Background Music Preference and Standardized Cognitive Test Performance
Sponsored by Missouri Western State University Sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation DUE-97-51113
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The proper APA Style reference for this manuscript is:
LESSL, R. M. (2004). Background Music Preference and Standardized Cognitive Test Performance. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 7. Available online at Retrieved April 25, 2017 .

Background Music Preference and Standardized Cognitive Test Performance

Sponsored by: ELIZABETH HAMMER (
The hypothesis that preference for study music positively affects cognitive performance was tested. Forty-seven Loyola Intro to Psychology students were surveyed for musical preference and given an analogy section of an past SAT to be completed in either a preferred music, non-preferred music, or no music condition. No significant difference in test scores were found between any condition (p=.806).

For thousands of years, human beings have engaged in musical activity (Bonds, 2003, p. 1-2). People have long believed that euphony has a powerful effect on the self. The ancient Greeks classified systems of musical modality according to the mood into which each would draw its listener or performer (p. 3-7). Many Greek philosophers and music theorists, notably Socrates and his pupils, believed in and wrote about the incredible power of music (p. 7-13).The opinion that music can have a very powerful effect on a person has sustained in popular belief in western culture even to this day. It is noticeable, for instance, in the popularity of song in American culture, one of the most thriving public media through which people share their experiences and convictions. Only relatively recently, however, have people begun to scientifically examine this long standing belief, and form cohesive theories about the effect of music on the self (Davis, Gfeller, & Thaut, 1999).In recent decades several people have investigated precisely what effect music may have on one’s physical, psychological or emotional state. The began by asking the root question—Does music really affect us at all, or is it this belief simply popular placebo? (Furnham & Strbac, 2002). Varying results, including change in heart rate, report of mood, and increased ability to concentrate on a mental task, and even the very presence and absence of an effect, have been found. Most, however, indicate that, though varied, there is indeed generally a psychological or emotional effect on the listener.Further investigations have questioned what facets of music might be responsible for the apparent effects we observe (Cash, El-Mallakh, Chamberlain, Bratton, & Li, 1997) and found that more highly-structured music may increase test-taking ability, for instance. Other investigations have asked questions about the possible effect of music on various, specific cognitive abilities, learning, the difference in effect between people with high-I.Q. vs. low-I.Q., children vs. adults or elderly, introverts vs. extraverts (Furnham & Bradley, 1997) with noteworthy differences.Studies of music`s effect on cognitive skills as specifically measured by performance on cognitive tests have shown an increased ability to perform (Cockerton, T., Moore, S., & Norman, D. 1997). Yet others have shown the opposite. The present study continued in the vein of these studies, but with one major difference: the investigators attempted a comprehensive examination of the effect of listener music-preference on test performance, a factor which has been suggested as possibly being influential (Mowsesian, R., & Heyer, M. R. 1973), but has not been specifically and deliberately examined.The facilitators of this study administered an edited section of a standardized cognitive test to 50+ college undergraduates while having them listen to music in headphones. We decided to classify and measure musical preference according to genre of music. It was hypothesized that those participants who reported higher enjoyment of their musical sample would score higher on the standardized cognitive test.


Participants were volunteer students from Introduction to Psychology courses at Loyola University New Orleans. No restrictions of age, sex, race, ethnicity, religion, etc. were implemented for this study. Recruitment was based mostly on sign-up sheets, which were posted on a bulletin board in the Psychology Department of Loyola University New Orleans. Participants could sign up for 20-minute time slots. Up to 5 people were accepted for a single time slot.

A Pre-Task Survey and a Post-Task Survey were designed by the study facilitators to gather each participant`s basic student information as well as his favorite and least favorite genre of music (see Appendices A & B). Emphasis was placed on selecting a specific sub-genre.Tests were constructed by the facilitators from analogy questions which have appeared on Standard Aptitude Tests in past years (see Appendix C).Five CD players, five headphone sets, and a large collection of genre-representative music compact-discs (CDs) were used (see Appendix D).

