Effect Of Music And Noise On Working Memory Psychology Essay

Memory is an integral part of everyday life. It is required for simple tasks, such as keeping a phone number in mind before dialling it, or for more complex tasks such as learning a mathematical formula to apply to a sum. Memory is based on three basic processes. It can be defined as the process by which individuals encode, store and retrieve information (Feldman, 2004).

Encoding is the receiving of sensory information and transforming it into some form which can be stored. Storing is the process of putting the information into memory. Retrieval is the process of gaining access to the stored information (Morgan, King, Weisz & Schopler, 2008).

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The interaction of these three processes is required for the proper functioning of memory. Memory failure, that is forgetting, can occur when information has not been properly encoded and stored and therefore, there can be no retrieval (Baddeley, Eysenck and Anderson, 2009).

The working of memory cannot be reduced to just a single explanation. It is composed of various interrelated systems. In 1968, the Atkinson-Shiffrin Model of Memory was proposed. It stated a three stage model of memory. Information, which was recorded by an individual’s sensory system, enters sensory memory which holds the information momentarily. The information then moves to short-term memory, where it is stored for 15 to 25 seconds. And finally, the information moves to long-term memory where it is relatively permanent. The amount and kind of rehearsal of the information determines whether the information will move from short-term memory to long-term memory, or not (Feldman, 2004).

Stimulation of extremely brief duration is stored in sensory memory. This is the first kind of information presented by the environment to individuals. The term ‘sensory memory’ denotes different types of memory (Feldman, 2004).

In the early 1960’s, scientists at Bell Laboratories in USA analysed the fleeting visual memory system, which later came to be known as iconic memory. It is the brief storage of visual information. The auditory counterpart or auditory sensory memory is echoic memory (Baddeley, Eysenck and Anderson, 2009). Iconic memory is said to last for less than a second while echoic memory lasts for two to three seconds.

Sensory memory can store information for a very brief time only. If the information does not pass to short-term memory, then it is lost forever.

Information that is stored transiently in sensory memory is not meaningful as it is only a representation of raw sensory stimuli. For long-term retention the information is passed on to short-term memory which is the next stage of memory (Feldman, 2004).

Short-term memory is the performance on particular types of task involving the simple retention of small amounts of information which is tested either immediately or after a short delay. Short-term memory forms a part of working memory.

There are various methods of testing short-term memory. One of the classical methods is the digit span test which requires remembering digits for a short period of time. Specific amounts of information can be held in short-term memory. George A. Miller, one of the founders of cognitive psychology, in 1956, suggested that memory capacity is limited by the number of chunks of information. A chunk is a meaningful group of stimuli that can be stored as a unit of short-term memory (Baddeley, Eysenck and Anderson, 2009).

For the transfer of information to long-term memory from short-term memory, rehearsal is required. It is the repetition of information that has entered short-term memory. If elaborative rehearsal is used, the information is more likely to get transferred to long-term memory; otherwise it may only remain stored in short-term memory. Elaborative rehearsal is the strategic organization of information (Feldman, 2004).

In the late 1960’s, the idea of short-term memory being a unitary system was discarded and new theories emerged. These explained short-term memory as involving a number of systems interacting with each other. One such model is of verbal short-term memory. It is the concept of phonological loop. The phonological loop features a part in the multi-component working memory model proposed by Baddeley and Hitch in 1974.

The phonological loop is composed of two parts, a short-term store and an articulatory rehearsal process. This store has a limited capacity. The items are stored as memory traces and decay within a few seconds. But, these traces can be retrieved by sub vocal rehearsal.

A prominent feature of the short-term store is the phonological similarity effect. This is a tendency for immediate serial recall of verbal material to be reduced when the items are similar in sound. Therefore, remembering a series of dissimilar words is easier than remembering a list of words that are phonologically similar. But, this effect does not appear when the lists are lengthened and if there are several learning trials involved. It is also seen that there is a tendency for verbal memory span to decrease when longer words are used. This is the word length effect. Another factor which disrupts verbal short-term memory is the irrelevant sound effect. It was found that music interfered with digit recall. Vocal music was more disruptive that instrumental music. The retention of serial order can be disrupted by irrelevant stimuli provided they fluctuate over time.

