Sponsored by Missouri Western State University Sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation DUE-97-51113
Home |
The proper APA Style reference for this manuscript is:
ROY, S. E. (2001). The Effects of Different Types of Music on Cognitive Processes. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 4. Available online at http://www.webclearinghouse.net/volume/. Retrieved September 26, 2023 .

The Effects of Different Types of Music on Cognitive Processes

Sponsored by: MUKUL BHALLA (bhalla@loyno.edu)
This experiment looked at the effects of different types of music, namely moderate rock and classical music, on cognitive processes. Sixty-one participants, both male and female, ages 18 to 47, participated in this experiment, in which they were asked to complete a brief assessment of memory and two questionnaires. The researcher hypothesized that participants in the classical music group would perform the best, while participants in the moderate rock group would perform the worst. A one-way ANOVA revealed that participants in the no music group performed the best, and those in the classical music group the worst. These findings did not support the hypothesis. It was also revealed that there were correlations and relationships among responses to the questionnaires.

Everyday college students return to their dorm rooms after class, grab a snack and something to drink, turn on the television or stereo, and expect to complete their homework or study for a test. While they intend to finish their work, students usually find themselves more concerned with the most recent episode of “Friends,” rather than the fall of the Byzantine Empire. Most students know that the television and music are distracting, but believe that it is “too quiet,” or “boring” to study in the library. Even students who do choose to study in the library can be observed listening to their Discmen. Music downloading programs such as Napster and Morpheus, make music easily accessible. Students are constantly exposed to music and television, so they may feel uncomfortable when they are not exposed to some sort of distraction.

According to Bellezza (1996), committing information to memory is important in the early stages of learning something new, therefore, it is essential for students to be able to work in an environment conducive to learning. When giving advice to college freshmen, students responding to the www.academictips.org question of “where to study” replied that the best place to study is a quiet place away from the telephone, television and other distractions (2001). Can students effectively remember what they have learned when they study while listening to music? If students insist upon listening to music while studying, can any type of music actually enhance learning, and is any type of music particularly detrimental to learning and memory?

Banbury, Macken, Tremblay, and Jones (2001) reviewed the body of literature concerning auditory distraction and short-term memory (STM). Studies have shown that recall for series of items is poor whenever irrelevant narrative speech or nonspeech sounds are played. Irrelevant sounds were especially disruptive when a sequence of changing sounds was played. The most important conclusion of the review seems to be that the effect of irrelevant noise depended on whether or not seriation, or remembering items in a particular order, in the memory task was important. Irrelevant sounds tended to greatly disrupt serial recall, but had a minimal effect on free recall.

Salame and Baddeley (1989) also looked at the effects of noise, particularly music, on STM. They compared the effects of vocal and instrumental music on STM. Participants were asked to remember number sequences while either vocal or instrumental music played in the background. They were asked to focus on the numbers rather than on the music. Recall was better for participants who listened to the instrumental music that for participants who listened to vocal music. The words to the music distracted the participants, but instrumental music was not distracting.

In an experiment that took place in a more academic setting by Tucker and Bushman (1991), it was correctly hypothesized that rock and roll music has a detrimental effect on mathematical, verbal and reading comprehension. They administered portions of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and American College Test to students in two groups; one group listened to rock and roll music, while another took the test in silence. It was found that rock and roll music worsened mathematical and verbal abilities, but had no impact on reading comprehension.

Not only can music serve as a distraction, but it can also produce anxiety in students facing a cognitive task. Smith and Morris (1977) studied the effects of music on test performance. They used the Digits Backward test to assess performance in participants who were exposed to stimulating music, sedative music or no music. Music was played as participants acquainted themselves with the numbers in the test. It was found that listening to stimulating music increased emotionality and performance concern among participants who were exposed to stimulating music compared with participants who were exposed to sedative music. Participants in the stimulating music condition performed the worst. Participants who listened to stimulating music predicted that they would perform poorly on the test. The highest levels of concentration were reported among the no music group. This study also found that music preference was positively correlated to test performance. All of the participants in the experiment preferred the sedative music over the stimulating music. If participants liked the music, it aided their performance; if they did not like the music, it distracted them, therefore hindering performance. It has been found that music has an influence on mood.

