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  • Writer's pictureAlisa Rao

Music, Memory, and Learning

by Katarina Pejcinovic

How do memories form in our brain? The current understanding is that when we have a new experience, our brains make a short-term memory in the hippocampus as well as a long-term memory in the neocortex [1]. The long-term memory is silent for a couple of weeks before becoming the dominant storage for the memory of the experience.

But what are memories actually composed of? When you access a memory it activates an “ensemble” of neurons. Physiologically speaking a neuron activates another neuron in the ensemble using action potentials, or electrical signals. The synapses (connections) in the ensemble can be strengthened through repeated access to the memory. The ensembles are flexible and it is easier to learn new skills if there are already related connections created in the brain [3].

There has been much research into the benefits and effects of music in promoting memory and learning. Music has been shown to improve the learning of vocal tasks [4]. Music is well-known for eliciting emotions and memories from the past. A famous example of this is the effect music has on people with dementia. Other studies have shown that on top of helping retrieve old memories, music can help create new ones. Elederly patients who did moderate exercise and listened to music in the weeks leading up to a memory and reasoning test performed better [5]. Music can also be used to help people recover from stroke or brain damage by helping to create new connections to speech [5].

Many people listen to background music when they work, but there are many mixed reports on the benefits of background music. One hypothesis is the aroundsal-mood hypothesis, which states that background music is only beneficial if the listener enjoys the music and elicits a pleasant stimulus [6]. Another theory is that since auidotry information is processed first, music can be more of a hindrance and a distraction for the listener. The latter theory is supported by more recent studies [7]. But, these results are not conclusive and the effect that background music has on the learner varies greatly from person to person, and can change based on what music is being listened to and for how long [7].

There are still many more things to explore in how music affects learning and memory. For example, another parameter to measure besides learning could be creativity. Do people who listen to background music exhibit higher levels of creativity? In terms of memory, how can we further develop treatments for stroke and brain injury using music? The benefits of music are as boundless as music itself.

Reference List

[1] Trafton, Anne. "Neuroscientists Identify Brain Circuit Necessary For Memory Formation". MIT News | Massachusetts Institute Of Technology, 2017,

[3] Dajose, Lori. "How The Brain Learns New Skills". California Institute Of Technology, 2019,

[4]Jäncke, Lutz. "Music, Memory And Emotion". Journal Of Biology, vol 7, no. 6, 2008, p. 21. Springer Science And Business Media LLC, doi:10.1186/jbiol82. Accessed 10 Feb 2021.

[6]Husain, G., Thompson, W. F., and Schellenberg, E. G. (2002). Effects of musical tempo and mode on arousal, mood and spatial abilities. Music Percept. 20, 151–171. doi: 10.1525/mp.2002.20.2.151

[7] Lehmann, Janina A. M., and Tina Seufert. "The Influence Of Background Music On Learning In The Light Of Different Theoretical Perspectives And The Role Of Working Memory Capacity". Frontiers In Psychology, vol 8, 2017. Frontiers Media SA, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01902. Accessed 10 Feb 2021.

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