Monday, November 8, 2010

Threads of Music in the Tapestry of Memory

Source: Musica. “Threads of Music in the Tapestry of Memory”
Retrieved from:

Summary: Studies on “context-dependent-memory” (CDM) show that recall of learned information is more accurate when the subjects experience recall in the original context of learning, than when recall is experienced in a different context. In a study on CDM, a large group of scuba divers, subdivided in half, were shown the same list of words. One group rested on the beach, the other disappeared beneath the ocean surface. 30 minutes later, half of each group exchanged places and all scuba divers were tested to recall as many words as possible. The results showed that those who learned and recalled in the same context were able to remember more words than those who learned and recalled in different places.
Studies done with music as a contextual element prove that “background music can enter into memory and aid recall, when it is simply present and not necessarily consciously attended”. Similar to the scuba divers experiment, Steven M. Smith of Texas A&M University lead a study in which subjects viewed a list of words, one at a time and asked 2 days later to recall as many of the learned words as possible, in the same or a different context. The context in this study was musical and there were three conditions during learning for different groups: a Mozart piano concerto (K.491), a jazz piece ("People Make the World Go Around" by Milt Jackson), or a quiet background. The last had made no impact on memory. Similar to the scuba divers experiment the subjects performed best when the same music was played during learning and recalling, than when the pieces were changed.
Others have questioned the ability of the mood, genre, tempo and timber of the music to assist the brain in memory. These subsequent studies show that the mood, the genre and the tempo of the music are all “threads in the tapestry of the memory.” All these tests gave music-dependent results: recall was aided when the music was the same as in learning, but one particular study showed that tempo plays an immensely important aspect in CDM. Changing tempo impaired recall, changing genre or timber did not. Changing tempo, not timber, could affect mood.
In conclusion, all these studies show that memories are complex, multi-layered structures that depend not only on the consciously learned material, but also on the background, contextual frame. Background music can enter into memory and aid recall when it is simply present. “Learning cannot guarantee recall, but music correctly integrated into the learning experience may well assist it.”

Response: In our society, we seem to be followed by music everywhere, whether we are in a store, waiting in a line, in a station, in a car, music seems to constantly fill our ears. If we are not involuntarily exposed to it, than we consciously plug ourselves to earphones and iPods. I agree and disagree with this article at the same time. I agree that music can aid in “context-dependent-memory”. We always seem to associate music to events in our lives. We all have specific music that reminds us of specific people, events or places; music triggers memories. In this respect I believe that music can be beneficial in learning and helping recall, but probably more beneficial to the general public, non-musicians. As musicians, we are very aware of music around us and most of the music that acts as “background” to others, to us is very much foreground. Instead of simply enjoying it, we are aware of it, we involuntarily analyse it: we analyse performance, we analyse pitches, we analyse harmonies, we analyse tone, and so on. Thus, I think, to musicians, background music in a learning context might become more of a distraction than an aid, as our minds would be too busy focusing on the music and not on storing to memory the learning material.

1 comment:

Grace Ha said...

I totally agree with your point that background music is extremely distracting for musicians. When I listen to music, I can almost see the notes in the staff papers and my fingers start to move as I am playing the song on piano. I have seen others who has to listen to music in order to concentrate, and it is fascinating that different people have different levels of being engaged in music.

The studies with the scuba divers or university students first seemed to be related to what we learned in clas: creating more connection will be more helpful to remember the information. However, the methods and results of the studies are quiet different from what I expected them to be. The results show that the degree of recalling information is dependent on the context, and I wonder whether that is helpful if adding a context makes it harder to apply the knowledge in different contexts.