Music has been especially on my mind this past week. Last Friday I had the chance to explore Paris on the day of the Fête de la Musique, a day where people from all cultures and backgrounds sing whatever their heart desires, in different corners of the streets all around Paris. Easily one of the highlights of my time in Paris.
As I was reflecting on how music is part of my daily life, I realized that I have spent a whole lot of time listening to music while studying. In Paris, the days I find a seat on the jam-packed metros, I usually find myself thinking about fairly random things. But since on Thursdays we have quizzes, I refrain from day dreaming and try to review the quiz material while listening to music, while also trying to keep an eye on my bag, and while making sure I don’t miss my stop. Multi-tasking at its best (or worst some could argue) … I started wondering about the possible positive or negative impacts of listening to music, on the brain, more specifically in terms of the impact on learning and cognitive ability.
To investigate this, it is necessary to first gain a general understanding of the important research that is showing mixed results for the effects of background music. The “Mozart effect” has been a topic of great debate. It has been shown that those who listened to the Mozart sonata before performing better on tasks evaluating spatial abilities as compared to the control group that hadn’t listened to any music (Rauscher et al.,1993). What was interesting was that the authors claimed that even though in their experiment they had exposed the participants to the music before the task, music should have the same positive effect while learning too (Lehman and Seufert, 2017).
However, other researchers pushed back on these claims and expanded on the previously done research. The arousal-mood hypothesis suggests that it is not listening to the background music that directly impacts spatial and cognitive abilities (Husain et al., 2002). Instead, it is the impact that background music has on arousal and mood, which may affect learning. Essentially, listening to something pleasant may have a positive impact on cognitive performance and learning (Husain et al., 2002).
Contrarily, Rey (2012) makes the argument that background music could actually negatively impact learning. This was definitely not good news for me… When I started thinking about my own experience, I realized that listening to music while studying does make the process of studying slower, but I have been continuing to do it because the music keeps me entertained while studying! Interestingly, since it can be an additional burden on memory, “distracting” background music has been called a “seductive detail” (Rey 2012). Background music can distract from the main academic task and therefore can negatively impact learning outcomes (Jäncke and Sandmann, 2010; Hallam et al., 2002).
As you can tell, the research on background music has mixed results. Even though there are studies suggesting that listening to music during a learning task may be detrimental to learning, there has been an increasing amount of research on the ways in which listening to music in general, not necessarily during a task, can actually lessen the severity of cognitive aging. But in what way exactly does music impact the brain? One study suggested that music can improve memory performance in older individuals, by decreasing their prefrontal cortex activity (Murray and Ranganath, 2007). Firstly, what is the general role of the prefrontal cortex and how exactly can its activity be measured? The prefrontal cortex plays an important role in decision making, including more complex decisions. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), which is the part of the brain that the researchers focus on in this study, is engaged during cognitive tasks that require processing structure and relationships between items (Murray and Ranganath, 2007).
The authors measured the activity of the DLPFC using a functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) system. fNIRS is a non-invasive way to measure brain activity during cognitive tasks (Ferreri et al., 2014). The study by Ferreri et al., (2014) collected fNIRS data, measuring DLPFC activity, from 16 older individuals (around 65 years old) while they were presented with words, with or without a musical background. The adults were better able to remember and describe contextual details when words were presented with music (Ferreri et al., 2014).
The interesting part is that the results from the Ferreri et al., (2014) study were in conflict with previous research that suggests that the DLPFC’s activity usually increases when more structured items are presented (Bor et al., 2003). One of the proposed explanations is that when the DLPFC is deactivated, other brain regions may be activated. The authors suggest that the brain regions that may be activated are the regions of the brain that are implicated in reward (ventral tegmental area and nucleus accumbens), pleasure and memory encoding (Ferreri et al., 2014). This makes complete sense if you think about it in terms of your personal experience: music most definitely evokes emotion. So, the authors propose that deactivation of the DLPFC is accompanied by activation of these pleasure and reward areas that also play a role in memory encoding, resulting in improved learning and memory performance (Ferreri et al., 2014).
Access to music is inexpensive and widely accessible, making it a great tool for clinical intervention. There is evidence suggesting that music therapy may be useful in slowing cognitive decline in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia (Fang et al., 2017). There was even a study that showed that music can actually be used to stimulate recollection of personal memories in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease (Chevreau et al., 2017)!
So, as you can hopefully tell, intriguing work is being done on the neurological impacts of listening to music but also the potential ways in which music can actually be used as part of clinical treatment or as a therapeutic tool. So now maybe investing in that Spotify subscription is not a bad idea…
Bor D., Duncan J., Wiseman R. J., Owen A. M. (2003). Encoding strategies dissociate prefrontal activity from working memory demand. Neuron 37, 361–36710.1016/S0896 6273(02)01171-6
Chevreau, Priscilia & Nizard, Ingrid & Allain, Philippe. (2017). Retrieval of memories with the help of music in Alzheimer’s disease. Geriatrie et Psychologie Neuropsychiatrie du Vieillissement. 15. 309-318. 10.1684/pnv.2017.0689.
Fang, R., Ye, S., Huangfu, J., & Calimag, D. P. (2017). Music therapy is a potential intervention for cognition of Alzheimer’s Disease: a mini-review. Translational neurodegeneration, 6,2. doi:10.1186/s40035-017-0073-9
Ferreri, L., Bigand, E., Perrey, S., Muthalib, M., Bard, P., & Bugaiska, A. (2014). Less Effort,Better Results: How Does Music Act on Prefrontal Cortex in Older Adults during Verbal Encoding? An fNIRS Study. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8, 301.doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00301
Hallam S, Price J, Katsarou G. (2002). The effects of background music on primary school pupils’ task performance. Educ Stud. 28:111–122. doi: 10.1080/03055690220124551.
Husain G., Thompson W. F., Schellenberg E. G. (2002). Effects of musical tempo and mode on arousal, mood and spatial abilities. Music Percept. 20 151–171. 10.1525/mp.2002.20.2.151
Jäncke, L., & Sandmann, P. (2010). Music listening while you learn: no influence of background music on verbal learning. Behavioral and brain functions : BBF, 6, 3. doi:10.1186/1744-9081-6-3
Murray L. J., Ranganath C. (2007). The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex contributes to successful relational memory encoding. J. Neurosci. 27, 5515–552210.1523/JNEUROSCI.0406 07.2007
Rauscher F. H., Shaw G. L., Ky K. N. (1993). Music and spatial task performance. Nature 365611. 10.1038/365611a0
Pleasure Pathway Image. Retrieved from https://learn.pharmacy.unc.edu/substance/node/6
All other images taken by me