Another concept of short-term memory is the visuo-spatial short-term memory. The visual and spatial components have been proposed as a part of the visuo-spatial sketchpad which is a component of working memory. It is a counterpart of the phonological loop (Baddeley, Eysenck and Anderson, 2009).

After the 1960’s, short-term memory has transformed into the concept of working memory. According to this, information is not only retained for a short period of time, but can also be manipulated and can be involved in higher order processing activities such as comprehension, problem-solving and reasoning (Levin, Thurman and Kiepert, 2010). In 1974, Baddeley and Hitch drew two main observations from studying the effect of an irrelevant memory load on verbal reasoning. The first was that an irrelevant short-term memory task interfered with cognitive tasks. This was consistent with the idea of a common working memory system that combines temporary information storage with ongoing mental operations. Secondly, the concept of working memory went beyond that of short-term memory. It included an additional resource which was not shared with short-term memory (Graham J. Hitch).

Working memory refers to the ability to coordinate mental operations with transiently stored information during cognitive activities (Graham J. Hitch). It is a system for temporary maintenance and manipulation of information that is helpful in performing complex tasks (Baddeley, Eysenck & Anderson, 2009). An example of the usage of working memory is complex mental arithmetic where the task is broken down into several stages. The various stages have to be coordinated and the early stages generate transient information that has to be maintained for use in the later stages (Graham J. Hitch).

Working memory and cognitive abilities are related to each other. Working memory affects cognitive tasks and, in turn, cognitive abilities are required for the understanding and manipulation of working memory. The Baddeley-Hitch Model of Working Memory, which was proposed in 1974, is highly influential and attempts to give a clear understanding of working memory. According to this model, working memory has three components: the phonological loop, the visuo-spatial sketchpad and the central executive. The phonological loop is specialized in holding sequences of acoustic items. The visuo-spatial sketchpad performs a similar function for visually and spatially encoded items. This entire system is controlled by the central executive which is an attentionally limited system that selects and manipulates material in the subsystems (Baddeley, Eysenck & Anderson, 2009).

A few factors affecting phonological memory are the phonemic similarity of items as well as the word length of the items. Memory spans vary with the length of the items. They are higher for shorter items than for longer items. But, these effects did not appear when the items were presented visually. Spoken stimuli accesses the articulatory loop automatically whereas visual inputs have to be verbally recoded, a control process that involves subvocalization.

The phonological loop also explained why the presence of background speech disrupts short-term memory for visually presented verbal stimuli. According to Baddeley, irrelevant noise was easier to ignore than irrelevant speech which suggested that unattended speech enters the phonological store whereas non speech sounds do not.

Working memory is thought to be under the control of the central executive. It is responsible for the coordination of mental activities in working memory as well as supervision of phonological loop and visuo-spatial sketchpad and the interaction with long-term memory (Graham J. Hitch).

In 2000, Baddeley proposed a fourth component of the working memory model which would explain its interaction with long-term memory. It was called the episodic buffer and was assumed to be a storage system which could hold about four chunks of information in a multidimensional code. It acts as a link between the various components of working memory, and connecting the components with input from long-term memory.

It has been studied that music has a favourable effect on working memory. Classical music such as Mozart’s Sonata for two pianos in D Major, K.448 and Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”: “Spring” are said to have an especially beneficial effect, by improving cognitive performance of individuals (Copley, May).

In 1993, Rauscher et al claimed that after listening to Mozart’s sonata for 2 pianos (K.448) for ten minutes, subjects showed better spatial reasoning skills than after listening to relaxation instructions or silence (Jenkins, 2001). This came to be known as the Mozart Effect. Rauscher et al stated that the participant’s IQ increased by 8 to 9 points over the two other conditions- relaxation and silence (Smith, Waters and Jones, 2010).

