Are you the kind of person who enjoys listening to music when carrying out certain tasks - for instance, while studying for an exam, driving a car, or reading a book? A common belief shared by many is that listening to background music helps improve focus, blocks out distractions, and even makes a tedious task more enjoyable. Yet despite the prevalence of music in our daily lives, little is known about how this soundtrack affects brain function.
An article in "Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain" by Tram Nguyen, a scientist from the Cambridge Brain Sciences (now Creyos) team, examined the effects of background music on memory by using music to alter the listener's mood (happy or sad) and arousal states (positive or negative). Participants completed three memory tasks while listening to four types of music:
- High arousal, positive music: upbeat tempos combined with happier harmonies, like Ghosts N Stuff by Deadmau5
- High arousal, negative music: upbeat tempos, but chord structures are darker and more ominous, like Tempting Time – Animals as Leaders
- Low arousal, positive music: slow tempos combined with major (aka, "happy") chords, like Hello My Lovely – Charlie Haden Quartet West
- Low arousal, negative music: slow tempos, but melodies are dominated by minor chords that elicit feelings of despondency, like Prelude in E Minor – Frédéric Chopin
Participants also completed the same tasks while listening to no music.
The results? It turns out memory performance was best while listening to low arousal, negative music, and worst for high arousal negative music. However, compared to silence, background music had either no effect for some participants or significantly impeded memory performance. It turns out some people use the same mental processes that are required to remember things to also process music, which means that a percentage of the brain regions responsible for memory—regions you need to focus on the task at hand—are actually being re-allocated to processing background noise.
So the next time you need to focus on studying for that big biology exam, you might want to put the headphones away and opt for a nice, quiet corner instead!