Music and Memory

Posted by in Ask Dr. Van

Hello, I am an 8th grader who is researching the effects of music on memory. I greatly admire the work that you do in your field! Since you are so experienced, I would like to ask you a couple of questions:

1. Do you think that playing a musical instrument regularly affects memory? Why?
2. Do you think that listening to music while memorizing will affect memory? How?

Your input would be very valuable to my research. Thank you for taking the time out of your day to answer my questions.


Hi Sahil;
Question 1: There is some research that indicates that musical experience can affect memory, but it’s a specific type of memory — it’s what’s called your ‘verbal’ memory, or the ability to remember verbal information (things like lists of words, etc.). It’s not entirely clear why that’s the case, although what we know about musical development is that musician’s brains tend to have more development on the left-hand side of the brain, and that’s the side of the brain that’s primarily responsible for the processing of verbal information. Also, musicians obviously tend to spend a lot of time listening to sound, so when information is presented via sound the musicians may have more practice in active listening or recall of that information. 

Question 2: There’s been some work done on this, too, but what’s really interesting about this is that nobody really seems to agree on this. One thing that’s been found is that if you’re listening to music, it can actually disrupt memorization of verbal information — it makes memorization worse! This is especially true if the music you’re listening to has words. The idea is that the music and words you’re listening to actually interfere with the verbal information you’re trying to learn. It’s interesting that this has been found even with music without words, because a lot of people say they like to listen to “classical music” while they’re studying, and there were even “music to study by” compilations that were put out by companies back when there were studies that were claiming that just listening to music could make you smarter! But a lot of the evidence more recently indicates that music in general can interfere with verbal memory because it’s being processed by the same part of the brain that processes verbal information. 

As I said, there isn’t agreement on this, though! There have been studies claiming that if you listen to music while you’re studying, you should listen to the same music when you’re taking a test, because that will put you in the same frame of mind when you were studying and you’ll do better on tests. (But not everyone agrees with that!) There are studies that have found that background music, as long as it’s low in complexity, can help learn second languages. A more recent study found that it’s the speed of the music (the tempo) and the volume that have the most effect on things like reading and memory tasks. 

This is a research area that’s very active these days, because everyone wants to find what will help them study/learn more effectively and efficiently, so you’re definitely asking a good question — but there isn’t a lot of consensus right now on what the answer to that question is!  

I hope that helps a little bit! Good luck with your research!

-Dr. Van