While the results of prior research discussed yielded interesting findings, factors not considered by the researchers leave unanswered questions that can be investigated with further research. The Salame and Baddeley study found that vocal music has a more detrimental effect on memory than instrumental music, but it did not include a condition in which no music was played. This leaves open the possibility that instrumental music could actually enhance performance. In the research by Tucker and Bushman, the study does not indicate whether or not the participants liked the music they were exposed to, so it is possible that participants who did not like the musical selections paid no attention to the music. Also, this study only tests the effects of rock and roll, a particularly stimulating genre, and silence. Different types of music were not compared, so it could be possible that not all music is detrimental to performance. Participants in the Smith and Morris study indicated whether or not they liked the music they listened to, and it was found that the stimulating music was preferred over the sedative music. If the majority of the participants enjoyed the stimulating music, it is reasonable to assume that they may be more distracted by it, but not that they experienced any pre-test anxiety because of it. Rather, one would guess that music people like sets them at ease. If they liked the music, there is a strong possibility that it made them happy, and happy people are generally more optimistic than unhappy people.

The findings of the research conducted thus far on the effect of music on memory hold that music, especially stimulating music, serves as a distraction, yet none of the research has explored the possibility that some types of music may create an enriched environment for studying. Since students today have access to portable CD players, and free music via the internet, it is unusual for students not to be surrounded by music. Students are so used to studying with music, it may be more of a distraction for them to study in silence. Listening to music with a fast tempo while studying probably does not create an environment conducive to learning, but is it possible that slow, simple music can facilitate the learning process? In this study, we hypothesized that participants who listened to classical music while performing a cognitive task would perform better than participants who listened to moderate rock or no music. We expected participants who performed the task while listening to classical music would perform the best, while participants listening to moderate rock would perform the worst. The independent variable in our study was type of music, and there were three levels of the independent variable: moderate rock, classical music, or no music. The dependent variable in the experiment was memory. Memory was assessed using “The Memory Game,” a game which requires participants to repeat a sequence of flashing lights. The mood of the participants, particularly distraction, was measured using the Profile of Mood States (PoMS). Our hypothesis was based on previous research on the subject of music and memory, and our own observations of schoolmates. Many students do not like to study in the library because they are uncomfortable sitting in silence, so they study in an environment in which they can have some sort of distraction. We believed that students would perform better in the classical music condition because they are used to studying with background noise. The moderate rock condition would be too distracting and lead to the worst performance in The Memory Game, while the no music condition would be similar to the silence of the library and would yield scores in between the classical and moderate rock groups.


Eleven male and 53 female undergraduate students from the Loyola University Psychology Department subject pool were chosen to participate in this study through convenience sampling. Participants were between 18 and 66 years of age. Most of the participants earned course credit for their participation in the study, and some received extra credit. Participation was entirely voluntary. The participants were placed into one of three groups by random assignment. Group One consisted of 22 participants who listened to moderate rock (The Dave Matthews Band) while performing a cognitive task, Group Two consisted of 20 participants who listened to classical music (Mozart and Beethoven) while performing the same cognitive task, and Group Three consisted of 22 participants who performed the cognitive task with no music.


The participants were given two copies of the informed consent form; one to sign and return to the researchers, and one to keep for their records (see Appendix). The researchers created a compact disc (CD) containing The Dave Matthews Band songs “Two Step,” “Lie in Our Graves,” “So Much to Say,” “The Best of What’s Around,” “Ants Marching,” “I Did It,” “Too Much,” and “When the World Ends,” and a CD containing Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” and Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Minor,” “Piano Concerto No. 20, Second Movement,” “The Piano Concerto No. 26 in D Major,” and “The Piano Concerto First Movement.” The duration of The Dave Matthews CD is 36 minutes and 9 seconds, and the duration of the classical CD is 49 minutes and 38 seconds. It was not necessary to play the entire CD during the experiment, but the experimenters wanted to make sure that the music would not run out during the experiment. The testing sessions lasted about 25 to 35 minutes each. We chose these Dave Matthews Band selections after consulting with a music expert who confirmed that these songs are complex and have a fast tempo, in contrast with the Mozart selections which are simple and slow. The CDs were played during the study at a loud volume on a CD player provided by the researchers. Macintosh computers were used in the study in order to play the “Memory Game.” This game requires participants to watch a series of flashing pictures and then to repeat the sequence. Each time a sequence is repeated successfully, the number of flashing pictures increases by one until the participant fails to repeat the sequence. The conditions of the game were set so that the sound was turned off, and the number of flashing lights was set at twelve. Participants recorded their scores with their own writing instruments on a score sheet provided by the researchers (see Appendix A). Participants were given the Profile of Mood States (PoMS), a questionnaire that asks participants to rate 65 adjectives on a scale of 0-4, with 0 meaning “not at all,” and 4 meaning “extremely,” that describe how they are feeling at the moment (see Appendix B) Examples of some of the adjectives on the PoMS are “confused,” unable to concentrate,” “discouraged,” and “alert.” In addition, participants were given a questionnaire developed by the researchers, which included 13 questions (see Appendix C). The questionnaire asked for general information, such as age, sex, year in school, and a few questions about study habits. Some of the questions could be answered with a yes or no, while most asked for the participants to provide their own answers, or to rate the frequencies of certain behaviors or feelings on a scale of 1-5. Once again, the participants used their own writing instruments to complete the questionnaires.

