MadSci Network: Neuroscience

Re: Can a person listen to music and study at the same time?

Date: Mon Mar 9 11:43:42 1998
Posted By: Steve Tillery, Post-doc/Fellow Physiology
Area of science: Neuroscience
ID: 885956154.Ns

Brain and Music Deidra,

Thanks for the question. I am a musician and a scientist, and I often listen to music while I work. So I was very interested to see what the answer might be.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a direct answer to your question. I will tell you about some related experiments, and maybe you can get some ideas, but to be really sure you'll need to do your own experiment. I have an idea for an easy experiment that I'll tell you about below: if you do the experiment, you can be the very first person to actually KNOW the answer to your question!

Related Experiments

You may have heard of what some people call "The Mozart Effect."  Scientists in California had students listen to Mozart for 10 minutes before doing part of an IQ test.  These students did better on the test after listening to Mozart for a few minutes.  The problem is that they were not listening to the music while they did the test.  So I've looked for research a little more closely related to your question.

In general, adding distraction to a memory task causes poor performance in that tasks.  So for example, if you ask people to count while they are trying to memorize words, their memory for those words is not nearly as good.

Unfortunately, this type of experiment has subjects doing something very active with their mind as their memory is being tested.  I'm not sure exactly how this compares to just having music on in the background.

I did find one experiment that was very closely related to your question. Believe it or not, scientists in Finland have tested the effect of playing Mozart to monkeys while they did a memorization task! The details are below if you're interested. These researchers found that the music interfered with the monkeys' ability to memorize.

Brain Areas Involved in Music and Memorization

When you listen to music, a part of the brain called the 'Temporal Lobe' becomes very active. Different parts of the temporal lobe seem to be related to different aspects of the music. On the picture, I've shown the areas that are most activated when people listen to simple melodies with orange. I drew the areas on the right side much darker than the ones on the left side. That's because when you listen to music, the two sides of the brain do different things. The temporal cortex on the right side seems process simple pitch and melody, but on the left it processes chords and harmonies. The area I've indicated is called the 'superior temporal gyrus'.

The brain areas that get activated when you are trying to memorize something depend on what it is you're trying to remember. In the 'Frontal Lobe' is an area near the front that seems to be very important for memory of all kinds. It's part of the prefrontal cortex called 'Area 46'. You'll notice though, that I've also indicated other areas in the Frontal Lobe (remember faces, and words, and maybe numbers), the Parietal Lobe (remember locations) and the Occipital Lobe (remembering visual information).

So you'll see that you use a lot of your brain when you are trying to memorize things. As to your question though, it seems that the areas involved in memorization don't overlap with the parts of the brain that get active when you're listening to music.

The Answer

So what's the answer? I'm not sure. We know that certain kinds of distractions interfere with memorization, but we also know that music activates totally different areas of the brain than the areas involved in memorization. So how do we decide whether music causes problems with memorization? It's simple. Ask people to memorize two lists of numbers: one list while they're listening to music, and the other list while it's quiet.

An Experiment You Can Do

Okay, so here's the experiment. This is a bit complicated, so maybe you can get a science teacher or a parent to help you.

First you'll need some lists of numbers to memorize. I've prepared 10 lists of 20 numbers. Take each list and print it separately onto a single piece of paper. Now all you need is a walkman, a cassette tape with music (no words), a watch with a second hand, and some friends.

Each person is going to get two of the lists of numbers. For each list, they will get 60 seconds to look at the list, and then 2 minutes to write down all the numbers they can remember from that list. In one case you will play music to them while they look at the list, and in the other case they will look at the list in quiet.

Before you start, there are a couple of things to think about.

First, you might imagine that people get better at memorizing lists of numbers as they practice. If that's the case, then everybody might do just a little bit better with the second list. You can see that if everyone did their first list while listening to music, and their second list in the quiet, it might be hard to decide whether they did better on the second list because it was quiet or because they had practiced. This is what we call a 'confounding variable'. There's a simple way to avoid this problem. Have half of your friends do the first list while listening to music, and the other half do the second list while listening to music.

It might also occur to you that some of the lists are just plain easier to memorize than some of the others. To avoid this confounding variable, assign each of your friends a different pair of lists.

I've put all of this into the Experiment Organization and Results Table below.

The first column just gives you spaces for each person's name. The rest of the columns tell you what that person will do for the experiment.

