Music and memory

Evaluating the connection between cognition, focus and auditory


The effect of listening to music while studying has been a topic of debate – does it help or does it hinder information retention?

Regardless of whether it’s beneficial or not, many students claim that listening to some form of music when they are studying actually helps them out distractions and focus on the task at hand.

And they might have the right idea.

According to a study done by the Stanford Medical School in 2007, the link between listening to music and the ability to focus may go hand-in-hand.

Jonathan Berger, a Ph.D associate professor of music at Stanford and co-author of the study, found the process of listening to music could be a way that the brain sharpens its ability to anticipate events and sustain attention.

A more recent study, posted on Psychology Today, evaluated the way that music affects memory.

William R. Klemm, a Ph.D memory doctor who authored the study, said that music, especially in people who listen to a lot of music, helped promote the release of dopamine, which in turn, help foster memory and focus.

Cassie Williams, a senior health and human services major, and Afiya Grant, a senior English and psychology major, respectively, both said that music played a pivotal role in helping them study.

“Music helps me study because I can’t hear anything,” Williams said. “Any outside distractions are cut out.”

Grant said that without music, studying was next to impossible.

“It helps me get into a groove,” Grant said. “Unless it’s completely quiet, I can’t study on campus without music.”

Besides choosing whether or not to listen to music, there is also the question of music selection.

What music is best for studying?

Thomas Coniglio, a freshman business major, said that the most important thing for choosing studying music is familiarity. He said having music that makes you comfortable is essential to keep from getting bored.

“When I used to study I would get really bored,” he said. “But when the music is in the background it keeps me focused on what I’m studying instead.”

Grant also agreed that familiarity was a huge factor in music selection.

“I listen to Tycho or Explosions in the Sky Radio,” she said. “If I know the song well I can listen to it, but if it’s a song I don’t know well, I’ll stop doing work and just listen to it.”

Besides music, there are many other options – some students like to leave the radio on in the background or maybe leave a TV on – just for some white noise.

Blake Peterson, a sophomore biomedical engineering major, said just the other night he was studying to Jeopardy playing on TV. Although, he said, having the TV on was much more distracting than just listening to music.

“I watch TV a lot when I’m studying and it was definitely distracting,” he said. “I was watching Jeopardy and trying to guess the answers instead of focusing. If not TV, I like to listen to classical music. An old teacher of mine said that if you study while listening to classical music and then listen to the music right before the test, it would help you remember. Maybe he was right.”

Brian Windschitl is the senior arts editor and can be reached at