Many students listen to music while studying, whether it be mainstream pop or instrumental jazz. Even more people love to play soft music at their desk, claiming it helps them to focus. At the same time, an equal number of people prefer a silent working environment. These people say that they simply cannot focus on music and studies at the same time. Luckily, scientific research can help us reach a conclusion. How does music affect your memory?
Prior Research on Music:
Research done on music alone (without a work or study component) has found consistent results. We listen to music because it makes us feel good. How? When we hear a song we like, our brain releases dopamine, which is associated with pleasure and reward. That’s why you get that “music high” when you hear the opening notes of your favorite song.
Scientific Research on Music and Memory:
A Finnish study was done in which participants listened to an array of songs of both pop and orchestral varieties. They then picked three songs that they really liked, and three that they were neutral about. The participants were also asked if they had any prior musical experience. They were randomly assigned to listen to either a positive or a neutral song while learning Japanese characters, and a positive or a neutral song while being tested on those Japanese characters. This study found that those participants without any musical experience learned the characters better while hearing a positive song. However, they tested better while hearing a neutral song.
On the other hand, though, participants with musical training actually had the opposite result: they learned better with a neutral song, and tested better with a positive song.
What Does This Mean?
There are several explanations to the study’s findings. One may say that those with musical training– i.e. they’ve participated in a band, orchestra, choir, etc. – were actually distracted by the positive song while learning. These musicians have been trained to identify positive musical characteristics; thus, when listening to a song they really liked, they focused on the music, instead of learning the Japanese characters. When musicians listened to neutral (neither good nor bad) music, they were not distracted by any positive or negative musical characteristics.
To the same tune, perhaps non-musically-inclined participants learned better with a positive song, because the positive song released dopamine and made them feel good. In other words, they enjoyed studying, so they studied better.
In short, much more research is needed to determine whether or not music actually affects your memory. However, this study presents a valuable insight. If you have no musical training, create a study playlist of all your favorite songs. If you’re a musician, however, don’t listen to amazing music while you’re studying; try to choose music that you feel neither good nor bad about.
Joshua Gruss is the Chairman, CEO and founder of Round Hill Music.