The design of this study was a quasi-experimental, independent groups design. Subject variables considered were 1) pre-task report on musical genre preference, which was measured with the Pre-Task Survey, and 2) post-task report of level of enjoyment of music sample listened to, which was measured with the Post-Task Survey. An additional independent variable was the assignment of either the participant’s favorite genre or least favorite genre of music. Although this was randomly assigned, it did not make the study experimental, as it was not the effect of genre that the facilitators wished to examine. Rather, it was the effect participants’ preference for a genre that the facilitators wished to examine. The procedure for administering this study was as follows:

Immediately after the participants arrived, they were instructed to take a seat at any of five stations which had been previously set up with a CD player and pair of headphones. They were given an informed-consent form, which deceptively described the purpose of the study--to study the effects of the complexity of various academic tasks on music enjoyment--and given the opportunity to ask questions.

The Pre-Task Survey was handed out and collected before any participant began the test. The facilitators randomly assigned a CD to each participant, selecting from either the participant`s favorite or least favorite music genre. The facilitators put each CD in its respective CD player. The participants were not told what CD they were being assigned, but no effort was made to conceal the identity of the CD if they asked what it was, or to block the cd from the participants’ line of sight. A portion of the participants were selected to be in a non-music (silence) control group while taking the test.

The test sheets were handed to the participants upside down. The participants were informed that they would have a 10-minute time limit to complete the test, while listening to their assigned CD. Each participant was given a moment to adjust his CD player volume to "a comfortable level," and his time limit began once he flipped over the test.

After a participant finished, or the time ran out, his test was collected, his CD player was turned off and he was instructed to take off his headphones. Then the Post Task-Survey was promptly administered and collected.

After collecting the Post-Task Survey, the participants were individually told of the true nature of the study and reminded of the opportunities for counseling should any emotional trouble arise from their experience in the study. They were then given a class-credit slip and released.

There were 47 total participants, 26 of whom were assigned a music sample from their indicated favorite genre (mean test score: 10.12 out of 15, SD=2.53), 11 from their least-favorite genre (M=9.55; SD=1.75), and 11 assigned no music (M=9.90; SD=2.69). A one-way ANOVA test returned F=0.217 and p=.806. Our hypothesis was not supported, as those who reported liking their music selection on the post-task survey did not score significantly better on the test.

The researchers found no significant difference in the test scores between any group of participants for this study. An interesting finding was that those in the preferred music group did in fact tend to report enjoying their music more than those in the non-preferred music group. This indicates a reasonably sound method for organizing materials which could be used again in further studies.The limitations of our study were that we had a small group overall, with disproportionate divisions into preferred music, non-preferred music, and control groups. Had we been able to attain more participants and get groups less varied in size, the study would have had more power and could possibly have found some significant differences between groups.We can’t conclude anything from this study about any effect or even correlation between music preference and cognitive enhancement. It is believed that a similar study taken up in the future would be valuable, as the limitations of this study make it impossible to even consider concluding anything about the effect of study music preference on cognitive performance. This study does, however, represent a step in a good direction in determining music’s effect on the human function.

Bonds, M.E. (2003). Prologue: Antiquity (pp. 1-13). In M.E. Bonds, A history of music in Western culture. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.Cash, A. H., El-Mallakh, R., Chamberlain, K., Bratton, J. Z., & Li, R. (1997). Structure of music may influence cognition. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 84, 66.Cockerton, T., Moore, S., & Norman, D. (1997). Cognitive test performance and background music. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 85, 1435-1438.Davis, W. B., Gfeller, K. E., & Thaut, M. H. (1999). An introduction to music therapy: Theory and practice (2nd ed.). Boston: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Furnham, A., & Bradley, A. (1997). Music while you work: The differential distraction of background music on the cognitive test performance of introverts and extraverts. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 11, 445-455.Furnham, A., & Strbac, L. (2002). Music is as distracting as noise: The differential distraction of background music and noise on the cognitive test performance of introverts and extraverts. Ergonomics, 45, 203-217.Mowsesian, R., & Heyer, M. R. (1973). The effect of music as a distraction on test-taking performace. Measurement and Evaluation in Guidance, 6(2), 104-110.

Submitted 5/10/2004 11:49:08 PM
Last Edited 5/11/2004 12:05:36 AM
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