The Vivaldi Effect was observed in a study when it was found out that those who listened to Vivaldi while exercising increased their scores of verbal fluency tests after their workouts compared to those who exercised without music (Roberts, June).

Background noise is any sound that distracts or interferes with an individual’s focus of attention. Background noise is said to disrupt the concentration of an individual. It can affect a person’s ability to think clearly and retain information and can impair learning and memory (Andrews, January). Noise can include road traffic, people talking in the background, etc.

Working memory is an important component as everyday cognitive tasks rely on it. It is integral in the development of language and reading. The study aims to explore the influence of music (classical) and background noise on working memory, which is responsible for enabling complex cognitive activities.

The Mozart Effect has been observed to have a beneficial effect on visuospatial performance. This study aims to see if it can be extended to the performance of working memory as well.

The study will also observe whether conditions of silence and music will elicit a better performance of working memory than the condition of background noise and the condition of background noise and music.

The objectives of this study are to find out if music has a positive effect on working memory and if noise has a detrimental effect on working memory. In addition, the study aims to compare the effects of silence and music on working memory as well as to find out if background noise and music will have a detrimental effect on working memory.

The hypotheses of the study are that music will have a positive effect on working memory, noise will have a detrimental effect on working memory, silence will have a better result on the performance of working memory than music and background noise and music will have a detrimental effect on working memory.

Chapter Two
Review of Literature

Various studies have been conducted which show the positive and detrimental effects of music and noise on working memory. The following research articles look at studies which have been conducted which express the relationships between music, noise and working memory.

‘The Effects of Background Music and Noise on Working Memory’ was conducted by Amanda Eiras and Kaycee McNeil. It examines how verbal working memory was affected by background music and noise. The study was conducted on 14 participants between the ages of 18 to 30 years. The participants were made to recall a list of 30 words in 30 seconds under four conditions: in silence, in music, in noise and in music and noise. It was found that the presence of music was not statistically significant F(1,11)<1, the presence of background noise was not statistically significant F(1,11)=2.748, p<0.126, the participants who reported background music as being a distraction to studying performed significantly better with no background noise present F(1,11)=6.985, p<0.011 and the interaction of music and background noise was not statistically significant.

‘The Effect of Background Music and Noise on the Cognitive Test Performance of Introverts and Extraverts’ was conducted by Stacey Dobbs, Adrian Furnham and Alistair McClelland. This study examines whether background noise is as distracting as music and the effect it has on introverts and extroverts while they do cognitively complex tasks. 118 female school children between the ages of 11 to 18 years were the participants of the study. The participants were made to complete 3 tasks- RPM, Wonderlic Personnel Test and Verbal Reasoning Test Byron, 2006 under 3 conditions: noise condition, music condition and silence condition. The results showed that in RPM, the performance in silence was significantly better than in the presence of music and the performance in music was significantly better than in the presence of noise. In the Wonderlic Personality Test, the performance in silence and music was significantly better than in the presence of noise. The performance in the presence of silence was not significantly different from performance in the presence of music. In the test of verbal reasoning the performance in silence was significantly better than with music and just failed to be significantly better than with noise. There was no significant difference between performance under music and noise conditions.

‘Recall of Words Heard in Noise’ was conducted by Anders Kjellberg, Robert Ljung and David Hallman. This study examines if recall of words and recognition of sentences, when orally presented, were affected by the presence of background noise. 32 participants between the ages of 18 to 34 years were chosen. The participants were required to complete two memory tasks: recall of words and recognition of sentences under two conditions- with background noise and without background noise. The results show that the number of words correctly recalled were significantly lower in the noisy condition (mean= 8.50 and 11.03 for noise and control condition respectively.) In the recognition of sentences task there was no significant differences between the conditions.