The second and third columns tell which of the lists of numbers from the Random Number Lists that person will do as their first and second lists.

The fourth column tells whether they will have music while they do their 1st list or their 2nd list.

The last two columns are a place for you to put your friends' scores when they memorize lists while listening to Music or in the Quiet.

Experiment Organization and Result Table

Person 1st list 2nd list Music List Music Score Quiet Score
1 2 1st     
3 4 2nd     
5 6 1st     
7 8 2nd     
9 10 1st     
1 6 2nd     
2 7 1st     
3 8 2nd     
4 9 1st     
5 10 2nd     


So now comes the fun part. Have each person sit down and put on the headphones. Get out their first list, and if they are supposed to have music first, turn on the walkman. When everything's set to go....give them their list and let them look at it for 60 seconds.

When time's up, take the list away and turn off the walkman. Give them 2 minutes to write down as many of the numbers as they can remember. Now count up the numbers that they remember correctly and put it in the appropriate column in the table (Music Score if they had music on, 'Quiet Score' if there was no music).

I would make each person do one list in turn, and then give them a break while your other friends do their first list. When everyone has finished one list, then you can do the second list, remembering of course whether or not to turn on the music.

When you're all done, tally up the numbers and you'll have your answer!

Please be sure to let me know how it turns out. Thanks!

Random Number Lists

1) 26 86 64 65 75 11 49 47 85 19 23 57 97 00 62 43 66 94 79 50

2) 12 09 96 62 66 52 26 82 25 18 98 31 06 48 47 72 28 67 85 57

3) 38 07 18 85 73 90 31 12 37 39 87 33 06 44 43 34 08 27 24 99

4) 60 15 79 92 52 59 61 42 57 10 40 75 01 69 63 65 04 25 33 46

5) 47 12 13 38 16 97 96 07 81 14 52 94 15 85 57 97 46 10 98 08

6) 15 70 39 18 74 56 25 84 65 79 48 04 90 64 93 44 23 35 46 26

7) 28 20 70 56 70 23 92 61 40 17 83 64 50 02 03 87 30 38 47 37

8) 64 68 16 90 83 14 04 25 84 92 42 39 75 36 61 48 86 44 67 99

9) 14 42 47 10 85 33 19 20 16 92 68 78 82 76 54 67 41 13 71 77

10) 60 03 71 36 89 68 80 39 53 09 56 47 00 95 54 91 76 35 32 30

Steve Helms Tillery.

The Finnish Monkey Experiment

The monkeys learned a very simple memory task called a 'Delayed Response' task. In this task, the experimenter puts a raisin into one of two holes in a board and then blocks the monkey's view of the board. After a short delay the monkey is allowed to look at the board and choose one of the two holes to get the raisin. As you can guess, the longer the delay, the more often the monkey chooses the wrong hole.

The Finnish scientists played a Mozart Piano Concerto (No. 21 for those pianists in the crowd) to the monkeys while they did the task. The animals chose the wrong hole more frequently while listening to the Mozart. The experimenters also tried playing Mozart to the monkeys for a few minutes before they did the task. This didn't have any effect on performance of the task.


The 'Mozart Effect' papers

Rauscher FH et al. (1993) Music and spatial task performance.  Nature 365: 611
Rauscher FH et al. (1995)  Listening to Mozart enhances spatial-temporal reasoning:  towards a neurophysiological basis. Neurosci Lett, 158: 44-47.

Papers used to decide about memory and distraction

Carlson S (1997) Effects of music and white noise on working memory performance in monkeys. Neuroreport 8: 2853-2856.

Papers used to make the Brain Activation figure

Courtney SM et al. (1998) An area specialized for spatial working memory in human frontal cortex. Science 279: 1347-1351.
Courtney SM et al. (1997) Transient and sustained activity in a distributed neural system for human working memory. Nature 386: 608-611.
Fiez JA et al. (1996) A positron emission tomography study of the short-term maintenance of verbal information. J Neurosci 16: 808-822.
Sweeney JA et al. (1996) Positron emission tomography study of voluntary saccadic eye movements and spatial working memory. J Neurophysiol 75: 454-468.
Zatorre RJ et al. (1994) Neural mechanisms underlying melodic perception and memory for pitch. J Neurosci 14: 1908-1919.

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