (2).
A 2019 study of 18 participants found music activated reward centers of the brain as measured by fMRI.
On the other hand, experimental studies do not support the idea that music improves cognition. One study randomized 86 university students to read some learning material with or without background music and found no improvement in recall or comprehension (3). Another study divided students into no music, simple music, or complex music groups and completed cognitive tasks categorized as easy and hard. The researchers found that the effectiveness depended on the participants’ need for external stimulation while completing tasks. Participants not desiring external stimulation performed better in the no music group. So the association with music may be specific to individual preferences.
With the available evidence, it’s not clear that listening to music improves cognition and it may vary. If listening to music works for you, science does not provide compelling reasons to stop. And there is also no reason to pick it up if that’s not your habit.
- Sridharan, Devarajan et al. “Neural dynamics of event segmentation in music: converging evidence for dissociable ventral and dorsal networks.” Neuron vol. 55,3 (2007): 521-32. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2007.07.003
- Bottiroli, Sara et al. “The cognitive effects of listening to background music on older adults: processing speed improves with upbeat music, while memory seems to benefit from both upbeat and downbeat music.” Frontiers in aging neuroscience vol. 6 284. 15 Oct. 2014, doi:10.3389/fnagi.2014.00284
- Gold, Benjamin P et al. “Musical reward prediction errors engage the nucleus accumbens and motivate learning.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America vol. 116,8 (2019): 3310-3315. doi:10.1073/pnas.1809855116
- Gonzalez, Manuel F, and John R Aiello. “More than meets the ear: Investigating how music affects cognitive task performance.” Journal of experimental psychology. Applied vol. 25,3 (2019): 431-444. doi:10.1037/xap0000202