‘Does music enhance cognitive performance in healthy older adults?’ was conducted by Nicola Mammarella, Beth Fairfield, and Cesare Cornoldi. This study examines whether music can enhance cognitive performance. 24 participants between the ages of 73 to 86 years of age were chosen. The participants were required to do two tests: a forward version of digit spans and word fluency test under three conditions: music, no music and white noise. The results for digit span show that the music condition showed a significant advantage over the white noise condition and the non-music condition. There was no difference between the white noise condition and the non-music condition. The results for the phonemic fluency show that there is a significant advantage of music over white noise and non-music conditions. And the difference between white noise and non-music conditions were not significant. Listening to the Vivaldi excerpt led subjects to show a significant increase in phonological working memory capacity and phonemic fluency.

‘Acoustical Barriers in Classrooms: The Impact of Noise on Performance in the Classroom’ was conducted by Julie E. Dockrell and Bridget M. Shield. The study examines the effect of classroom noise on the performance of primary school children. 158 children were chosen as participants for the study. Their mean age was 8 years and 6 months. The participants were given four tests to complete: an aptitude test, verbal tests which included reading and spelling, non-verbal tests and an arithmetic test under three different class noise conditions: base (normal classroom condition when children are working quietly and no one is talking), babble (noise consisting of children’s babble) and babble with environmental noise. The results showed that verbal task performance is worst in babble and best in base condition. In the non-verbal tests, the performance is best in the babble and environment noise condition.

The study, ‘The Effect of Background Music and Background Noise on the Task Performance of Introverts and Extraverts’ was conducted by Gianna Cassidy and Raymond A. R. Macdonald. This study examines the effects of music with high arousal potential and negative affect, music with low arousal potential and positive affect and everyday noise on the cognitive performance of introverts and extraverts. The sample size was 40. It included 20 university student, 10 adolescents and 10 non-studying/working adults. The materials used were music with lyrics and background noise (which was everyday general sound, classroom working sounds, traffic and conversation including laughter). The participants had to complete 5 cognitive tasks. They were the Stroop Neuropsychological Screening Test, a delayed recall task from the Rivermead Behavioural Memory Test (version A, item 6 A), a free recall task which had 20 six letter words, a distractive task which was a numerical task and the delayed recall task. The participants completed the five tasks in one of the four background sound conditions: positive low arousal music which was relaxing, negative high arousal music which was aggressive, background noise and silence. Performance on all the tasks was poorer while listening to background sound (which includes music and noise) compared to completing the tasks in silence. Listening to high arousal music was significantly more detrimental to task performance than listening to low arousal music across all tasks. Background noise and high arousal music significantly reduced performance across all tasks compared to the silence condition. High arousal music was more detrimental to task performance the Stroop task.

‘The Effects of Acute Background Noise on Recognition Tasks’ was conducted by Daniel Diegard. 23 students were chosen as the participants for the study and the mean age was 22 years. The materials used were random white noise, encoding items, a distracter task which was a mental arithmetic task and a working memory capacity test which required the participants to complete an arithmetic test and alternating between equations and memorizing word sequences. The results showed that there was no significant difference between the four noise conditions effects on the participants recognition score. There was a significant within-subject effect on the participant’s response times, dependant on the presence of noise during the recognition part [F(1,21)=5.60, p=0.028] and also a between-subject ffect for the two experimental groups [F(1,21)=8.57, p=0.008]. Background white noise had no significant effect on the participant’s learning capacity. It was seen that the interaction effect of the experimental group and encoding noise did approach significance. The results of this study are shown to be inconsistent with most previous studies conducted.