Design and Procedure

This study used an experimental design with one independent variable (IV). The independent variable in this experiment was the type of music played during the experiment. There were three levels of the IV: classical music, mellow rock, or no music, which was the control group. The dependent variable was memory, and was assessed by the scores on the memory task.

Controls in the experiment included random assignment of the participants to the three levels of the independent variable (classical music, moderate rock, or no music). In the classical and moderate rock conditions, the music lasted the duration of the experiment. Participants were also asked about their musical preference to determine if it had an effect on the DV.

The participants were randomly assigned to the classical music condition, the moderate rock condition, or the no music condition. The conditions to be used during each session of the study were determined before the participants arrived for the experiment. Before the participants arrived, the conditions of the “Memory Game” were set to sound turned off, and to twelve flashing lights. After participants arrived at the Loyola University Psychology computer lab, they were given two informed consent forms, one to keep for their records, and one to be signed and given to the experimenters. The researchers explained to the participants that their participation in the experiment was strictly voluntary, and that they had the option to withdraw at any time. The researchers also explained to the participants that they would be participating in an experiment studying cognitive processing skills. The rules of the “Memory Game” were explained to the participants, and they were asked to complete a practice run of the game. After all of the participants finished the practice run, the experimenters turned on the type of music that was used during the study (unless the participants were in the no music condition). Participants were then asked to complete five trials of the game and to record their results. When the participants completed their trials, they were asked to complete the PoMS, and the questionnaire provided by the experimenter. After all of the participants completed the PoMS and questionnaire, their score sheets and responses were collected by the researchers. The participants were then debriefed. The researchers explained that the purpose of the study was to determine whether classical music or the Dave Matthews Band was more of a distraction to memory, and that they hoped that their results would have implications for the study habits of college students. After the researchers debriefed and addressed the questions of the participants, the participants were thanked and dismissed.

A one-way ANOVA revealed that there was a relationship between the type of music played and performance on the “Memory Game.” The mean score on the “Memory Game” no music condition was 8.44 (SD = 2.63). In the mellow rock condition, the mean score was 7.24 (SD = 1.70). The mean score for the classical music group was 6.88 (SD = 1.90). The mean scores indicate that participants in the no music group performed the best, and the worst in the classical music group. The results of an F-test reveal that the overall means are significant (F(2,62) = 3.167, p = .049), but they do not support the research hypothesis. The alpha level of .05 was used on all analyses. Results indicated that there was a difference between the moderate rock group and the no music group in arousal. Participants in the moderate rock group (M = 2.77, SD = 1.07) were more aroused than participants in the no music group (M = 2.14, SD = .94). There was also a difference between the no music group and the moderate rock group in Anger scores. Participants in the moderate rock group (M = 8.91, SD = 9.26) were more angry than participants in the classical music group (M = 3.60, SD = 4.95).Post hoc tests also revealed correlations between the scales on the PoMS. Tension-Anxiety was positively correlated with Depression-Dejection (r(62) = .54, p = .00); with Anger-Hostility (r(62) = .46, p = .00); with Fatigue (r(62) = .27, p = .031); and with Confusion-Bewilderment (r(62) = .57, p = .00). Tension-Anxiety was negatively correlated with Vigor (r(62) = -.25, p = .043). Depression was positively correlated with Anger-Hostility (r(62) = .54, p = .00); with Fatigue (r(62) = .47, p = .00); and with Confusion-Bewilderment (r(62) = .57, p = .00). Anger-Hostility was positively correlated with Fatigue (r(62) = .42, p = .001); and with Confusion-Bewilderment (r(62) = .41, p = .01). Vigor was negatively correlated with Fatigue (r(62) = -.47, p = .001); and with Confusion-Bewilderment (r(62) = -.35, p = .005). Fatigue was positively correlated with Confusion-Bewilderment (r(62) = .41, p = .001).

This study looked at the effects of different types of music on memory. The results obtained indicate that music does have an effect on memory, but the results did not provide support for the hypothesis. The no music group performed the best on the “Memory Game,” while participants in the classical music group performed the worst.

