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Does Music Help Memory?

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Originally posted on March 4, 2015.

When was the last time you studied without distractions? Or did any one activity without simultaneously doing another?

Multitasking pops up everywhere. While we work, we check our phones for messages, tweet our thoughts, listen to music, and update our Facebook status. At least that’s what my students tell me they do in their other classes.

You may think listening to music while you prep for a big test helps you relax so you can concentrate and study. I used to think so. In college, I’d sit down with my textbooks, pop in my headphones, and turn on my favorite music to set the mood for studying.  Then I’d spend hours going over the material—and play my make-believe drums or air guitar! Yes, I studied alone in college. A lot.

Listening to music may help college-aged students stay focused, but one new study found that older adults had more trouble remembering information they had learned while music was played in the background.

The study challenged younger and older adults to listen to music while trying to remember names. For the older adults, silence was golden. But when the researchers made the older adults listen to music while they tried to remember the names, their memory lapsed. College-aged participants’ performance did not suffer regardless of whether they listened to music while memorizing names.

Before you turn up the tunes to study, consider your age first. If you’re a younger college student, keep pressing play. Older students might be better off studying in silence. Regardless of our age, we might do well by taking a few minutes each day to set aside distractions, slow down, and become mindful of our thoughts, feelings, and environment. 

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About the Author
David Myers received his psychology Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. He has spent his career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has taught dozens of introductory psychology sections. Hope College students have invited him to be their commencement speaker and voted him "outstanding professor." His research and writings have been recognized by the Gordon Allport Intergroup Relations Prize, by a 2010 Honored Scientist award from the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences, by a 2010 Award for Service on Behalf of Personality and Social Psychology, by a 2013 Presidential Citation from APA Division 2, and by three dozen honorary doctorates. With support from National Science Foundation grants, Myers' scientific articles have appeared in three dozen scientific periodicals, including Science, American Scientist, Psychological Science, and the American Psychologist. In addition to his scholarly writing and his textbooks for introductory and social psychology, he also digests psychological science for the general public. His writings have appeared in four dozen magazines, from Today's Education to Scientific American. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org). For his leadership, he received an American Academy of Audiology Presidential Award in 2011, and the Hearing Loss Association of America Walter T. Ridder Award in 2012. He bikes to work year-round and plays daily pick-up basketball. David and Carol Myers have raised two sons and a daughter, and have one granddaughter to whom he dedicates the Third Edition of Psychology in Everyday Life.