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 has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. 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