Can Music Help Us Learn?

16 Sep

Listen to music while you study?  Think that Beethoven might help you out on that Calc I test?  Vast amount of research has been dedicated to studying music’s effect on learning.  However, despite the hopeful inclination we all have about music’s mystical powers to boost those SAT scores, much of the research on this subject has been inconsistent: increases, decreases, and even non-effects have been found on the learning of tasks varying from problem solving, text reading, decision making, and even mathematics.  Furthermore, despite the empirical approach many of these studies have taken, the vast majority of these studies were conducted without experimentally controlling the type of music in the background: different genres with different tempos were often carelessly used, a decision that these two researchers feel led to the distortion of these study’s results.

Lutz Jäncke and Pascale Sandmann decided to investigate the affect of background music on verbal learning but instead of using a pallet of musical samples like previous research, the research duo used consistent, novel musical excerpts.  For the study, new musical pieces were composed to eradicate any associations that the listeners might have with familiar music pieces.  The music was  composed with varying emotional-degrees, using the mood-activation hypothesis proposed by Glenn Schellenberg as a reference, and contained a variety of tempos ranging from slow to fast.  The researchers predicted that pleasant music might facilitate verbal learning and that busy and active music might be detrimental to learning because it is more distracting than slow changing music.

The recruited participants were divided into five categories based on the type of background music (organized by tempo and consonance) that was to be played during a verbal learning task.  The five groups consisted of music that was in-tune and fast, in-tune and slow, out-of-tune and fast, out-of-tune and slow, and brown noise.  The verbal learning task used was a standard verbal test that consisted of learning a list of non-words (words fabricated for the experiment), and determining if the previously presented non-words were repeated in subsequent presentations of non-word.

After each condition, subjects rated their mood using a rating system comprised of 12 subjective states (tired, composed, energetic, etc.).  Next subjects rated the back ground music using the Music Evaluation Questionnaire (MEQ) that investigated the participant’s preference for the music and their emotional responses to the music.  Additionally, ERP data was recorded.

The results did not support the researcher’s hypothesis: the background music had no influence on the learning of non-words regardless of whether it was pleasant, sad, busy or slow. Ironically, the researchers suggested that the non-effect of background music on the participant’s verbal learning might be a result of the novel musical excerpts.  Jäncke and Sandmann theorize that unfamiliar music might not be as arousing or able to activate the autobiographical memory of the participants as familiar music has been shown to do.  For this reason, the composed new music might have had little effect on the participants.  Yet despite these results, the ERP data showed differences in cortical activation: the fronto-parietal network (known for encoding and storing new information) was shown to be more activate during the encoding and retrieval of the verbal material during the first 1200ms of listening to the in-tune fast music excerpts (which were the most pleasant and arousing samples).  Despite the greater cortical activation, there was no behavioral reaction (i.e. a measurable increase in learning) that matched the ERP response.  The researchers suggest that this activation might be too small to make a change in behavior, or that the music is so distracting that more brain-processes are activated to maintain the verbal learning.  The researchers conclude that future studies should use music that participants are familiar with to ensure strong arousal, and that the mystery of music and learning remains unresolved.

Jancke, L., & Sandmann, P. (2010). music listening while you learn: no influence on background music on verbal learning. Behavioral and Brain Functions, 6(3), 1-14.

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