The lack of support for the hypothesis could be due to the fact that music truly is distracting, no matter how soothing it is, how much the participants enjoy it, or how used to studying while listening to music they are. Perhaps the older college students were right in suggesting that students find a quiet area in which to study, free of all distractions. The volume of the music could have had an effect on the findings. Volume was held constant throughout the conditions, but participants sitting near the speakers experienced the music as louder than the participants who were further away. Having the music so loud could have been especially distracting, more so than usual. This could have been avoided by not placing anyone near the speakers, but there would have still been a difference in volume, as some participants would still be closer than others. Participants were asked to rate their levels of arousal, and the highest levels of arousal were found in the mellow rock groups. The fact that the participants were aroused could have also exaggerated the level of distraction. When the researcher explained the “Memory Game” to the participants, some of the participants indicated that they were familiar with the game. This could have caused some participants to have higher scores than others. Another factor that could have influenced the scores on the memory game was musical preference. If participants did not like the music, they could have been distracted by it; likewise, they could have also have been distracted by music that they like.

In the future, perhaps researchers should include more musical conditions, such as jazz, country and hard rock. Experimenters could do a better job of controlling for volume. The “Memory Game” is a simple test of memory, but perhaps researchers in the future could utilize a better test of memory, such as reading a passage and testing for retention while listening to different types of music. It would also be interesting to look at different types of auditory distractions, such as voices, as compared to music. It would also be interesting to look at possible differences between instrumental and vocal music and voice.

If further investigation of the effects of music on cognitive processes yields more significant results, the findings could have implications for the study habits of students, especially college students. Most of the participants indicated that they like to study while listening to music or while watching television. If they knew that the types of music investigated in this study were distracting and detrimental to memory, and therefore the learning process, then they may not study while listening to music or while watching the television. Perhaps the results of later experiments, including those with conversational voices, will yield results consistent with those of this researcher, and students in the future will know that music has a detrimental effect on learning. If experiments in the future yield these results, perhaps students will take heed of the findings and find a quiet place in which to study, thus improving their grades and perhaps even sharpening their cognitive skills.

Banbury, S. P., Macken, W. J., Tremblay, S., & Jones, D. (2001). Auditory distraction and short-term memory: phenomena [Electronic version]. Human Factors, 43, 12-34.

Bellezza, F. S. (1996). Mnemonic methods to enhance storage and retrieval. In Bjork, E.L.,& Bjork, R. A. (Eds.), Memory (p. 364). San Diego: Academic Press.

Salame, P., & Baddeley, A. (1989). Effects of background music on phonological short-term Memory. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 41A, 107-122.

Smith, C.A., & Morris, L.W. (1977). Differential effects of stimulative and sedative music on anxiety, concentration, and performance. Psychological Reports, 41, 1047-1053.

Tucker, A., & Bushman, B.J. (1991). Effects of rock and roll music on mathematical, verbal, and reading comprehension performance. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 72, 942.

Where to study. Retrieved October 21, 2001, from http://www.academictips.org

Please record your scores for the Memory Game in the proper spaces.

Trial 1 2 3 4 5Score

Appendix B

Please take 5 minutes to provide us with the following information about yourself.1. Age ______ years2. Sex (circle one): M F3. Major_________________4. Year (circle one): FR SO JR SR5. GPA (circle one): 4.0-3.5 3.49-3.0 2.99-2.5 2.49-2.0 1.99-1.5 1.5 or below

6. ACT/SAT:_______

7. Approximately how many hours do you study during any given week? __________

8. How often do you study while watching television? Never Sometimes Always

9. How often do you study while listening to music? Never Sometimes Always

10. If you listen to music while studying, what type of music do you listen to while studying? __ 11. What is your favorite type of music? __________

Please rate the following:12. How quiet is the environment in which you normally study?Very Quiet Somewhat Quiet Not Quiet 1 2 3 4 5

13. Do you normally study alone or with others?Always alone Alone/with others Always alone1 2 3 4 514. Please rate your current state of arousalRelaxed Moderately Aroused Aroused 1 2 3 4 5

Submitted 12/14/2001 6:11:05 PM
Last Edited 12/14/2001 6:29:54 PM
Converted to New Site 03/09/2009

Rated by 0 users. Users who logon can rate manuscripts and write reviews.

© 2023 National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse. All rights reserved. The National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse is not responsible for the content posted on this site. If you discover material that violates copyright law, please notify the administrator. This site receives money through the Google AdSense program when users are directed to useful commercial sites. We do not encourage or condone clicking on the displayed ads unless you have a legitimate interest in the advertisement.