The Effect of Music on Cognitive Retention and Comprehension

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In this within-group experiment, the impact that background music has on the capacity of one’s cognitive retention and, overall, comprehension of information will be examined. Sixty undergraduate college students will be randomly assigned to one of two treatment groups (n = 30); the first group exposed to a classical piece of music, performed by Mozart, while the second will be conditioned with silence. Both, however, with a cognitive task of a similar list of 30 vocabulary words that will have a range value from 1 to 10 points. Results that follow this experiment, with the support of psychosocial concepts and scientific evidence, will either confirm or deny the effects of which the influence of background music has on a person’s cognitive ability to retain information.

The Effect of Music on Cognitive Comprehension and Retention of Detail

Music has been a part of our world for years, showing a great effect on the moods, emotions, and behaviors of people throughout history. Psychologically, music has been studied to be one of the greatest influences for the brain’s working ability to retain information and enhance optimal learning. Music’s role in therapeutic and natural healing purposes has been undergoing studies, as well (Thaut, 2005). Over the course of 10 years, the fields of neuroscience have found a significant relationship between music and the brain, due to observing how exposure has the ability to stimulate the right and left hemispheres, of which are responsible for memory, motor control, timing (Davis 2000). Together, these two parts work faster when emotions are stimulated, attention focused, and even motivation heightened to learn and promote interested. Hence, understanding how this effect of music has on memory comprehension could benefit future learning and general retention skills. Not every person has the capability to focus and comprehend information while distracted or multi-tasking; yet, a minority enjoy working in a loud environment or with music playing in their ears for the sake that it keeps their brain alert on the cognitive task they are working on (Middlebrooks, 2017). In a particular study by Rauscher (1993), thirty-six college students’ performance on the Standford-Binet intelligence test was performed. Post-exposure to 10-minutes of Mozart’s sonata for two pianos in D major (K448), researchers reported students’ demonstrating high-functioning spatial reasoning skills and cognitive thinking. This was shown in comparison to the students who listened only to a relaxation tape and those who sat in complete silence. Rauscher and his colleagues, also, later reported that “the music was the primary reason because of similar neural activation between spatial reasoning and passive listening to Mozart”, of which established the theory of the “Mozart effect” (Rauscher et al.,1993).

A few years later by Nantais and Schellenberg (1999), a similar study was done with the same intention by looking more in-depth at the effect Mozart on the brain, only to discover the effect had nothing to do with Mozart at all but that any classical piece benefits performance on cognitive tasks. Studies continue to be done to dispute this theory, yet it is the most popular topics in the psychological and neuroscience research community. The same can be said regarding other genres of music on different age groups, children too young adults and college students to full-grown adults. Lehmann and Seufert (2017) tested 81 college student’s working memory capacity in a between-subject design that involved half of the sample exposed to two pop songs while learning a visual text and the other half learning in complete silence. The main measurements were to test recall and comprehension. Results were mixed; while there was no discovery of “a mediation effect” between background music and arousal or mood on learning outcomes, there was an interaction observed while analyzing comprehension of the students’ that stated “the higher the learners’ working memory capacity, the better they learned with background music” (Lehmann and Seufert, 2017). Also, if learners showed a reduction of working memory, then their brains will not be able to process information while a distractive variable such as background music will become impossible.

Another research study that holds value to this topic comes from one done by Etaugh and Ptasnik (1982), of which had forty college students read a passage either in a silent environment or while listening to music. The students had to state whether they normally study in a silent environment or with music in the background. Afterward, the participants either relaxed or read other material that was not related to the first passage. The students who usually studied whilst listening to background music appeared to have a better grasp of the material when they had read it in the presence of music, whereas the students who usually studied in silence performed better in this study in silence.



A representative sampling method will be used for this experiment. Our goal is to recruit approximately sixty (N = 60) undergraduate students, ages 18 to 25, studying social sciences at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. There was an approximate 50:50 ratio of male and females. Per a detailed email that will be sent out by the psychology department, students will be randomly selected out of the total population from this subgroup. Each student will receive class credit for their participation. Based on exclusionary criteria, however, students who are strictly online, are hard-of-hearing or have hearing loss and learning disabilities will be overlooked. Prior to the experiment, another screening will take place to conclude good vision and the English language. The participants, upon arrival, will be asked whether they liked classical music and if not, then they could step out of the study. Later, a pre-test will be performed to test the experimental conditions for appropriateness of volume and comfort of the music chosen. Then, using random assignment, the sample of sixty students will be divided in half – thirty in the experimental group with the background music, while the other thirty in the control where they will sit and study the material in silence.


Once the psychology department receives confirmation from sixty total students and their participation in the study, an informed consent form will be sent to them that ensures privacy and confidentiality for all persons involved. It will also explain that the experiment is minimal risk, but it is okay to leave at any time. The research team’s signatures will be seen at the bottom, next to a line for the students to sign they agree and are comfortable. Participating students will be asked to either send it through the same email it came from or sign a hardcopy and bring it to where the study will take place.

The primary purpose of doing this study is to understand the psychological construct of memory and comprehension when distractive variables are present. This experiment will be a five-day trial in the course of five days, exactly, each participant (a student at UML) in both groups will be given a typed list of 30 vocabulary words, of which will be organized into two columns and range from one-syllable to five-syllable words that will be taken from the English Dictionary found online. Examples are as follows: “Doubt” (1 syllable); “Maintain” (2-syllables); “Delegate” (3-syllables); “Adulation” (meaning, “extreme praise”) (4-syllables); and “Illuminati” (5-syllables).

