October 2013 Volume 3, Issue 1

Analyzing the Effect of Music on Memory in a 21st Century Learning Environment

Victoria Thompson1* and Nathan Mutic2
Student1, Teacher2: Joplin High School, Joplin, Missouri
*Corresponding author: torijean95@hotmail.com



The association between music and memory has been investigated in an array of contexts. Past studies have established a negative correlation between the subjects’ ability to recall information and the presences of auditory stimuli. This study investigates the relationship between personality type and the amount of information an individual can recall while listening to classical or pop music as opposed to silence. The participants were high school students ranging in age from 16 to 18. Participants were given an Eysenck Personality Questionnaire to determine if they were an introvert or extrovert. Then participants were shown lists of 24 randomly selected words with different listening conditions while studying each of the lists. Afterwards, participants were asked to write down as many words as they could recall after a two-minute period of studying the words. Results indicate that with silence, introverts and extroverts performed at the same level. With either classical or pop music, extroverts were able to recall slightly more correct words than introverts. These results indicate that music has a minimal effect on memory and recall in the context of a modern high school learning environment. Specifically, introverts and extroverts have nearly equal abilities to recall words correctly while listening to various types of music. Perhaps because personal music devices are ubiquitous among individuals of this age group the expected reduction in memory recall was not observed.


A substantial amount of research across a wide array of disciplines has been conducted to elucidate how memories are formed and what variables influence this process. It has been discovered through molecular biological research that the brain synthesizes proteins when storing memories1. Cognitive studies indicate that irrelevant sound and music affect how much information an individual can recall. Another field that has been investigated is the effect of music on memory in different types of personalities. There remain many unanswered questions in regards to the effect of various music genres on the ability of individuals with different personality types to recall information in the context of secondary school learning environments.

A memory is formed through the process of protein synthesis. The exact proteins related to the formation of memories remain unknown2. The amount of proteins synthesized is correlated to the number of times a stimulus is applied. Memories can be altered by the synthesis of additional proteins, which modify existing synapses and form new ones. Accordingly, short-term memories are comprised of fewer proteins than long-term memories3. Subsequent studies showed that some of the proteins used are pre-existing proteins4.

Beyond the scope of molecular research, cognitive processes that are affected by sounds in the environment are also well studied. One study revealed that reading comprehension, writing, and memory storage and recall were adversely affected by irrelevant sounds. It was concluded that the most disrupted processes were memory storage and recall5. It has also been determined that the brain utilizes a blank interstimulus time, a blank screen between presented information, to encode and store information6.

Experiments have been conducted to test the effect of encoding time on the storage of memories. Rhesus monkeys have been used to test the storage and recall of various pictures and sounds. The highest scores resulted from no time delay, and the lowest results in this experiment occurred when a 30-second delay was allowed. However, with the auditory test of memory, monkeys scored better with a 30-second time delay and worse with no time delay. Researchers determined that the monkeys most likely thought the sounds were similar and, accordingly, scored poorly on the auditory test7.

Within the broad field of cognitive memory research, a number of studies have focused on the effect of auditory stimuli on memory recall. The human brain can become accustomed to sounds it does not understand and tune them out rather than allowing them to interfere with memory formation and recall8. Further experimentation illustrated that comprehendible vocal sounds adversely affect the encoding process9. This relationship has been found to have no temporal dependence10. Another experiment provides further evidence that human speech has a greater adverse effect on recall than classical music11.

It was later discovered that instrumental music increased the ability of test subjects to recall information compared to music with vocals12. It was found with either type of music adding a time delay caused a significant attenuation of the subject’s ability to recall information13.

An experiment based on these findings added another variable of personality. It was shown that extroverts had higher recall scores than introverts with upbeat pop songs, but with silence, the introverts had higher recall scores than extroverts14.

The correlation between personality types paired with types of music on one’s cognitive ability is still being investigated. As seen from the last experiment, some research has been done with personality types and music, but there are still unanswered questions. Questions remain about the effect of music in the classroom and the individual students within the classroom. The objective of our experiment is to study the effects of silence, classical music, and pop music on different personality types in a high school. If a student can identify their personality type, they could perhaps adapt their listening conditions in order to best learn. This is important in the context of present day academic environments where the vast majority of students have access to personal listening devices15. Accordingly, music has become a regular part of most academic environments, and therefore students and educators need to be cognizant of the effect of music on learning in a modern academic environment.

Materials and Methods

Seventy-nine test subjects agreed to participate in the experiment. The subjects were all juniors and seniors at a high school in the Midwestern United States ranging in age from 16 to 18.  Thirty-three of the subjects were male and 46 were female. The Joplin High School Institutional Review Board reviewed the experimental protocol prior to data collection. Appropriate informed consent was obtained from all subjects represented in this study. The experiment was split into a two-day process for practicality and to avoid subject fatigue. On the first day, participants were given an Eysenck Personality Questionnaire to determine the individual’s personality type of introvert or extrovert. This questionnaire is commonly used in other studies to determine if one is an introvert or extrovert16.  The questionnaire was presented to the subjects electronically on their school-provided laptop. Subjects were instructed to remain silent for the duration of the experiment.

On day two of the experiment, subjects were given three memory tests with different sounds in the background. The memory tests consisted of 24 randomly selected words. Figure 1 shows one of the three word lists that were used. Every word on the three lists was four letters long. The memory tests were presented to the participants using a Smart Board and PowerPoint slides. For each test, all 24 words were presented simultaneously. There were four different groups of participants. For each group, the memory tests’ order and the sound paired with the memory tests were randomized. Silence was used as a control in all four groups. The other two tests were given with different genres of music, either classical or pop. Subjects were instructed to remain silent for the duration of the experiment.


three word sets

Figure 1. Representative image of one of three word sets displayed to test subjects during experimentation.


