Listening Habits May Affect Music’s Benefits for Memory

Faced with a lack of effective treatments to prevent cognitive impairment, clinicians traditionally have proposed background music as a candidate alternative therapy for improving performance on memory tasks. The effect of music has long been debated, and evidence that it works is still controversial. A new study led by researchers from the Oberta University of Catalonia (UOC) in Barcelona has found that music’s beneficial effect on memory may be modulated by interindividual differences.

In healthy individuals, the positive effects of background music on learning and memory recall are still controversial. It remains to be seen whether music might boost the effects of cognitive stimulation in people with age-related disorders. This hypothesis has been explored very little in the literature, and the evidence to date comes primarily from studies of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. The positive effects of background music on autobiographical memory and in lexical retrieval have been demonstrated. Nevertheless, in the clinical conditions preceding Alzheimer’s disease such as mild cognitive impairment, there is no current evidence speaking to the effect of background music on cognition.

This new study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, included 65 patients with amnestic mild cognitive impairment who were recruited from the Neuropsychology Unit at the Sant Pau Hospital in Barcelona. The study was performed in collaboration with researchers from Sant Pau Hospital, Concordia University in Canada, and the Gregorio Marañón Health Research Institute in Madrid.

Improvements in Learning?

The authors designed three experiments to test the effect of background music during a mnemonic task. In each experiment, participants were asked to observe and memorize 24 photographs of human faces. Ten minutes later, the participants were to look at another set of images that included the original 24 images plus 24 new images. Participants were then asked to identify the images that they had seen previously. In the first experiment, the music was only played during the memorization phase of the task. But in the second experiment, it was played during both the coding phase and the recognition phase. In both cases, the authors found that music neither improved nor worsened participant performance.

The scientists used classical music (The Adagio movement of Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in D minor) in both instances. “It’s a type of music that falls between relaxing and arousing and has proven to be the most effective for enhancing memory,” explained Marco Calabria, PhD, in a press release. Calabria is a researcher at the UOC and the article’s lead author.

In the third experiment, the scientists explored the role of music-induced arousal in memory. The arousal-mood hypothesis holds that the ability of background music to alter the listener’s mood and arousal states modulates his or her memory performance.

Previous studies have reported that “high-arousal” music may boost performance in memory tasks. Therefore, in experiment three, the authors tested two conditions: low-arousal and high-arousal. In the first case, the patients were exposed to Bach’s Adagio in D minor. For the high-arousal scenario, the authors looked for music that was more arousing and less relaxing. After a preliminary study, they chose an instrumental version of Un rayo de sol by Los Diablos.

“In this study, we assessed how individual differences impact the benefits of music,” Calabria told Univadis Spain. “We assessed this aspect through the individual preferences and attitudes of each patient toward music and its use in daily life.” The authors used two self-report questionnaires to achieve this: the Scale for Mood Assessment, which assesses subjective feelings toward the music excerpts used in the experiments, and the Barcelona Music Reward Questionnaire, which evaluates interindividual preferences toward music.

The researchers found that music’s positive effects on memory were modulated by differences between patients regarding the use of music in their lives. “If people regularly use music as an emotional regulator in their daily life, such as to help them remain calm or for company, they will find it easier to obtain further benefits from music when they have to learn something new,” explained Calabria in a press release.

“People who are accustomed to using music as an emotional regulator in their daily lives achieved higher performance in the memory task when exposed to arousing music,” Calabria told Univadis Spain. “These benefits are explained by the role emotions play in the context of learning. What I mean by that is that an adequate level of arousal is required to produce the optimal physiological conditions to reinforce learning. If this is not achieved (as in the case of classical music, which is relaxing), whatever we’re learning isn’t reinforced.”

Background Music Guidelines

This finding opens the door for further research to continue exploring the role of interindividual preferences and stances toward music in patients with mild cognitive impairment. “The more we know about how background music shapes cognitive processes, the better music can be used as a therapeutic tool in cognitive stimulation efforts,” the authors write.

“This study aims to help to provide specific guidelines for using background music in cognitive stimulation for patients suffering from memory loss,” said Calabria. “First, it’s important to choose music that supports the benefits of the stimulation task that’s being used (memory, attention, et cetera). Second, we must remember that these benefits may be modulated by an individual’s preferences and by the way he or she uses music.”

This article was translated from Univadis Spain , which is part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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