As mentioned previously, thirty (n) out of sixty (N) total students will be spread out: One group of 30 in the experimental group where Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, K. 448 will play at a decent volume, while the other 30 will be led into the control group where they will sit in silence as they perform similar tasks of study and, then, the comprehension exam that follows. The selection of Mozart will be from Rauscher et al., 1993 experiment. Before the students begin to study the provided word-lists, the primary researcher in both rooms will give basic instructions as to what they will do at that moment, in the middle and the end of each trial day. Also, how there will be within a two-hour block of time to do the tasks given – the first hour reserved for studying the list of provided vocabulary words, while the next hour for the performance and comprehension pre-test. This test will require the student participants to circle the words that were on the list, at the start of the trial, from a larger pool of words based on recognition.

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Based on a study performed by Lehmann and Seufert (2017) and Bugter (2012), but modified to fit with this personal proposal, the layout for the study is as follows: Day 1 shall be strictly reserved for the pilot testing, then days 2 to 5 will be the established research study. Vocabulary word-lists will be administered to both conditioned groups and each student of both will be told to relax their bodies and clear their minds before they read. This has been seen as a positive technique while trying to comprehend information in a timely fashion helping the brain to work more efficiently, resulting in more efficient memory processing (Burget, 2012). The only difference will be the manipulative stimuli in the experimental group: Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, K. 448, of which will play via a speaker system at the adjustment volume and speed voted in the pilot test. Once the first hour is up, the researchers assigned to both rooms will exchange the list for another form that will show a cluster of 90 words with the 30 words from the original list caught in the pool of words of which the students must circle the ones they remember. The results from this testing will be the dependent variable, regarding writing fluency as well as the comprehension of the words provided.


Since this is a within-subjects design, in order to obtain the desired data, a repetitive course of measurement will be taken. The techniques from the beginning of the study will be repeated the pre-post study, to notice any similarities or change in the scores given by the same groups of participants. The environment of which the participants will be exposed to will be a plain laboratory setting, thus the materials (the music) and the subjects (the college undergrad students) can be properly observed and controlled without any unnecessary distractions present.


As seen in Middlebrooks (2017) experiment, there will be a distribution of three lists to each participant in both groups with a total of 30 words in paper-list format. These words will remain the same from the first day to the fifth day of the study, but to add a little spin to test our participants’ strength of recognition, on the third and fourth trail days, about 10-15 of the words will be scrambled as to observe if they had also memorized word placement along with the word itself. To avoid problems, the words are randomly selected without replacement. The words will have a 1-10 point value of comprehension, which will be part of the mathematics portion of the data collected.

Depending on how many words the student remembers correctly, those points earned will be their end score for that trail. The list format will be varied per student, meaning one student could be studying the word ‘Friendly’ in List 1, while another could have it in List 3, or not at all. This technique, too, stands with the value of the word: “Friendly” could be a 2-point value while it is a 6 or 7 on another list, and the condition in the experimental (music) group based on attentiveness while the music plays – a student could be studying a particular word while having Mozart play in their ear, while another student could be able to block out the sounds and focus on the word.

Prior to the study, there be a pilot test (as Middlebrooks 2017) performed to establish the volume and speed settings of the song of choice, in order to maintain an appropriate level of comfort and possible retention. Random students (N = 25) from the overall sample group will be brought into a room, where the selected Mozart piece will play for 30 seconds at different speeds and volume settings. The students will follow the rating protocol, such as in Anderson and Fuller (2010) experiment, using a Likert-type scale ranging from 1 to 5: 1 = too slow and 5 = too fast; for volume: 1 = too soft and 5 = too loud. Based on the data collected, that will be the settled agreement at which the music will be played at or manipulated, if necessary, to see a difference.

A digital timer will be used during the study, set for an hour each block of time in the trail. One researcher, of whom will be in the classroom to monitor the students, will start and stop the timer with remote control. To avoid unnecessary stress from the participants, the timer will not be in the classroom but behind an observation window in the back of the room where several other researchers will be observing. When a student participant is finished with their test, the researcher in the room and those behind the glass will mark the time of which he or she completed in that hour. This will be a significant data point as well as the performance score of recognition, due to the fact that we each can recall things at different frequencies of time. To know how the students are feeling mentality toward the study, their level of comfort will also be asked in a short survey that will be passed out at the end of each session.

Data Analysis Plan

At the conclusion of each trail, during the duration of the five days, the study will be performed, the participants will receive a performance and a comprehension score, ranging from 0 to 100. The data will be analyzed with a mixed analysis of variance (ANOVA) to examine the performance of condition (music or silence), the musical piece (Mozart), and to test and acknowledge significant differences between the two groups, as it will be supported by the research questions and the primary hypothesis of this study.


The aim of this study was to examine the effect that background music has on comprehension and cognitive retention, in comparison to a silent environment. If our hypothesis turns to be correct, then there will be a positive outcome regarding the influence of such stimuli. If this specific interaction is discovered between the two variables, this newfound evidence will bring the light that the idea that background music – not just the genre of Mozart but other genres, as well – contributes to the learning and memory retention factors of the brain.

As with any study, some limitations can follow. For the sake of this study and concern, however, it must be discussed. Three come to mind: 1) Not every person – student or not – may not share the same beliefs pertaining to studying or learning with music playing in their ears or via the radio, despite the evidence provided; 2) Another study could debunk our evidence and discover a factor of the experiment that we may have missed; however, this may help if done correctly gain a broader understanding of the area of recall and, 3) Despite the five-day trial period, it still remains a potential problem since the participants were tested in one condition (besides the manipulated stimuli in the experimental group) in a short period of time. Thus, the data that is put together at the conclusion could be a bit mixed. It is with great hope, however, that this experiment and the evidence that we bring forth to the public’s attention will result in new techniques of learning and comprehension.

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