The subjects were given a blank sheet of paper for each test. Subjects were allowed two minutes to memorize as many of the 24 words as possible without writing anything down or using any electronic device. They were then given two minutes to recall as many words as possible by writing them on their paper. After each test, the papers were collected and subjects were given a new blank piece of paper, then the next test would begin. During each trial, the participants were either listening to nothing, classical music, or pop music.

To test for statistical significance, a one-way parametric ANOVA was used to test for significance between with the correct word values and an unpaired t test was used to test for significance with the incorrect word values.  


In this experiment it was determined that participants’ ability to correctly recall words was decreased more by the sound of pop music when compared to silence or classical music as depicted in figure 2A. This was statistically significant between each type of music with the number of correct words the students could recall (p=.0049). It was also determined that participants were more likely to write words with pop than during silence and classical music, as seen in figure 2B. Figure 2B illustrates the number of words written down that were not on the word list or were repeated from the word list.


Figure 2. A) Mean scores of words correctly recalled during various listening conditions. B) Mean scores of incorrect or repeated words recalled during various listening conditions.


When comparing introverts and extroverts in figures 3A and 3B, extroverts were able to recall slightly more words with classical and pop music than introverts. As seen in figure 3A, introverts and extroverts were both able to recall an average of 12.34 words during silence, thus having no significance (p=.4126). As shown in figure 3B, introverts wrote down more words in all three scenarios this becoming more pronounced with pop music in the background.


Figure 3. A) Mean scores of words correctly recalled during various listening conditions between introverts and extroverts. B) Mean scores of incorrect or repeated words recalled during various listening conditions between introverts and extroverts.


When segregated into male and female groups, as in figures 4A and 4B, it is apparent that when there was no sound and when classical music was playing, females were able to recall more correct words than males. When pop music was playing, the females recalled fewer words than males; females had an average of 10.37 words while males had an average of 11.11 words there was no statistical significance between these values (p=.3485). As observed in figure 4B, females had fewer incorrect or repeated words with silence and classical music, the difference was not significant (silence p=.5470, classical p=.4658, pop p=.0905). When pop music was playing, females tended to write down incorrect or repeated words more often than males. 


Figure 4. A) Mean scores of words correctly recalled during various listening conditions between males and females. B) Mean scores of incorrect or repeated words during various listening conditions between males and females.


Further observation of the data indicates that the extrovert group of females was able to recall fewer correct words with silence and pop music. As seen in figure 5A male and female extroverts with silence were able to recall a similar number of words, with males having a slightly higher average of 12.43 words and females having a 12.28 word average; there was no significance (p=.3724). Figure 5B, reveals females wrote down more incorrect or repeated words with pop music, having an average of 1.13 words, whereas males had an average of 0.89 words during pop music. Figure 5B reveals that males listening to classical music wrote down more words that were not on the list than females did, with males having an average of 1.00 word, and females having an average of 0.31 words.


Figure 5. A) Mean scores of words correctly recalled during various listening conditions between male and female extroverts. B) Mean scores of incorrect or repeated words during various listening conditions between male and female extroverts.


When examining the results of the male verses female introverts, females recalled more correct words than males in all the scenarios. Figure 6B illustrates females wrote down fewer incorrect or repeated words when there was silence and pop music. Also, figure 6B reveals that males listening to classical music did not write down any incorrect or repeated words, while females had an incorrect word average of 0.86, there was no statistical significance between these values (p=.0620).


Figure 6. A) Mean scores of words correctly recalled during different listening conditions between male and female introverts. B) Mean scores for incorrect or repeated words during different listening conditions between male and female introverts.


Results of this study indicate the addition of music has little effect on how participants with different personalities perform on basic memory recall tasks. This is contrary to what is seen in a number of previously published studies. Currently, 47 percent of American adults own a music-playing device of some sort17. Accordingly, many Americans use technology to listen to music, suggesting they have become accustomed to background music. This perhaps explains why we did not observe a significant difference in the performance of groups listening to music compared to those not listening to music.

The results from this study also indicate that when there is noise in the background in a learning environment, extroverts, on average, are able to perform at a higher level than introverts. Both introverts and extroverts were modestly negatively affected as music was added. Figure 2A reveals with each change from silence to classical to pop music the scores decreased.

This work supports the notion that in an academic environment, listening to music can slightly hinder the performance of students on basic recall tasks. However, contrary to the results of previous studies, there is no drastic negative correlation between the presence of auditory stimuli and the ability to recall information. If teachers play music in the classroom, they could potentially be hurting instead of helping the students. Though, in a society where 83 percent of American’s own a mobile phone and 34 percent of the time use it to listen to music18, there may be no effect on the students. Further experimentation is necessary to conclusively determine the effect of music on one’s ability to learn and recall information when comparing both personality types and gender.


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The authors would like to thank Mr. Blanton Whitmire of the Whitmire Foundation of Kirkwood, Missouri for his vision in funding the Kirkwood/Joplin Science Collaboration and championing investigative scientific research for secondary school students. Thanks also to Mr. Whitmire's representative to the Collaboration, Mr. Franklin McCallie. We also recognize Mrs. Rebecca Gardner and Dr. Jamie Longazel for their editorial contributions.