‘Effects of Prior Exposure to Office Noise and Music on Aspects of Working Memory’ was conducted by Andrew Smith, Beth Waters and Hywel Jones. The participants of this study were 36 undergraduate students between the ages of 18 to 25 years. This study was further divided into two studies. The first examined whether habituation occurred to office noise and how long it takes for habituation. The second study was an attempt to replicate the Mozart Effect which represents an improvement in spatial reasoning following listening to Mozart. In the first experiment, a mental arithmetic task was given to the participants. After the first mental arithmetic task, a habituation period to office noise was presented for five minutes. There were three conditions which were used. The first was continuous noise condition which was heard throughout the presentation of all the mental arithmetic tasks and the habituation periods. The second was the noise control condition in which the participants heard noise during the mental arithmetic task but not during the intervening habituation period. The final condition was the quiet condition in which no noise was presented during the mental arithmetic task. The habituation phase was for 20 minutes in total placed between the arithmetic tasks. The results showed that there was a significant effect of noise condition [F(2,33)=8.3, p<0.05] and a significant effect of habituation block [F(4,132)=6.3, p<0.05]. The performance in the noise condition was significantly better after a ten minute habituation exposure than the initial test block [F(1,123)=27.4, p<0.01]. Office noise has a significantly detrimental effect on the individual's ability to perform mental arithmetic. The performance in the quiet condition was significantly better throughout than performance in noise condition. The performance in the continuous noise condition improved significantly after ten minutes of habituation to office noise.

In the second experiment 24 undergraduate students were chosen to be the participants. Their mean age was 22 years. The participants had to complete spatial ability tasks in three conditions: after listening to Mozart’s piano sonata, after positive mood induction and after sitting in silence. The results showed that the participants had higher scores on the test in the Mozart condition than in the other 2 conditions.

‘Music Listening While You Learn: No Influence of Background Music on Verbal Learning’ was conducted by Lutz Jancke and Pascale Sandmann. This study examined the influence of listening to background music on verbal learning performance. The sample size of this study was 75 and the participants were randomly assigned to five groups. The participants had to learn the presented verbal material with and without background music. Each group of participants was exposed to one of five different background stimuli: in-tune fast, in-tune slow, out-of-tune fast, out-of-tune slow and noise.

This study did not find any consistent or consequential influence of background music on verbal learning. There was neither an enhancement nor a decrease in verbal learning performance during the presentation of the background sound conditions.

‘The Relative and Perceived Impact of Irrelevant Speech, Vocal Music and Non-Vocal Music on Working Memory’ was a study conducted by Thomas R. Alley and Marcie E. Greene. The sample size of this study was 60. The study examined the effects of vocal music, equivalent instrumental music and irrelevant speech on working memory to understand how music affects performance and the degree of impairment. The participants completed a digit span task in the presence of irrelevant speech, vocal music, instrumental versions of the vocal music and silence. The results of this study showed that speech and vocal music hindered performance. The performance in instrumental music was better than that of vocal music but was not significantly different from speech or silence.

Chapter Three

The aim of this research will be to study the effects of music and background noise on working memory.

Research Design

A quantitative study will be carried out and experimental research design will be used. The study will involve a group of individuals who will be made to recall lists of words under four different conditions- silence, background noise, music and music and background noise.


Music will have no effect on working memory.

Noise will have no effect on working memory.

Silence will have no effect on working memory.

Background noise and music will have no effect on working memory.


Sample size consisting of 40 individuals including males and females in the age range of 19 to 23 years. The sampling method to be used will be convenience sampling.

The study is an experimental and quantitative research as variables will be measured and analysed using statistical techniques.

Ethical Consideration

Informed consent will be given to the participants before the experiment is conducted to ensure that their participation is voluntary.

Confidentiality of identity of the participants will be guaranteed.

The participants will be allowed to leave the experiment when they want.

Tools Used

16 list of 20 words each

Mozart’s Sonata for 2 pianos in D, K.448

Vivaldi- Spring

Clip of background noise on a busy street

Data Analysis

The Analysis of Variance or ANOVA will be used as there are more than two variables which will be taken into consideration as well as the interaction between the two.

Operational Definitions

Working Memory- Working memory is the ability to temporarily store words while performing other cognitive tasks.

Music- Music can be defined as the vocal and instrumental sound to produce form, harmony and expression.

Noise- Noise is defined as unwanted sound. In this study, noise is that which is not important to the main focus of attention.

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